With COVID-19 cases on the rise, fueled, in part, by partisan-led debates over public health precautions, attendees at last week’s ADVANCE 2020 conference learned Philadelphia-area leaders in the nonprofit sector gave the region high-marks for pandemic response and preparedness.
At the Generocity-sponsored event, held virtually November 12 due to coronavirus restrictions, Editor Sabrina Vourvoulias and Technically Media CEO and Publisher Christopher Wink detailed responses to the Regional ‘Just Recovery’ Self-Assessment, a civic report card of sorts that’s part of the ongoing TRACE project helmed by reporter Lynette Hazelton. Fifty-three of the area’s most influential social services providers and community groups from both the public and private sectors graded the city’s reaction to COVID-19, the economic downturn, and structural racism.
Findings showed that nonprofit influencers identified efforts to stem the immediate health crisis as having a more positive impact overall when compared to the other significant issues facing Philadelphians and their neighbors in 2020. But, during a week where surging coronavirus cases forced local public schools to scrap reopening plans, Vourvoulias told the crowd at ADVANCE that she found herself a bit astonished by the results.
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“I was actually surprised that we got such high marks, in general, as a city, on a number of these, including pandemic response because we have seen, for example, that non-governmental groups from communities, like the Black Doctors Consortium, have formed themselves to get testing within Black communities,” said Vourvoulias when discussing the self-assessment results. “[It’s] something that was not being provided either in a civic [capacity]— by the municipality— nor by nonprofits.”
COVID-19, the crippling job loss and wage stagnation that followed, and enduring racial inequality that’s both born of and long pre-dates the brutal police killings of unarmed Black men such as George Floyd and Walter Wallace Jr. all wove an interconnected theme throughout this year’s ADVANCE 2020 conference. And hovering above it all was the subtle anxiety of an unending presidential election, the rhetoric of which was as divisive as the first shots fired at Fort Sumter.
Both veterans and up-and-comers in the nonprofit sector who attended last week’s conference came prepared to dispel the doom-and-gloom of 2020 that’s now reached mythical proportions. The ADVANCE conference, now in its second year, focused on the themes of “Resilience and Recovery.” With free-flowing conversation among panelists and open dialogue between guests, organizations embraced new opportunities and the tools necessary to drive smarter, more strategic, and more impactful contributions to the common good.
ADVANCE 2020 pushed past the tumult of an overwhelming year, bringing with it a renewed sense of hopefulness on the other side.
As part of PHLanthropy Week in Philadelphia, ADVANCE 2020 pushed past the tumult of an overwhelming year, bringing with it a renewed sense of hopefulness on the other side.
“In case you’re wondering why you’re here, this is a great place to be this morning,” said Vincent Better in the opening moments of ADVANCE 2020. Better is the Vice President of Philadelphia Initiatives for Technically Media and served as the day’s master of ceremonies. “You’re here to make the connections and share the ideas that make smarter impact to advance your career, advance your organizations, and advance your missions.”
Conference organizers took a no-holds-barred approach, putting some of the most pressing issues in public health and policy, philanthropy, and activism on display for attendees, and countering each with a solutions-based panel of experts. ADVANCE 2020 flooded the zone with topical presentations on the state of Philadelphia’s “just recovery,” policy changes to alleviate poverty, the evolution from protest to policy, and more.
The day’s other challenge — the uniquely 2020 problem of “Zoom fatigue” — was kept at arm’s length by a strategic event schedule that pulled conference-goers into small breakout rooms at the tail-end of each session. There, attendees held more in-depth conversations, discussed things on a personal level, and networked with their peers.
There was much to talk about as the day began, starting with an assertion from Sidney Hargro and Katherina Rosqueta that the COVID-19 crisis is far from over.
As Rosqueta noted, the problem continues to prevent Philadelphia from entering a recovery phase, not allowing the region to “build back better.” Hargro and Rosqueta, of the Philanthropy Network and Center for High Impact Philanthropy respectively, hosted the day’s premier session on the progress of the city’s “just recovery,” agreed that even discerning what recovery looks like at this time would be difficult.
“The problem with COVID is… we are not out of the woods,” Rosqueta told attendees. “So that true recovery and ‘build back better’ is still far, far ahead of us, and we’re still learning and trying to learn as fast as we can where we need to provide relief, who desperately needs the relief, and are there opportunities that, even in the midst of this crisis that we can think about systems that are going to help us for the longer term.”
Further complicating the situation in philanthropic circles is the unknown nature of the pandemic. As Hargro explained at ADVANCE 2020, during times of dire straits and disasters, fundraisers see a surge of giving that levels off around the six-month mark. The post-pandemic world is going on nearly one year.
“One of the things that were put in place was to respond with flexibility,” said Hargro, who explained that early on in the COVID lifecycle, less onerous reporting requirements and efforts to dig deeper into resources helped secure much-needed funding for those most in need.
“To what degree are those behaviors permanent, or was it a temporary pivot?” he asked.
Despite the constraints of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, Hargro and Rosqueta both found philanthropic success during the early, murky days of the virus. According to data shared from the Center for High Impact Philanthropy’s dashboard system, designed to determine how well fundraising goals aligned with high-level need, money reached its intended recipients as measured by things such as COVID case rates and the Social Vulnerability Index.
“At the highest level the philanthropic funds did pretty much align,” Rosqueta told attendees at ADVANCE 2020.
With the progression of Thursday’s event, those in the philanthropic space came face-to-face with one of the region’s more difficult truths — Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the nation.
Speaking to attendees during the afternoon’s third panel on policy changes and poverty alleviation, GreenLight Fund’s Omar Woodard, along with Bill Golderer of the United Way, brought a reckoning to the city’s long history of racial bias and the role it plays in fomenting class warfare. According to Woodard, systemic racism that resulted in the early-mid 20th century’s redlining policies has a direct line to the issues facing many Black communities today.
“If you look at the map of what was redlined in 1937 against the current map of poverty and where it is in the city it overlaps,” explained Woodard. He added that Philadelphia’s lack of autonomy concerning the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania continues to drive today’s economic divide. Laws in place prevent city officials from enacting new minimum wage standards, gun control measures, and, until recently, control over the local school district.
“The ability of government to build the muscle it needs to solve problems at scale has suffered as a result of preemption and as a result of the relationship that Philadelphia has with the broader Commonwealth,” continued Woodard.
In response to the problem, Woodard challenged audiences to think big. His solution was to scale up projects through a marriage between civic infrastructure and the nonprofit sector in a private-public partnership that can achieve big goals in mental health and educational attainment. And leading that charge will be the next generation of organizers, said Woodard, who praised young activists for their fearlessness and refusal to accept small wins.
Golderer, with the microphone turned towards himself, held no punches. Poverty is best understood by those living in it, he explained to attendees at the ADVANCE conference, telling everyone in the Zoom arena that those who struggle know more about it than anyone else.
But Golderer had some choice words for apprehensive investors too, some of whom recently sought to do the bare minimum in a time of need.
“I’ve had very painful conversations with folks in the private sector,” said Golderfer. “Folks are like, we really don’t want to give you any money or resources. We’d like to give you volunteers for a day.”
As he explained, those struggling to pay their bills and choosing between rent and groceries don’t want someone to stop by their house to volunteer. In a post-pandemic recession, people need an investment. “We cannot be in the mindset that a reversal of fortune on this topic is going to require anything other than sacrificial investment,” he continued.
In a late-afternoon session at Thursday’s conference, Bobbi Booker, a multimedia journalist from WRTI, and Jamie Bracey-Green of Think & Grow Farms led the audience in a conversation on both the benefits and detriments of technology to communities of color.
Social distancing thrust thousands of school-aged children into a scattershot online education system. Booker and Bracey-Green understood the line technology walks at a time when such efforts now take center-stage.
Bracey-Green told Booker that the current economic model currently in the Fourth Industrial Revolution based on technological advances produces wealth and talent for white America.
“The potential to hurt the African-American and other cultural and linguistic minorities really stems from the fact that we’re just not connected into the space,” said Bracey-Green. “We don’t have the skills. And if you don’t have the skills, you don’t really know how to become an entrepreneur.”
But, contemporary tech companies need to embrace communities of color. According to Bracey-Green, for that to happen, people of color need to control the technology narrative. Data is the price of entry, she told the crowd at ADVANCE 2020, and without maintaining one’s own data, the loss of one’s own narrative is inevitable. It’s a philosophy she’s embraced at Think & Grow Farms, along with a more straightforward idea of adopting less technical advancements.
“We use traditional technologies, things as simple as PVC pipes,” explained Bracey-Green, who also listed off aquaculture, hydroponics technology, nutrient film techniques, very ancient technologies in use at the farm. “It’s going to go back to that. We’re just repurposing.”
In the end, it’s technology that made 2020 both uniquely difficult and surprisingly connected. From the push for a vaccine to end the pandemic to the new applications that might put Philadelphians back to work to the cell phone camera that captured two officers shooting Walter Wallace Jr. 10 times on a West Philly street, technological advances defined both the crises and solutions of the past year.
And when asked during Candace McKinley’s presentation on protest and policy how recent demonstrations against police brutality made them feel towards the future, it was technology that allowed ADVANCE 2020 attendees to express something new that’s been missing for most of the year.
As per the audience Zoom poll, almost 80 percent said they felt “hopeful.”-30-
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