127 posts categorized "Public Affairs"

[Review] The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America

August 06, 2020

The merit myth_coverDespite the frequently repeated claim that higher education in the United States is a meritocractic system, college is not the great equalizer it’s touted to be. Indeed, long-standing inequities in the United States are often reflected in and perpetuated by our institutions of higher education. Drawing on insights from sociology, education, economics, and history, The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America explores the roots of these practices and policies and shows how they continue to play out today.

The book’s three authors have all spent decades researching and writing about education policy. Anthony Carnevale is the director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, a nonprofit research and policy institute focused on the relationship between education, career qualifications, and current workforce demands. Jeff Strohl is the center’s director of research and spends much of his time examining how education impacts career opportunities. And Peter Schmidt, an award-winning journalist and author of Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War Over College Affirmative Action, serves as a deputy editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education and previously covered education policy and access at Education Week.

To understand higher education in the United States, they write, we must first look at the factors that contribute to the success of certain individuals and groups as they navigate the education system and then enter the workforce — as well as the lack of success experienced by others. When we do, it becomes obvious that characterizations of higher education in the U.S. as a meritocracy makes it easy for too many to blame individuals for their lack of success while ignoring the fact that the system as designed creates inequality at every level.

In support of that argument, the authors spend the first few chapters offering an analysis of the interlocking mechanisms — social, political, cultural, economic — that perpetuate disparities in access to higher education. Along the way, they pose several key questions: What is the role of higher education in American life? How do, and should, we define success? And who is deserving of the limited resources available to the system? Such questions are meant, among other things, to prod the reader to think about familiar admissions practices — a reliance on standardized tests, in-person interviews, an emphasis on extracurricular activities — that historically were rooted in an unabashed elitism and have been shown to have little value in predicting student success.

The authors further note that the increase in higher education enrollment has been driven to a large degree by the growth of public universities, which today enroll roughly three-quarters of college students in the U.S. White students from wealthy backgrounds, on the other hand, are the majority at many of the most selective colleges and universities in the country, and those colleges and universities receive a far greater share of the private dollars and resources dedicated to higher education, enabling them to invest far more than less-well-resourced schools in the success of the students they enroll — and reinforce the all-too-familiar "separate and unequal" dynamic that has characterized American education over the last hundred and fifty years.

Because the most selective private colleges and universities typically have the largest endowments, they also are able to compete vigorously for applicants with the best grades or test scores and most interesting extracurricular accomplishments, leading to a largely class-based stratification of schools into tiers — most selective, selective, and so on — that has become more pronounced in recent decades and increasingly difficult to overcome. For Carnevale, Schmidt, and Strohl, the solution to the problem is obvious: if we want to raise graduation and retention rates and start to narrow inequality in America, we need to devote more of our limited resources to middle-tier schools.

Unfortunately, the immense pressures from competing interests that higher education must deal with makes that unlikely to happen any time soon. Carnevale, Schmidt, and Strohl argue compellingly that all these factors— from inequitable admission practices, to universities operating like for-profit businesses and/or subsidizing education for the wealthy, to first-generation and underresourced students being deterred by the increasingly complicated admissions process — have created a system that is anything but a meritocracy and is teetering on the verge of collapse.

But there's hope. The last chapter of The Merit Myth offers a number of proposals for how the system can be improved and made more equitable. They include calls for building a leadership pipeline in higher education that more closely reflects the diversity of the U.S. population, ending reliance on standardized tests scores and legacy admissions, redirecting resources to schools where those resources would have the greatest impact, and making fourteen years of education the new "normal." While many of these reforms require changes at the university and legislative levels, they also require that we think carefully and redefine our collective goals for higher education in America.

In providing a historical context for current debates about higher education and in considering all the many factors involved in making education policy, the authors provide a well-rounded picture of our current system. If the prose gets a bit dense at times, it is merely testament to just how complicated the challenge and potential solutions are. Ultimately, Carnevale, Schmidt, and Strohl have provided a great service by reframing how we should think about the challenge and giving readers hope that real change is possible.

Amelia Becker, an intern with the Communications department at Candid, currently is a junior at Tufts University studying sociology and economics.

Report or vote? Young BIPOC journalists can (and should) do both

August 04, 2020

18-29-Now_social_staticYears ago, when I was a reporter for a well-known daily, a colleague of mine noticed my "I Voted" sticker.

"You vote?" she asked, adding that she had not voted since starting her journalism career. "Aren't you afraid that if anyone digs into your voting record you'll seem…biased?"

I looked at her — a white woman in her early twenties — uncomprehendingly. She might as well have expressed surprise that I ate, drank, and showered on a daily basis.

I explained to her that my great-grandmother, Mildred "Belle" Cosey, was an unsung civil rights hero from Mississippi who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., participated in the Freedom Rides, and taught other Black people in her community how to vote. In the 1960s, the hard-nosed, eloquent, and impeccably fashionable woman I knew as "Greatmama" hosted Poor People's Club gatherings in her home and not only instructed her neighbors on the basics of the electoral process but escorted her "students" to the polls, where, fearful that their white employers would see and fire them, she would hold their trembling hands.

A generation on, her granddaughter (my mother) was forced to sit in the "colored" balcony of the local movie theater. In her late teens, having inherited her grandmother's penchant for eye-catching attire, my mom, on a visit to an exclusive department store in Jackson, Mississippi, was discouraged from trying on any clothes. It was well known in the community and confirmed for her by a salesperson that any item of clothing worn by a Black person, even briefly, would have to be discarded so as not to upset the store's white clientele.

Blackness isn’t something that anyone in my generation, my mother's generation, or her mother's mother’s generation (and those who preceded them) has ever been allowed to forget. The same is true on my Alabama-born father's side.

As I watch a new generation take up the fight in the seemingly endless war against racism in America, I am also fully aware that my identity as a Black person is intrinsic to my being and affects every aspect of my life in America.

It's why I'm proud to be leading YR Media, a nonprofit that has spent more than twenty-five years educating, employing, and amplifying the work of young Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) journalists, many of whom hail from underrepresented communities across the nation. The journalists we support unapologetically embrace all aspects of their identity and incorporate that perspective into their work. Indeed, in our latest collaboration with WNYC’s Radio Rookies project, YR Media contributors under the age of 30 are covering issues of critical importance to them through the lens of the upcoming election.

Who are we to ask them to sit idle this November?

The content creators behind the "18-to-29 Now: Young America Speaks Up" initiative include young "Dreamers" whose legal status hinges on what happens in the next presidential election. Some of them are college students struggling with food and housing issues who worry how they'll get through the next semester — or whether there will even be a next semester. There are other young adults in swing states wondering whether, because of the pandemic or voter suppression tactics, they'll have the opportunity to make their voices heard at the ballot box. And there are young people dealing with chronic health challenges who want to know what is going to happen with the Affordable Care Act.

"This coming election means more to people than taxes and border security," says contributor Erianna Jiles, who lives in the Twin Cities area, where George Floyd drew his last breath with a police officer's knee on his neck. "Young people want to know if they’re going to survive."

Most, if not all, of these young people want to realize the American dream, be included in the political conversation, and advance the causes that are important to their future. And they have every reason to believe their vote is important. A recent analysis by CIRCLE outlined how young people of color can shape and possibly decide the outcome of many federal, state, and local elections this year.

As the contributors to the "18-to-29 Now" project make clear, those of voting age cannot afford to be apathetic. First-time voter Madison Hall, who lives in Baltimore, Maryland, breaks it down like this: "This election means I can vote for the first time; it's my opportunity to do more than repost a picture on Instagram. With everything that happened this year, it's still daunting to think this could be the year I actually have a say in some of the issues I'm passionate about."

Our storytellers always look at what's behind and beyond the hashtag and work hard to report on systemic transformation. The fact that they are also eager to vote on Election Day gives me hope and brings me back to that moment many years ago when I was challenged to make a choice between being a journalist or being a Black citizen of the United States.

For me, the decision was easy. I kept on collecting my "I Voted" stickers and plan to do so again in November. I invite young content creators to do the same.

Headshot_Kyra KylesKyra Kyles is the CEO of YR Media, an Oakland-based nonprofit that works to educate, employ, and amplify the voices of a diverse group of young content creators in the Bay Area and beyond. A longtime media executive who has served as editor-in-chief at EBONY, Kyles has written for and made on-air contributions to outlets such as CNN, Bustle, Zora by Medium, the BBC, and NPR.

Students still need emergency aid. Funders must step up to fill the gap.

July 24, 2020

Mother_college_student_son_GettyImages_PhilanTopicjpgIn response to the coronavirus pandemic, colleges, nonprofits, government, and philanthropy moved quickly to disburse emergency aid to students, many of whom found themselves without reliable access to food, housing, and technology after their campuses were forced to close. And with job losses affecting both working students and families, that support may have temporarily allayed the fears of students who wondered whether they would ever be able to return to school.

But for two groups of students — those ineligible for federal financial assistance, including undocumented students, and those, like student-parents, with additional financial needs — much-needed relief was in short supply. When government is either unwilling or unable to support students working to make their lives and communities better, philanthropic institutions have a duty to fill the gap. As a new school year marked by uncertainty draws closer, more emergency aid is needed, especially for students whose educational aspirations may slip through the widening cracks created by the pandemic.

While the federal CARES Act provided $6.3 billion in emergency grant funds for colleges and universities to distribute to students, the U.S. Department of Education's original guidance for the funds left out undocumented students, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, and international students, creating confusion for months and in some cases slowing the distribution of aid to other students.

What's more, the funds provided by the CARES Act could only be used for food, housing, and expenses directly related to the cost of attendance, leaving many students without adequate support to continue their education. For student-parents, in particular — who need to support children as well as themselves — expenses almost always exceed the assistance provided by their schools. Even before the pandemic, the cost of food, housing, and child care — which in many states is costlier than tuition or rent — made it difficult for student-parents to complete a degree. Single mothers, for instance, are more likely than any other group of women to have started but not finished college and just 8 percent of single student-moms graduate on time.

As more funders and institutions of higher education begin to examine how their investments can be used to advance racial equity, it's also important to note that 40 percent of all Black women in college are mothers. Clearly, success in closing racial and gender equity gaps in college success will remain elusive if we ignore the needs of student-parents.

DACA recipients enroll in college at about the same rate as their peers, but they are four times less likely to complete a degree. They also are ineligible for Pell grants or other forms of federal financial aid, which makes the high cost of tuition a significant barrier to their ability to complete their education. And while mental health issues disproportionately impact undocumented students' postsecondary success, many undocumented students are unable to qualify for affordable health insurance.

With limited emergency aid available to student-parents and unavailable to most undocumented students, the long-term success of both groups is in doubt and should be a priority for philanthropy going forward.

There's no shortage of research on the economic and societal benefits of investments in these groups. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has increased high school graduation and college enrollment rates and raised productivity and earnings among DACA recipients. Immigrants and international students make significant contributions to the U.S. economy as well as the innovations needed to address the challenges we face and keep the country competitive in a globalized economy.

Likewise, student-parents are risers and earn better grades than non-parenting students. Investing in their success not only helps them, it also benefits their children. Parents who complete a degree have access to higher-paying jobs and, on average, double their income over the course of their working lives, while studies have shown that even a $1,000 increase in salary can result in as much as a 27 percent increase in a child's cognitive development. We all benefit when committed learners are given an opportunity to realize their potential.

Philanthropy is uniquely suited to address these gaps in emergency aid funding — and many funders are already leading the way. In California, the College Futures Foundation and Mission Asset Fund created a statewide emergency aid fund that prioritizes undocumented students, foster youth, and those who are housing insecure. Edquity, which both of our organizations — Imaginable Futures and ECMC Foundation — support, joined Course Hero and Believe in Students to allow anyone to contribute to a pool of emergency funds that will be distributed to students not eligible for CARES Act aid.

Our own organizations invested in emergency aid efforts when the outbreak and subsequent spread of the virus forced campuses to close: Imaginable Futures targeted $400,000 of its emergency aid funding to student-parents and, because they have higher living expenses, required that funding be set at least $1,200 per student-parent, while ECMC Foundation made more than $1.5 million in direct emergency aid grants that went primarily to students who are not eligible for federal financial aid.

Still, as uncertainty looms over the upcoming school year, the educational dreams of 454,000 undocumented students and nearly four million student-parents hang in the balance. With the crisis likely to extend into the fall, we need more philanthropic investment in emergency aid for students left behind by federal programs. Educational equity, economic mobility, breaking the cycle of poverty, racial justice — none of these ambitious goals are realistic if students do not have the resources to succeed.

Undocumented students, DACA recipients, student-parents attend classes and study while navigating family care, financial insecurity, housing instability, and hunger. They fight for their education and their future every day. It is time we fight with them.

(Photo credit: GettyImages)

Vinice davis_jessica_haselton_PhilanTopic

Vinice Davis is a venture partner at Imaginable Futures and an investor in Edquity. Jessica Haselton is director of Education Innovation Ventures at ECMC Foundation and an investor in and board member of Edquity.

A 'Just and Resilient Recovery' framework for international donors and financial institutions

July 09, 2020

HR&A_just_resilient_recovery_shutterstockEven as some of the most severe COVID-19 outbreaks subside, the pandemic continues to spread around the world, with 11.5 million cases confirmed and more than five hundred thousand deaths as we write. Roughly two-thirds of all new confirmed cases are in developing countries, with Latin America alone accounting for over a third of new confirmed cases.

The economic disruption that the virus and measures to contain it have brought to developed economies will be dwarfed by the consequences of similar efforts in the developing world. According to forecasts from the World Bank, COVID-19 will, by the end of 2020, push an additional forty-nine million people into extreme poverty. That represents an increase of 8 percent and would be the first increase in extreme poverty globally since the Asian financial crisis in 1998. The projections suggest that sub-Saharan Africa, where an additional twenty-three million people could fall into extreme poverty, will be hardest hit, with Latin America and the Caribbean and South Asia splitting the balance.

Designing emergency response programs, fiscal and monetary stimulus, and long-term economic recovery plans to address the effects of the pandemic will be more challenging in places where the economic damage is deepest and existing inequality the most acute. Indeed, a combination of already-stagnant economies, tight fiscal conditions, and weak institutional capacity has created a perfect storm in many developing countries.

A Framework for International Donors and Financial Institutions

Against this backdrop, the mitigation of economic and social damage in many countries has been left to global philanthropies and international financial institutions. The G20 countries have agreed to a useful, if limited, suspension of debt service for the poorest countries, and the World Bank moved quickly to mobilize $160 billion in new and repurposed capital, which was followed by other multilateral development groups. We believe, however, that these efforts will be insufficient if these and other institutions do not take a structured approach to understanding needs on the ground and the prioritization of the implementation of their actions.

While most actors have rightfully focused their immediate attention on public health measures and efforts to strengthen the safety net, as cities and regions start emerging from quarantine and effective therapies and vaccines are developed they will need to collectively address the underlying economic and social challenges that have made COVID-19 so devastating and destabilizing for the most vulnerable groups in society.

Based on our experience with previous natural, economic, and humanitarian crises, we have developed a framework to help guide cities and communities on the path to a more "Just and Resilient Recovery." The framework calls for public and private institutions to organize and coordinate their COVID-19 recovery efforts around the four sequential phases illustrated below.

Global Philantropy Commentary Graphic

The time for planning and coordinating fiscal policy efforts is now. Global donors and financial development institutions should start planning and prioritizing how and where their assistance will be directed to ensure that countries and cities that receive that assistance can use it to create a more just and resilient "next" normal that addresses some of the structural inequities of the old normal, including poverty, informality, and discrimination.

Over the coming weeks and months, as institutions continue to organize their internal resources and begin to develop road maps for the next phase of the recovery, they should consider the following:

Assess the economic disruption: As lockdowns ease and more evidence and data becomes available, institutions should develop a more granular understanding of the economic and fiscal impact of the virus in the countries and jurisdictions they serve. This can be done at scale with a dynamic model that takes into consideration baseline economic conditions pre-crisis, the scope of containment measures taken and the degree to which they have been enforced, the level of unemployment (formal and informal), and, where appropriate, the fiscal measures already taken by governments to mitigate the economic impacts of the virus. The model should also take into account the compounding effects of future natural disasters and the percentage of the population lacking access to clean water and waste treatment infrastructure. This more granular understanding of the economic damage resulting from the virus will enable institutions to better calibrate the magnitude and speed of the response required in different countries, regions, and communities.

Understand needs and opportunities: Supported by such an assessment, institutions need to understand which economic sectors and segments of the population have been most impacted and what the opportunities are to rethink how to rebuild and create employment opportunities in more productive industries. A focus on sectors with high economic multipliers such as technology, research, and advanced manufacturing should be seen as an opportunity to bring substantial numbers of workers into the formal economy and prepare large segments of the population for the future of work.

Map resources: Once the economic damage and the opportunities for a more just and resilient economic recovery have been identified, institutions need to think carefully about how to leverage resources from other countries, donors, and the private sector. The capital from donors and multilateral development banks should be seen as a "filler" that closes financial gaps and addresses market failures, catalyzing private investment and participation. Understanding the potential to effectively leverage private-sector participation under the current short-term capital commitments from development banks will be critical. That includes exploring more active participation in public-private concessions, providing availability payments, and making backstop guarantees to de-risk projects.

Prioritize areas of investment: With an understanding of the needs, opportunities, and resources available in the short- and mid-term, institutions should be able to prioritize the allocation of resources across countries and sectors in an efficient way and provide guidance and direction to specific country offices and divisions accordingly. Such a prioritization should consider which industries and clusters are best positioned to increase productivity and create jobs and how communities can benefit from such growth in an inclusive manner. This could include investments in digital infrastructure that pave the way for greater innovation and technology, public transportation to make job opportunities accessible to everyone and cities more sustainable, and resilient infrastructure designed to mitigate the shock and disruption of future climate-related disasters.

The global development community has a generational opportunity to substantially transform the economies of the poorest countries, leveraging resources from all sectors, with a focus on investments that boost productivity and eradicate secular inequities and establish a precedent for a Just and Resilient Economic Recovery. Let’s not let that opportunity go by the wayside.

(Photo credit: HR&A Advisors)

Shuprotim_Bhaumik_Ignacio_MontojoShuprotim Bhaumik is a partner at HR&A Advisors, where he specializes in economic development and public policy consulting. Ignacio Montojo is a director at HR&A and specializes in the design and implementation of public-private partnerships and financing strategies for infrastructure and real estate development projects. Both have worked on behalf of several international financial institutions, including the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the International Finance Corporation in countries around the world, including Afghanistan, Argentina, Bangladesh, Colombia, Costa Rica, Kenya, Panama, and South Africa.

5 Questions for...EunSook Lee, Director, AAPI Civic Engagement Fund

June 25, 2020

Launched in 2014 with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New YorkEvelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, Ford Foundationand Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund works to foster a culture of civic participation among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). Since its inception, the fund has provided funding to strengthen the capacity of twenty-five AAPI organizations in seventeen states working to inform, organize, and engage AAPI communities and advance policy and systems change. 

EunSook Lee, who has served as director of the fund since its inception, coordinated the 2012 National AAPI Civic Engagement Project for the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development and, prior to that, served as senior deputy for Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), as executive director of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC), and as executive director of Korean American Women In Need.

PND spoke with Lee earlier this month about xenophobia and racism in the time of COVID-19, the importance of civic engagement in an election year, and her vision for fostering a greater sense of belonging among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

EunSook Lee_AAPI CEFPND: The AAPI Civic Engagement Fund was created by a group of funders who saw a need to expand and deepen community and civic engagement among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who historically have been both a community of color and a predominantly immigrant and refugee population. After more than a hundred and sixty years of immigration from Asia, why, in 2013, midway through Barack Obama's second term, did the AAPI community become a focus for funders?

EunSook Lee: While we launched the fund in 2013, it was conceived as an idea after the 2012 elections, a season that was emblematic of how funding had flowed in the past to AAPI communities: episodically and chaotically. Just months before the presidential election, a burst of investment came in from civic participation funders and political campaigns in support of efforts to get out the vote in AAPI communities. As part of that influx, the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation pledged $1 million for a national project focused on civic engagement and identified National CAPACD as the organization to host the effort.

In a very short period of time, we made grants to dozens of groups, connected them to State Voices and other civic engagement entities for the first time, and provided support where we could to help them execute their plans for the election. With a few exceptions, most AAPI groups had not been sufficiently resourced or supported to develop their infrastructure. We couldn't sit back and hope they would succeed, so we did a bit of everything to help them build the capacity they needed to get the word out in their communities.

We also decided it was important to show how AAPI communities had voted, so we partnered with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education FundLatino Decision, and others to hold a first-of-its-kind multiracial election eve poll that polled Asian Americans in their own languages. The resulting data enabled us to shift the narrative on Asian-American civic engagement, demonstrating that the Asian-American community had turned out in record numbers and that its views on most issues were in alignment with the views of other voters of color.

Following the 2012 elections, a number of funders became interested in pursuing a longer-term effort to build year-round capacity for AAPI groups and put an end to the cycle of episodic funding tied to election cycles. And that's how the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund was born.

PND: The coronavirus pandemic and some of the political rhetoric it has engendered have heightened the visibility of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in ways that have not always been positive or welcome. What are you hearing from grantees about the kinds of challenges they are facing as a result of the public health crisis, and how is the fund responding?

EL:  The challenges resulting from coronavirus are layered. At the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund, we acknowledge how difficult the work is for AAPI groups that may not have the resources or capacity to meet current needs but know they cannot turn their backs on the communities they serve.

Language barriers are a primary obstacle for our partners right now. Local and federal agencies are setting up new programs, processes, and rules as they go, and that basic information is not reaching non-English speakers. Whether it is about applying for unemployment or getting information about small business loans or helping your child with online learning, monolingual AAPIs are navigating a maze with little to no language support. At the same time, physical offices are closed, so those who are not familiar with Zoom or struggle with Internet connectivity are unable to get the information through other means.

After the three Vietnamese papers serving the tri-county Philadelphia area had to shut down due to the coronavirus, Philadelphia-based VietLead and other grassroots groups started making wellness calls to community members. Others are translating support materials and posting them online, holding in-language webinars on Zoom, and posting information on YouTube and Facebook, which are easier for many people to access. Some have also distributed information directly to homes along with drop-offs of basic food supplies. And because those who are undocumented have been unable to access the majority of relief programs, a number of AAPI groups have set up their own cash-relief programs for those who have been left out.

The anti-China rhetoric that began with the Trump administration has exacerbated and exposed longstanding bigotry against Asian Americans in this country. A number of our grantee partners are working with their communities to track incidents of racism, and all have heard from community members who have been subjected to verbal abuse and bullying, denial of service, vandalism, graffiti, and even physical assaults. Some of the cases of discrimination are occurring in the workplace and may be considered civil rights violations. Others rise to the level of a hate crime.

NativeHawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPIs) have been especially impacted on account of existing inequities. One-fifth of NHPIs are uninsured, and in general they suffer from higher rates of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Partly because of those factors, the latest figures for California show that NHPIs are nine times more likely to contract COVID-19 and are dying at a disproportionately higher rate than any other group in the state.

We are working to support and amplify the various ways AAPI groups that are responding to this health crisis. We established the Anti-Racism Response Network Fund, which to date has made emergency grants totaling over $1.5 million to an estimated forty groups in twenty states. We are also working with sister funds to direct some of their COVID relief funds to AAPI groups. We also plan to support the online convenings of these groups as they do what they can to support each other, learn about each other's programs, and find ways to collaborate and amplify the voices of progressive AAPIs.

PND: Voter registration and turnout rates among AAPIs, despite being historically lower than those of other populations, have risen in recent years. As highlighted in a 2019 report from the fund and the Groundswell Fund, 76 percent of AAPI women said that they had encouraged friends and family to vote in the 2018 midterm elections. How do you see that trend playing out among the AAPI population in the 2020 elections? And what kind of role do you think AAPI women might play?

EL: The Wisconsin primary was disastrous in terms of protecting the health of voters and running the election efficiently. AAPI groups focused on civic engagement and the empowerment of their communities are vital to advocating for safe, efficient alternatives such as vote by mail, ensuring language access, and getting the vote out. We have heard about a range of systems failures that COVID-19 has exacerbated, especially cases of incompetent leadership at various levels of government. Because our groups are connected to their members, they are best positioned to galvanize them to vote.

More specifically, AAPI women are being recognized as critical organizers and community leaders. Our 2018 Asian American Election Eve Poll talked about how they not only were more active in protests and at the polls but also effectively mobilized others. In fact, twenty of our twenty-two core civic engagement grantees are led or co-led by women. There is no question that AAPI women will continue to power this movement through the 2020 elections and beyond, driving voter turnout and raising awareness about the issues most important to their communities.

PND: AAPIs Connect: Harnessing Strategic Communications to Advance Civic Engagement, a report recently published by the fund, notes that "[t]echnology offers the potential for AAPIs to be more connected with one another and to [the] larger society, but...it also has the potential to exacerbate divisions and create a more disconnected America." How is technology exacerbating division and disconnection within the AAPI community? And what are the biggest challenges AAPI groups face in building capacit — not just in the area of communications, but overall?

EL: At one time, there were a few mainstream media outlets that most Americans relied on for their news. For those who were bilingual or monolingual, in-language media supplemented that access to information. While there is now an explosion of platforms where information and news is being disseminated, some of the critical in-language news outlets are financially unstable or shutting down. Our national conversation has suffered as a result. At the same time, AAPI communities are being left out of many conversations. Not only is there a greater likelihood of our being isolated from the mainstream or from other communities in terms of the information we consume, there's also a greater possibility that we may end up being uninformed or misinformed.

AAPI groups have an opportunity to play a greater role in addressing this disconnect by looking at ways to build their communications infrastructure. But they need support and funding to deepen that work and make an impact on the local, bi-multi-lingual/biliterate, harder-to-reach populations.

As in other areas, AAPI communities and community-based organizations are often playing catch-up. According to our grantee partners, the biggest barrier they face in building communications capacity is a lack of resources. That includes funding to support dedicated staffing, skills building, and tools that equip them to communicate the critical work they are doing in their communities.

That has become a focus for our fund, to support the training and building up of the strategic communications capacity of AAPI groups. Funders can help by dedicating more resources in terms of grants and other learning opportunities so that AAPI groups can establish their media and communications muscle and infrastructure. They can also look at ways to strengthen movement-wide tools and overall creating funding strategies with a racial equity and intersectional justice lens.

PND: Over the course of your career, you've led grassroots nonprofits, served as a congressional staffer, and worked as a consultant to funders. Having observed the process of social change from all those perspectives, what is your number-one recommendation, in this moment of uncertainty, for groups that are looking to bring about social change?

EL: It is essential in this moment that AAPI organizations be seen — and see themselves — as part of this larger movement-moment in an authentic, non-performative way. We cannot be used as a wedge to divide or undermine the focus on systemic racism. We must commit to genuine and radical solidarity over the long term based on an understanding of how freedom for our respective communities is intertwined. We must push forward pro-Blackness in our communities and share analysis on the root causes of anti-Blackness, which is keeping us from true systemic change.

Many AAPI organizing groups are centering Black lives and framing anti-Blackness through the lens of our lived experience. Civil rights and organizing groups are including AAPIs in their efforts to tackle poverty, health inequities, and barriers to reentry for individuals emerging from incarceration. But there is an opportunity in this moment to dig deeper, to acknowledge that your organization may not have done as much as it could have to follow Black leadership and work with organizations that have deep ties to the Black community and have been doing this work for many years.

It is important that AAPI organizations examine our practices and past policy decisions to better align our future actions with our words. We must think more deeply about what it means for organizations to be anti-racist, to tackle systemic inequities, and to embrace an agenda that goes beyond our immediate self-interest. To achieve this, we need more AAPI organizers and social justice organizations, not fewer, better infrastructure and increased capacity, and more financial support for that infrastructure and capacity.  

— Kyoko Uchida

The Forgotten Sector?

May 27, 2020

20180602_USP501All nonprofit organizations, large or small, have one thing in common — they exist to provide a public benefit. Although smaller nonprofits, defined provisionally as having five hundred employees or fewer, have been able to take advantage of government lending programs established in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak — the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Main Street Lending Program (MSLP) — larger nonprofits have not. This is a major and potentially catastrophic oversight.

This oversight reflects the government's tunnel-vision tendency to view the economy and threats to the economy primarily through the lens of for-profit entities — i.e., big and small businesses. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but it is not just our balance sheets that are at risk during this crisis. The U.S. social safety net, already threadbare, is in danger of collapse. Nonprofit organizations, especially the larger ones, are the last line of defense for millions in the fight to keep themselves from falling into abject poverty, illness, and despair.

The U.S. nonprofit sector is large, with annual expenditures of $2.5 trillion dollars. It employs 12 million people, the third-largest workforce in the country, behind retail and manufacturing. In and of itself, it is a significant part of our economy. But in the government's zeal to protect the health of the business sector, the essential role played by the nonprofit sector in safeguarding the health and safety of our most vulnerable citizens has been ignored.

A just-released analysis of the sector's financial vulnerability — Main Street Lending 2.0: A Proposal to Support Our Most Vital Nonprofits — by SeaChange Capital Partners and based on data provided by Candid, characterizes the COVID-19 crisis as "an extinction-level event" for nonprofit organizations. In other words, not only are the vital services provided by the sector at risk of being lost, so are untold numbers of nonprofit sector jobs.

Large nonprofits are a vital component of the nation's social safety net. Social services nonprofits, in particular, are providing resources to meet the needs of struggling families, including  frontline healthcare workers, such as food assistance, housing, and emergency childcare. As the SeaChange report points out, "Large nonprofits tend to be particularly important in areas like residential care (e.g., homeless shelters, foster care, homes for the developmentally disabled, etc.) where smaller organizations do not have the capacity (technology, HR, finance, compliance, etc.) or the scale to do the work."

What's more, nonprofits that provide social services operate with very slim margins. This is true not just of small nonprofits but of large ones as well. Here are some key facts from the report:

  • In the U.S., 1,548 large nonprofits provide social services.
  • Those nonprofits have annual expenses of $121 billion and total revenues of $123 billion.
  • The median social services nonprofit: operates with a margin of just 1 percent; receives just 6 percent of its revenue from philanthropy; has total financial assets equivalent to 1.9 months of expenses; and has operating reserves of less than a month of expenses.

Again, these are the large social services nonprofits, those with five hundred or more employees. And, as the analysis makes clear, many of them operate on the brink of insolvency even in normal times.

The SeaChange report argues forcefully that the eligibility requirements of the PPP and MSLP need to be modified to accommodate the crisis-related needs of both large nonprofit organizations as well as smaller ones. "PPP is already available," the report's authors write

to for-profit groups with more than 500 employees, provided they meet two conditions: (i) net income of $5.0 million or less and (ii) tangible net worth of $15 million or less. Unfortunately, the [Small Business Administration] has indicated in some of its guidance that nonprofits are not eligible under these criteria. Nonprofit ineligibility makes zero sense. Why would otherwise eligible organizations established for public purposes be less worthy of PPP assistance than those established for private gain?

Where the rules of the PPP thoughtlessly exclude many nonprofit organizations while including for-profit organizations with the same financial characteristics, the Main Street Lending Program ignores nonprofit organizations altogether.

The Federal Reserve has stated that "while nonprofit organizations are not currently eligible under the MSLP program, we acknowledge the unique needs of nonprofit organizations, many of which are on the front lines providing critical services and research to fight the pandemic...and will be evaluating the feasibility of adjusting the borrower eligibility criteria and loan eligibility metrics of the program for such organizations."

How is it that the nonprofit sector finds itself in such an absurd situation?

The U.S. federal government is good at paying attention to some things, and less to others. It is massively concerned with the financial health of the business sector, especially large businesses, as primary drivers of the U.S. economy. It honors and understands the important role of small businesses, as demonstrated by the existence of the Small Business Administration.

Because the federal government cares about the health of business, it knows a lot about the business sector and collects massive amounts of data on the sector on a continuous basis. Indeed, it knows so much about "small businesses" that it has a comprehensive 49-page document listing the specific size requirements that businesses across more than a thousand North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) categories must meet in order to qualify as "small" and be eligible for assistance from the SBA.

There is no such set of standards for defining what constitutes a large or small nonprofit organization. And the job of amassing and organizing basic data on the organizational health of the nonprofit sector has been left to the sector itself. If not for organizations such as Candid, the Urban Institute's Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy, the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, and a handful of others, such data would not be available at all.

All of this means that when legislative relief packages are being considered during times like these, our government has no systematic means at its disposal for assessing and responding to the financial needs of the U.S. nonprofit sector. Hence, the sector is treated as an afterthought, with resulting legislation that looks like the PPP and MSLP.

Although I've focused on social service nonprofits in this post, the SeaChange report discusses the economic challenges currently faced by all large U.S. nonprofits, including hospitals and health care, higher education, and arts and cultural organizations. It is MUST reading.

The COVID-19 crisis has stretched the capacity and resources of many nonprofit organizations to the breaking point. Without immediate attention to the financial challenges U.S. nonprofit organizations are facing, huge holes will be ripped in the nation’s social safety net, leading to catastrophic consequences for millions of U.S. citizens.

The government has largely outsourced the job of maintaining the social safety net to the nonprofit sector. But having outsourced much of this work, it has apparently forgotten that it still bears a fundamental responsibility to ensure that the basic survival needs of the nation’s most vulnerable populations are met. Every American requires and deserves at least a minimal level of protection from the fallout created by COVID-19.

(Photo credit: Getty Images)

Headshot_Larry_McGillLarryLarry McGill is vice president of research at Candid. This post originally appeared on the Candid blog. For more from Larry, check out the PhilanTopic archive.

Neighborhoods with 'Medical Deserts' Have Emergency Needs During COVID Pandemic

March 27, 2020

5c800d7f262898478f1016f7A zip code has become a life or death matter. Families that live more than an hour from a hospital face a death sentence based on their address. A long ambulance ride increases the risk of death. Patients with respiratory emergencies, like the ones caused by coronavirus, are particularly vulnerable.

According to an annual survey by the American Hospital Association, more than a thousand hospitals in the United States have closed since 1975. As a result, residents in communities from coast to coast must drive more than sixty minutes to reach an acute care hospital. These places are called "medical deserts," and you can find them in every state.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that we desperately need new investment in our healthcare safety net and infrastructure. Indeed, a recent study by the COVID-19 Response Team at Imperial College London suggests that the "capacity limits of the UK and U.S. health system[s] [could be] exceeded many times over" during this crisis and warns that "even if all patients are able to be treated, we predict there would still be in the order of 250,000 deaths in Great Britain and 1.1 million to 1.2 million deaths in the U.S."

As an emergency medicine physician and chair of the health committee of Black Women for Positive Change, I call on Congress and the administration to immediately implement the following recommendations in order to save lives, before it's too late.

Continue reading »

Coronavirus Highlights the Gaping Holes in Our Healthcare and Labor System

March 05, 2020

FastFoodWorkersMaps and daily counts of the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) around the world have become a staple of television, the Internet, and print media. Not unreasonably, Americans fearful of contracting the virus have emptied their local supermarkets and drugstores of masks, soap, and hand sanitizers in hopes that simple measures will protect them. Meanwhile, concerned officials are telling people they should speak to their employers about their work-from-home options and, if they begin to exhibit flu-like symptoms, to stay home.

Unfortunately, this latest global pandemic throws into stark relief the status of our broken healthcare and labor systems. Low-wage workers who care for our children, staff our hospitals, and work the kitchens and cash registers in our fast food restaurants cannot work at home. Nor, in the event they get sick without adequate insurance, can they afford to get tested for COVID-19 or obtain medical care. For them, and many others, missing a day's pay almost always results in dire financial consequences. Many have no paid sick days or family care days; they live in constant fear of losing their wages or, worse, their jobs. And if schools are closed, who will care for their own children when they report to work?

The all-but-inevitable spread of the virus in the United States is about to bring us face-to-face with a simple fact: masks (as the surgeon-general reminded us in a tweet!) and hand sanitizers will not make us safe; only fair wages, a strong social safety net, and universal paid family and medical leave will protect Americans from the worst consequences of the virus. In a quote that has circulated widely across social media, journalist and author Anand Giridharadas observed, "Coronavirus makes clear what has been true all along. Your health is as safe as that of the worst-insured, worst-cared-for person in your society. It will be decided by the height of the floor, not the ceiling."

Continue reading »

Five Strategies for Advancing Your Mission in 2020

March 04, 2020

Social_media_icons_for_PhilanTopicThe months leading up to the presidential election in November are a critical period for philanthropic and nonprofit leaders interested in shaping public discourse around a range of issues. It promises to be a period when Americans weigh everything from plans to make health care and college more affordable to new ideas for addressing the opioid crisis, climate change, national security, and economic growth. It's also likely to be a period when philanthropy is called on to highlight important issues, contribute to and inform the national dialogue, and advocate for the public interest.

In the coming weeks, leaders at private and corporate foundations, NGOs, and nonprofits will have an opportunity to leverage the presidential election cycle to raise awareness of — and drive engagement with — their issues. From the debates and primaries still to come to the party conventions and the election itself, the moment is ripe for action.

For social-sector leaders inclined to act, there are five key elements to effective issues advocacy:

Continue reading »

Frequently Asked Questions on Census 2020: Census Identities Still Confound

February 18, 2020

2020-census-logo-sliderEveryone in the United States plays a race or ethnic card at some point, or at least everyone who responds to the decennial census. Despite the scientific consensus that race is an artificial social construct, unmoored from biological reality, is there a box that best describes you?

Whether you plan to respond to the census online, in writing, or by telephone, one question you'll be asked to answer is how, racially speaking, you self-identify. What follows are answers to some frequently asked questions to help guide you through the process.

Q: What are the race and ethnic categories on the census form?

A: Your racial choices are: (1) White; (2) Black or African American; (3) American Indian or Alaskan Native; (4) Asian — with numerous boxes as subsets; and (5) Some other race. The questionnaire also asks separately if the respondent is "of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin," but instructs that "for this census, Hispanic origins are not races."

Q: What if I'm not White or Black? I'm Egyptian and my neighbor is from Iran. What are our options and who determines the categories?

A: You and your neighbor fall into what is called the MENA classification: Middle Eastern and North African. There was a proposal to add MENA to the 2020 form, but the Office of Management and Budget, which makes the assigned identity group determinations about the census, decided to keep the same basic categories that were on the 2010 census form.

Continue reading »

5 Questions for...Bernie Michael, President and CEO, Center for Jewish History

February 05, 2020

"Never forget."

For Holocaust survivors who gathered on Monday in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of the infamous Nazi concentration and death camp, the horrors of World War II will never be forgotten. But as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles — at Monday’s ceremony, there were two hundred survivors in attendance, compared to the fifteen hundred who attended ceremonies marking the sixtieth anniversary of the camp’s liberation in 1945 — and with anti-Semitism and attacks on Jews once again capturing headlines in Europe and the United States, the two-word admonition has assumed fresh meaning and significance.

At the Center for Jewish History in New York City, the past, five thousand years of the Jewish past, is very much alive. Established twenty years ago and celebrating its twentieth anniversary in 2020, the center is a place where scholars, researchers, graduate fellows, high school students, and others gather to do research, attend seminars and symposia, and celebrate the remarkable achievements of the Jewish people.

PND recently spoke with Bernie Michael, the center’s president and CEO, about the organization’s mission and collections, history as story, and the reasons why he remains an optimist.

Headshot_bernie_michaelPhilanthropy News Digest: Tell us about the Center for Jewish History. When was it established, what is its mission, and what does it do to advance that mission?

Bernie Michael: The Center for Jewish History is located in Manhattan on 16th Street off of Fifth Avenue. We are home to five partner organizations — the American Jewish Historical Society, which was established in the 1890s to foster an appreciation of American Jewish heritage and which has a huge archive of materials relating to American Jewish history; the American Sephardi Federation, which preserves and promotes the history, traditions, and culture of Jews from Sephardic lands; the Leo Baeck Institute, a research library and archive focused on the history of German-speaking Jews; the Yeshiva University Museum, which, unlike our other partners, is more of a traditional museum in the sense that it has artworks and three-dimensional objects; and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which was established in the 1920s and focuses on the history and culture of Eastern European Jews and Yiddish-speaking people.

The center brings all these organizations together under one roof, and we also have our own archives and mount our own exhibitions and offer our own programming. It's a place, really, for people to learn about the history of the Jewish people and all of its many different aspects.

PND: For a lot of Americans, history is little more than a dry recitation of dates, names, and long-forgotten events. What are they missing?

BM: History starts with dates and names and facts, and making sure all that is verified and correct is important. But what's really important about history is that it tells a story, and it's the job of historians to bring those stories to life. The ideas that make history important are almost always animated by individuals, and the individuals that history remembers usually are embedded in a fascinating story. Historians take those stories and connect them to the present. That's what we do here at the center. How do all those stories in our archives reflect who we are today, and what can they tell us about where we might be headed?

Continue reading »

Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (January 2020)

February 02, 2020

Novel-coronavirusA verdict in the impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump, the growing threat of a global coronavirus pandemic, and the much-anticipated results of the Iowa caucuses — there'll be no shortage of news or headlines to track in the week ahead. But before we turn the page on January 2020 (already?), we thought we'd take a last look at the most popular posts on the blog in the month just passed. Be safe out there.

Interested in contributing to PND or PhilanTopic? We want to hear from you! Drop us a note at Mitch.Naufts@Candid.org.

Few Large U.S. Foundations Changed Giving Priorities After 2016 Presidential Election

January 07, 2020

White_HouseIn early 2019, Candid asked 645 of the largest U.S. foundations whether they had changed their funding priorities in 2017 and 2018 as a result of the 2016 presidential election. The vast majority (88 percent) of the respondents said their organizations made "few or no changes" to their giving priorities during the two years following the election. About one in eight (12 percent) reported making "some notable changes."

These results differ slightly from a similar survey conducted by Exponent Philanthropy in early 2017. Nearly one-quarter of the participants in that survey — foundations with few or no staff, philanthropic families, and individual donors — said they expected to make some changes to their philanthropic giving as a direct result of Donald Trump's election.

Not surprisingly, foundations reporting "few or no changes to their giving priorities" in Candid’s 2019 survey felt little need to further explain why this was the case.  "Staying the course" was a common refrain.

Foundations that reported making "some notable changes" identified five causes in particular for which they felt additional support was needed, given shifts in the political environment: 1) immigration, 2) civic engagement/democracy, 3) equity/social justice/intolerance, 4) the environment, and 5) health care. In some cases, foundations also established "rapid response" funds to help grantees that might be facing new or urgent challenges in carrying out their work.

Continue reading »

Garifuna and the 2020 Census

December 02, 2019

Garifuna300Gilberto Amaya's career in international development has taken him to more than thirty countries, where he has implemented renewable energy systems, agribusiness projects, and poverty alleviation initiatives. Along the way, he witnessed the post-independence struggles of sovereign states whose names are rarely heard on nightly newscasts in the U.S. — Burkina Faso, Togo, Zambia, Zimbabwe. A native of Honduras, he has memories of blending into and being welcomed by communities in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Central and South America.

Yet, near his home in Fairfax, Virginia, a bureaucracy momentarily stripped him of his identity — and incident that sparked Amaya's quest to have "Garifuna" fully recognized by the U.S. Census Bureau.

"After conducting some public business at a government agency in Virginia," Amaya recalled, "I was leaving the counter, and the Latina clerk heard me speaking Spanish to my wife and called me back."

For ethnicity, Amaya had checked the box next to "black."

"You checked the wrong box," the clerk said. "You can't check black. You speak Spanish. You have to check Hispanic.' "

Today, Amaya is a member of the Census Bureau's National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations (NAC), which solicits recommendations on ways to improve the accuracy of the decennial count in determining ethnic minorities, and is allied with other Garifuna organizations, scholars, and Afro-Latino advocates working to document the heritage and raise the visibility of the Garifuna people.

The Garifuna are descendants of Africans of mixed tribal ancestry who were captured and shipped from Africa to the Caribbean islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Garifuna historians recount on-board insurrections that ran ships aground. The captives escaped inland and intermarried with indigenous Carib and Arawak Indians, who were also subject to forced-labor bondage. Sometimes referred to as the Black Caribs, the Garifuna led and participated in the unsuccessful Carib Wars aimed at overthrowing British dominion, sometimes with assistance of France, England's imperial rival.
 
 

Continue reading »

Texas Border Families Fuel a Network to Build Power and Equity

October 11, 2019

Rio-grande-valleyIf you're familiar with the Rio Grande Valley and listen to the rhetoric out of Washington, D.C., you know it has nothing to do with the reality lived by most families in the region.

Even as the national spotlight continues to cast its glare on the border, a collective yearning for human dignity, civil rights, and community progress is building in the valley, which is home to more than 1.3 million people. Sadly, the aspirations of the people who live there — and the region's vibrancy — are easy to overlook.

What you won't learn from listening to the president and his supporters is that the region is home to a grassroots movement driven largely by Latinx families comprised of both U.S. citizens and immigrants that for years has been advocating for solutions to problems created by decades of structural poverty and a lack of equitable access to financial resources.

Families in the region know better than anyone how public policies create progress and economic opportunity — or fail to. Poverty and intolerance, they will tell you, are blocking human potential — and creating costs for all of us. At the same time, dignity and compassion continue to be core values of the region's residents as they organize for social change and better lives.

"This is a moment where people can see beyond themselves," says Martha Sanchez, organizing coordinator for farmworker and civil rights organization La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE). "Hate is not healthy for anybody. We need to look more deeply."

A Philanthropic Network Amplifies the Voices of Families

Central to this movement-building work, community and family leaders say, is the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, a multi-issue coalition of Marguerite Casey Foundation grantees and allies. It is among fifteen regional networks the foundation and its grantees started. (The foundation, which has invested more than $7 million in the Equal Voice Network model, also supports the Native Voice Network and a youth-led network).

 

The network is an incubator of sorts where low-income families can meet, voice ideas, and focus collectively on bottom-up, community-led policy solutions.

Grassroots leaders in the region will also tell you that the Marguerite Casey Foundation, which has been investing in community organizations in the Rio Grande Valley since 2003, is one of the few philanthropic funders to issue sizable, multiyear general support grants to nonprofits in support of family-led movement building. Those dollars are used by grantees as they see fit in their efforts to alleviate poverty and promote equity in the valley. As we like to think, that support represents both philanthropic trust and movement building in action.

"We try to be a regular presence, to see how we can connect organizations with other ones. It's about being a bridge," says Christina Patiño Houle, the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network weaver, a role akin to a coordinator or facilitator. "What we provide is convening space. The network provides the focus of pulling people in so they're in conversation."

The network is comprised of eight foundation grantees in the valley and approximately twenty allied nonprofit organizations, many of them also based in the region.

Because network members are in regular contact with Rio Grande Valley residents and the focus is on grassroots movement building, local, state and U.S. government officials — including elected ones — make it a point to stay in frequent communication with the organizations and their leaders.

"It's a testament to the network's ability to mobilize people," says Patiño Houle.

Network members meet regularly to discuss the well-being of families in the region, which boasts more than forty-five cities and hundreds of unincorporated neighborhoods known as colonias.

While the issue of immigration touches all network members in some way, families say there is more to life in Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy and Starr counties than what is happening at the U.S.-Mexico border: families are fighting to secure healthy, stable, and safe communities, quality education for their children, and peace and prosperity. So when network members meet in working groups, they also focus on jobs, housing, civic engagement, education, and health.

Out of that collective focus comes passion-inspired efforts aimed at creating positive social change. Families are at the vanguard of these efforts.

The work often starts at one nonprofit organization, which then spreads the word to other network members. Or it can emanate from weeks or months of brainstorming after a group of network members have heard from families about the steps needed to go forward. The network also amplifies the work of its partner organizations.

Families Honor Asylum Seekers — by Dancing

The morning before Mother's Day is muggy and overcast near Edinburg, a Rio Grande Valley city about twenty-five miles from the border. At Sunflower Memorial Park, in the flatlands off state Route 107, the inviting rhythm of Mexican-Caribbean music blares from loudspeakers.

Under a metal shelter, about ninety people — nearly all women — are wearing workout clothing, shuffling left then right, hips twisting freely and arms waving to the beat of cumbia and reggaeton. It looks like a normal exercise class at a local gym, but nearby are Maria Campos, her daughters, and about fifteen cardboard boxes full of goods.

Before participants start dancing, they hand Campos and her children toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, pasta, canned food, blankets and clothing.

The donated items will go to asylum seekers and others who were recently released from federal immigration facilities and are now waiting at shelters to be united with relatives or sponsors. The event is organized by LUPE, the grassroots nonprofit started by activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in 1989. Campos and her daughters are LUPE members. They and the participants at the park are continuing the work of serving humanity.

"This is the closest that many community members will get to what's happening at the border," says John-Michael Torres, LUPE's communications coordinator, as the music continues in the background. "We want to lift up treating people the way we want to be treated."

Campos, who lives in a colonia near Edinburg, has visited shelters with other LUPE members — some of whom have read books to migrant children there — to offer support to asylum seekers released from U.S. detention facilities.

"I put my hand on their shoulder," she says in Spanish. "I tell them, 'You are not alone.'"

Families Lend a Hand to Asylum Seekers

Mother's Day, and the air is still thick and humid in Brownsville, which sits about sixty miles southeast of Edinburg. At the city's bus station — minutes from a U.S. Mexico-border crossing — Sergio Cordova has arrived with food and supplies for immigrants and asylum seekers following their release from U.S. detention.

He is a volunteer with Team Brownsville, a humanitarian organization that provides food and emergency supplies to asylum seekers and migrants on both sides of the border. The network supports Team Brownsville by amplifying its needs and supporting its communication efforts.

As asylum seekers have arrived at the border in recent months, nonprofit organizations, including the ACLU of Texas, have dispatched staff members to talk with them about the conditions there and their treatment by U.S. authorities. U.S. border guards are stationed at the midpoint of the bridge that crosses the river to Brownsville, and these days they turn away asylum seekers looking to be processed at the border and instruct them to wait in Mexico. Advocates say the old protocol of allowing asylum seekers to start the process after they had crossed onto U.S. soil was safer and more compassionate for families fleeing strife, turmoil, and violence.

Inside the Brownsville bus station, passengers are waiting to board buses to distant points. At first, it's hard to determine who might have been released from federal immigration detention or how long a person or family might have been at the bus station. Some newly-released migrants spend days there, patiently waiting to be reunited with relatives or sponsors in the U.S.

Cordova, a local school district employee who grew up in an immigrant family, scans the room looking for people without shoelaces and belts. Immigrants and asylum seekers who were just released from federal detention aren't likely to have either, as U.S. authorities, citing safety reasons, require that they be turned over.

Cordova gives food to an immigrant family who hasn't eaten in days, and then an older woman approaches, saying in Spanish that people nearby need help. A younger woman quickly follows, keeping an eye on Cordova.

The younger woman, who appears to be in her twenties, looks distraught. Her brown hair is frazzled, and a small towel is draped over her shoulder. When she moves again, it's clear she's not alone. An infant, a girl, is sleeping on a metal bench in the waiting area. Cordova rips open a pack of diapers and hands the mother a stack along with a toothbrush. Soon, a bowl of cereal is placed next to the girl, who is covered by a blanket.

The mother pauses and smiles slightly. She tells Cordova she is from Honduras and that it's taken a month for her and her daughter to make their way to the border. Asylum seekers often make the journey by walking. It is Mother's Day.

"Any baby who comes through, we make sure they have formula," Cordova says. "All we give them is all that they'll have."

The stories that Team Brownsville volunteers and city staff hear at the bus station are harrowing and almost always involve tales of the instability, turmoil, and violence that people are fleeing, especially if they are from a Central American country. But people arrive from other countries, too, including Sri Lanka, China, Bangladesh, Kosovo, Cameroon, and Cuba.

Later in the day, Cordova and Team Brownsville volunteers walk across the U.S.-Mexico border with food and supplies for families and individuals waiting to apply for asylum. On the Mexican side of the border, as people eat the donated food, one man talks about the persecution he faced in Cuba because he is gay. He says he is looking forward to living in the United States.

Families Meet to Boost Education

Each week, members of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network gather at a different community-based organization to chart a path to progress in other areas, including housing, jobs, and health.

The day after Mother's Day, the network's education working group is meeting at ARISE Support Center, located in a yellow two-story house in the city of Alamo. The house, which serves as the nonprofit's headquarters, is now a place for community organizing. Rooms are filled with chatter in English and Spanish.

It's fitting the meeting is at ARISE. The organization works with many nearby colonia residents, especially mothers. After getting tired of the conditions in their colonias — bumpy, potholed roads, a lack of streetlights — they became grassroots community leaders with the goal of creating positive change for their families and neighbors.

In minutes, the seats around the table in ARISE's lime green meeting room have been filled. Parents and community leaders are there to discuss ways to improve communication between families and school district officials.

School district board meetings, network members say, are held only in English — but parents in this heavily Latinx region mostly speak Spanish. Many say an English-to-Spanish translation policy at school board meetings would help support all families in their pursuit of a quality education for their children.

Also on the working group's agenda for the day: a discussion of how Mexican-American studies can be introduced into the school curriculum. Butcher paper goes up on the walls. Participants write down and discuss ideas.

"It's democracy because we are not working only for the best of one person," says Ramona Casas, a community organizer who helped start ARISE in 1987. "We're looking out for the best of community members."

A $190 Million Policy Win to Address Flooding in Colonias

Rain has just swept through the Indian Hills colonia, near the city of Mercedes, leaving the unincorporated area moist and muggy.

Near the intersection of Apache Drive and Campacuas Drive stands a sprawling tree. When neighborhood families need to discuss community issues and concerns — say, better roads or water drainage or their kids' safety — this is where they gather.

Lourdes Salinas, a community organizer with Proyecto Azteca, which works on affordable housing in the region's colonias, is standing under the tree with a few mothers. She lives in this colonia.

The women are talking about a major victory scored by the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network in November 2018: a $190 million bond measure to fund nearly forty drainage projects in Hidalgo County colonias.

The county has hundreds of colonias — some community leaders put the number at between eight hundred and a thousand. Tens of thousands of families live in those colonias because they're affordable. But colonias are located on former agricultural land that was developed with an eye to retaining water for crops, says Ann Williams Cass, executive director of Proyecto Azteca.

When it rains here, homes and streets flood. Families talk of water rising as high as their waists. The water not only damages houses, including bedrooms and appliances such as washing machines, but can block streets leading into and out of colonias. Families are unable to leave their homes to buy groceries. Mothers talk of holding young children in their arms to keep them out of the water. Sometimes they slip and fall. Kids tell their parents that even the sound of rain frightens them. Sanitation systems fail during the flooding, contaminating neighborhoods.

In June 2018, the flooding reached worse-than-normal levels. Some have dubbed the event the "Great June Flood."

After that, families affiliated with the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network pressed their calls for better drainage. They went door-to-door and talked with neighbors, documented cases of flooding, attended government meetings, and studied flood maps and data. They then succeeded in putting a November 2018 bond measure on the ballot and spoke with Rio Grande Valley residents, explaining that the slightly higher taxes would benefit everyone.

Responsibility for the bond measure passing is shared by many families and community organizations, including ARISE, LUPE, and Proyecto Azteca, which all work in various colonias — places where their own families members live.

Sarai Montelongo, a mother in the Indian Hills colonia who started an influential Facebook page, used her platform to call attention to bumpy roads and the safety of neighborhood children and raise awareness about the drainage bond.

"We used to be a colonia that people forgot," she says in Spanish, standing under the large sprawling tree and near streets that have been the site of community meetings with elected officials.

While $190 million will not solve all the drainage issues in Hidalgo County, community leaders say it is a policy step in the right direction and that they will continue to work for more improvements.

"It will be a big change," says Salinas.

Rio Grande Valley, USA

Motorists looking to head north from the Rio Grande Valley to San Antonio take State Route 281. The drive takes about four hours and can be monotonous, save for the scrubby flatland greenery and what looks like a large gas station in the middle of the highway.

It's actually a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. Many people have questioned the need for these checkpoints so far from the border. According to the ACLU, however, the federal government can operate the checkpoints if they're within a hundred miles of the United States' "external boundary."

The ACLU also notes that U.S. border authorities are only permitted "a brief and limited inquiry into [the] residency status" of people who travel through the checkpoints. Cass of Proyecto Azteca says the federal checkpoints exist in every direction heading out of the Rio Grande Valley and are also found at airports.

A few days after Mother's Day, two U.S. Border Patrol agents dressed in olive green uniforms stand at a checkpoint lane and wait for motorists. One holds the leash of a K-9 dog.

As two visitors — a white American male and an Asian American male — pull up in an automobile, an agent wearing reflective sunglasses waves the vehicle through. No need to stop and answer a few questions; no need to show identification.

Beyond the checkpoint, however, a man with dark hair is standing in the grass just off the highway. In a matter of minutes, a U.S. Border Patrol van with flashing emergency lights arrives. Soon, two more government vans show up.

Weeks later, news breaks of crowded, unsanitary conditions at federal detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border, of asylum seekers and migrants confined behind chain-link fencing, of migrant children remaining separated from their parents.

Sanchez, the LUPE organizing coordinator, says these types of stories and experiences underscore how important it is for communities to work together for human rights, equity, justice, and the alleviation of poverty.

"All of this reminds us of our humanity," she says. "We bring things in our heart to keep us human. For people here, it's not an option to give up."

Brad Wong is communications manager for the Marguerite Casey Foundation. This post was originally published on the Casey Foundation website.

Quote of the Week

  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."


    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

Subscribe to PhilanTopic

Contributors

Guest Contributors

  • Laura Cronin
  • Derrick Feldmann
  • Thaler Pekar
  • Kathryn Pyle
  • Nick Scott
  • Allison Shirk

Tweets from @PNDBLOG

Follow us »

Filter posts

Select
Select
Select