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Community Support in a Time of Crisis

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May 1, 2020 – Queens, NEW YORK

By Debra-Ellen Glickstein, Executive Director of NYC Kids RISE

It feels like our world has been turned upside down. The COVID-19 emergency has left no school, neighborhood, or family untouched. Yet, while this is a universal crisis, its effects have not been felt evenly–with certain neighborhoods, including those in Western Queens, among the hardest hit. Indeed, low-income communities, communities of color, and immigrant communities are bearing the brunt of both the public health crisis and the economic fallout: a treacherous combination of disproportionately high unemployment and furloughs, lack of safety protections for essential workers, overcrowded living conditions, child care challenges, and dwindling disposable income to afford putting food on the table while attempting to care for, or bury, their loved ones. Tragically, these are the same families and communities that are least likely to benefit from the federal stimulus programs passed to date.

It is now all but certain that these compounding crises will only widen existing income and wealth gaps in our city and further fray families’ dwindling safety nets. In a world where 40% of Americans did not have $400 in emergency savings before this current crisis–where incomes were already stagnant for most working families, and the racial wealth gap continued to grow–the challenges of asset poverty, financial instability, and unequal economic mobility will emerge as even more daunting obstacles when this crisis ends.

At the same time, amid unprecedented challenges, we have seen the importance and power of communities coming together to support one another. That community support looks like LIC Relief, a neighborhood coalition working together to support local businesses and provide free meals for members of our community. It looks like P.S. 112 Principal Witkes’s heartfelt video message to his students and families and the P.S. 127 team’s “127 Strong” video for their school community. It looks like Make the Road New York’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund providing critical support to immigrant families and low-income workers. It looks like VOICE Charter School Principal Headley buying bulk food for his students even before school buildings closed; Farine Baking Company, a local business in Jackson Heights, providing free food items; and school staff going to work every day to make sure students and families have access to three meals a day.

Community support for every child and family’s economic success is at the heart of the vision for the Save for College Program. As we approach the end of the Program’s three-year pilot phase, this Save for College Community now includes more than 10,000 elementary school families, 39 elementary schools, and numerous community organizations and partners across one of the most diverse school districts in the country. By bringing these partners together to build financial assets and promote college and career expectations for every child at every school across each school and neighborhood, the Save for College Program is meant to strengthen the social fabric and economic connections within communities. These kinds of connections–these networks of mutual support–form the foundation of neighborhood resiliency and recovery in times of crisis like the one we face now.

Now, in this moment of crisis, we are doing what we can to make sure the Save for College Program can be a resource for our communities–through both the immediate emergency and its aftermath.

How We’re Responding Now

In the short term, NYC Kids RISE has shifted our day-to-day activities to provide immediate support to the families and communities with whom we have partnered in School District 30. Based on feedback from our partners, and building upon our relationships and capabilities as a team, we launched the following initiatives in the past weeks:

Emergency Cash Relief: Leveraging the Save for College Program’s network of partners across School District 30’s communities, NYC Kids RISE has so far distributed nearly $225,000 in emergency cash support to 1,500 kindergarten, first-grade, and second-grade families in the Save for College Program, in partnership with the Gray Foundation and Robin Hood. The $150 cash disaster relief gift cards, provided at no additional cost by Amalgamated Bank and FIS, can be used for nearly any expense including food, utilities, cleaning supplies, or internet access to facilitate remote learning. While families across all parts of District 30 had the opportunity to receive this card, we were able, with Robin Hood’s support, to target an additional set of cards to families at 11 schools in Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst, and Corona–neighborhoods that are at the “epicenter of the epicenter” of this crisis. 

We are grateful to the Gray Foundation, Robin Hood, Amalgamated Bank, and FIS for making this emergency cash relief available to our families, and we are continuing to work to identify additional financial support for our community in the weeks and months to come. Thank you also to our elementary school partners across the School District who have worked to make sure families were aware of this opportunity. More information about these gift cards can be found in our press release.

Remote Learning Support: The quick transition to remote learning has posed challenges for many families, particularly those who are less computer savvy, lack access to the internet at home, or face other technological or language barriers. Since the day that remote learning began last month in NYC schools, in coordination with school principals and the School District, our team has been providing one-on-one phone support–in more than seven languages–to help families set up and familiarize themselves with Google Classroom and other remote learning tools. Our experience supporting District 30’s diverse families to activate their NYC Scholarship Accounts and navigate their college savings options online turned out to be highly transferable to this moment, in which families are being asked to navigate new technology platforms in ways that many were not equipped to do before.

Community Town Hall Series: Earlier this month, NYC Kids RISE launched a series of biweekly Community Town Halls on Thursday evenings for parents in the Save for College Program and the surrounding community. Through these virtual events, streamed on Facebook LIVE, we are bringing together families and other experts from throughout the community on important topics that are top of mind at this time, including remote learning, financial resources, immigration, housing and workers rights, and more. In addition to providing practical information from experts in these fields, these town halls are also a way to highlight and celebrate the expertise of every family doing their best to cope with new challenges. With our in-person community events on pause for now, we hope families find value in this opportunity to come together online to share best practices, ask questions, and connect with one another. You can view a recording of our first Town Hall, “Supporting Your Student – and Yourself – through Remote Learning,” here on Facebook.

Throughout this period, we have shared up-to-date resources available across the community and helped connect families to these resources. We are also continuing to support families to activate their NYC Scholarship Accounts and increase their college and career savings to the extent it makes sense for their financial circumstances at this time. We remain invested for the long term in students’ futures, even as we are doing what we can to respond to immediate needs.

Where We Go from Here

We are in the midst of profound distress and uncertainty for our community and our country. What seems certain, though, is that our children’s long-term economic trajectories face serious threats from the COVID-19 crisis and the prolonged economic recession that may follow. It is incumbent upon all of us who are committed to NYC students’ success to not only confront the brutal inequities laid bare by this virus, but then to rebuild our city to make it more equitable and resilient in the future. 

First, we know that we need to invest more deeply and boldly in the financial security of every family, particularly those who are already most economically vulnerable. We need to continue to find ways to progressively drive assets toward communities of color and immigrant communities–including those who are undocumented–to both help provide a cushion in times of crisis and equip these families to succeed in the long term. To make sure all of our kids continue to have options for their future, despite this current crisis.

We also know that we need to continue to invest in the strength of neighborhoods. A child’s and family’s long-term educational and economic trajectory is determined in large part by the extent to which their neighborhood is a place of opportunity. During this crisis, we have witnessed the importance of strong, cohesive neighborhoods more clearly than ever: we are staying home, or close to home, as much as possible, looking out for and checking in on our neighbors, shopping at our local grocery stores, and collaborating around mutual aid projects. We have become, in other words, even more profoundly reliant on the resources, social connections, and infrastructure in our immediate vicinity to keep us fed, safe, and healthy. Moving forward, initiatives that bring neighborhoods together to build financial resources and resiliency for every family can be a powerful component of the response to this crisis. Indeed, this crisis and its consequences will require government, businesses, schools, and community members to come together to invest in our neighborhoods in new and unprecedented ways. 

In the coming weeks and months, we will continue to respond, evolve, and deepen our work to make sure we are doing our part to prevent this virus from further widening the gaps in our communities and further limiting the opportunities for our children.

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