Upswell Pop-Up #1: The Zoom Where It Happened
// By Nabil Abdulkadir
/ By Debra Rainey /
If you were among the 500 changemakers who joined us “in the Zoom where it happened” for our first Upswell Pop-Up, you know it was a bit different from other Zoom gatherings you may have experienced. Pop-Up #1 fed our souls with uplifting kernels of thought from national and community changemakers – connecting and inspiring us to think differently and creatively about new ways to pursue our missions and support our communities during this time of challenge.
Pop-Up #1 began with an introduction and reflections – first by Independent Sector President and CEO Dan Cardinali, who reminded us about Independent Sector’s unique role to care for the health of all of civil society. He spoke of our ongoing walk with amazing sector leaders to develop a collective response to the pandemic and its impact, including powerful and innovative efforts underway to ensure that we don’t just recover, but recover fully. These leaders who share our walk inspire us with their belief that the pandemic’s impact can be a creative force for sector renewal.
Dan then introduced David Brooks – New York Times columnist and chairman of The Aspen Institute’s Weave: The Social Fabric Project, a cultural movement of “weavers” across the country who are working to renew America’s social fabric, end loneliness and isolation, and create more inclusive communities. He observed that the nations responding best to this crisis are those with strong social trust and shared values. Noting that civil society is always at the forefront of shifting our country in positive new directions, he encouraged us all to seize this moment to lead the kind of change in our nation that we’ve all dreamed of seeing.
The Opportunity to Choose
Pop-Up attendees then had the choice of joining a conversation about faith-based nonprofits in the public square during COVID-19, or one that explored the role of our community builders in helping to strengthen us and the communities we serve – rather than break us.
For many Americans, communities of faith are the stabilizing force for good in times of crisis. But the Faith-Based Nonprofits in the Public Square During COVID-19 conversation served to highlight that the pandemic has made the familiar practice of coming together for support nearly impossible. As a result, faith-based organizations and congregations that are often closest to those in need – like under-resourced individuals and families, especially in communities of color – are themselves struggling to survive, let alone serve.
So, like other organizations across the charitable sector, faith-based organizations have had to get creative – not only to continue their missions, but also to expand their community support as the crisis has deepened. During this discussion, four leaders of faith discussed their unique experiences in managing operational challenges. And while their specific circumstances – and faiths – might differ, all four have joined together in a Sacred Sector initiative to promote public justice and service to the community – two areas that have suddenly become even more critical amidst the pandemic.
Happening on a parallel track, There’s No Better Time to Weave Community explored how one community weaver, the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh, is weathering the pandemic, as this crisis shines a national X-ray on our disconnected and unequal culture, including the millions of kids who are going hungry.
Kevin Bolding, president and CEO of YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh, presented a snapshot of what his organization is experiencing, noting that while Pittsburgh is a very close-knit, tight community where generations live within blocks of each other, with a “business side that is strong,” the pandemic casts a bright light on the fact that there is “an African-American community that feels left behind and uninvested in.” He says it’s the job of weavers to help ensure that those parts of our community are not left out during this time when help is needed most.
Kevin acknowledged the unprecedented challenges presented by the pandemic, saying he never imagined “we’d be at a point where we’re not allowed to earn revenue to sustain.” He also pointed to the challenge of YMCA facilities’ operational model, and whether they’ll be able to offer and safely manage activities like swimming classes and summer camps.
Calling out the “challenge of the unknown” as the biggest challenge they face, he says if anything, the pandemic has “compelled people to see the important work that organizations like the Y have been doing all along – seeing and meeting community needs.”
Even More Choices
After a quick five-minute break to catch our breath, grab a cup of coffee – or whatever else was needed — participants again had choices to make. One discussion checked in with a Y again, this time with the YMCA of Metro Chicago – and how a fortuitous decision to quickly and creatively pivot as a result of the crisis helped them support the most vulnerable members of their community. Attendees also could participate in two Spark Talks – shorter conversations with two Pittsburgh-based community organizations who shared how they’re adapting to the impact of the pandemic to continue to serve their communities.
As explained in Pivoting the Y’s Services in a Pandemic, while it might seem obvious, it bears repeating: the pandemic is not affecting us equally. In Chicago, current data show that the COVID-19 death rate is six times higher for black communities than white ones. And that’s on top of the systemic health disparities and violence that Chicago’s most vulnerable communities faced before the coronavirus was even a factor. So, when the YMCA of Metro Chicago realized that it would need to close its facilities, abandoning its commitment to the community simply wasn’t an option. Within hours of closing its doors, the Y entered into conversations with the City of Chicago about transforming empty gyms into safe and socially distant shelters. They also rapidly developed virtual programming for early childhood education and set up distribution networks for critical supplies like face masks and diapers.
All of this was done as the Y’s member revenue suddenly stopped flowing and the Metro Chicago organization had to furlough about 2,000 employees – a staggering 95% of its workforce.
As the Y’s Dick Malone and Denise Lam explained, their initial response was exactly that: an initial response. Now they are flexing the same innovative muscles to figure out how to offer the city’s youth a meaningful summer experience as the traditional summer camp program is upended.
And what of the future? There’s a lot of uncertainty, sure, but maybe a silver lining, too. The crisis is an opportunity to learn. With a measured level of optimism about what comes next, Malone shared, “We now have a much better idea of how you have to be more prepared.”
During the Spark Talk, A Purposeful Practice in a Pandemic, LaKeisha Wolf, executive director of Ujamaa Collective, shared how pressure can serve us in purpose and passion, and how she’s using this time to continue to align her organization’s practices with a long-standing East African principle: Ujamaa – cooperative economics.
“Blacks have been living in pandemic conditions before COVID-19,” she explained. Her organization follows the Ujamaa principle that promotes shared values and shared wealth, offering spaces, opportunities, networks, education, and support for Africana women in Pittsburgh, supporting and promoting the work of craft and artisan workers, and developing entrepreneurial and leadership skills in women and young people. Their site features handmade crafts and goods produced by budding entrepreneurs, including jewelry, bracelets, and clothing. Some of the craft workers are also making masks to serve as protection during the crisis.
To help sustain their work during this difficult time, Ujamaa Collective is continuing to develop a culture of shared work and supporting community wellness, and reaching out to engage artists in other creative genres, as well as other organizations who connect with and work directly with other people.
The second Spark Talk, The EAT Initiative’s Response to COVID-19: The Third Meal Project, featured Chef Claudy Pierre, founder of The EAT Initiative, who discussed their focus on health and wellness. Their program provides education about and connects vulnerable populations to fresh and affordable food, as well as “knife skills to life skills” training, demonstrations, and tutorials, among other things, to help people live and eat better.
Rising to the challenge presented by COVID-19, his organization is creating “third meals” — hot meals during the hours of 3:00-7:00 pm for children who no longer receive the meals provided by schools because of coronavirus closures. He also is working to transform their revenue model with the existing inventory of food banks and other organizations to connect resources with community needs, seeing EAT Initiative as “connective tissue.”
He reminded everyone about the importance of supporting local businesses during this time, and the necessary continued diligence of restaurants and patrons to adhere to strict COVID guidelines for cleanliness and protective gear.
Participants in our first Upswell Pop-Up not only heard from community- and faith-based leaders about their struggles to survive and sustain organizationally, but also how they continue to persevere to meet community needs — all while holding hope that lessons learned can help build resilience and enable their organizations to more effectively meet the needs of communities once we emerge on the other side.
Whether community-based or faith-based, we know that our “weavers” – those who “support, tell the stories, and spread the values of the sector,” as David Brooks said – sorely need to be lifted up as never before. Our first Upswell Pop-Up presenters provided flashes of inspiration to help light our way through this journey, and underscored our imperative to continue to strengthen the social trust and shared values that are the underpinnings of our sector and country, and keys to our recovery.