Before the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down, cities in Connecticut and across the country were coming back, but unevenly. Typically, downtowns were prospering, but some impoverished neighborhoods, usually home to communities of color, still struggled.
The pandemic, as has been widely reported, made things worse, exposing and aggravating racial disparities in employment and wealth, health care, housing and criminal justice. The challenges of responding to this urgent plight were described in a 12-part CT Mirror series in 2020.
Now, the federal government has made a $1.9 trillion commitment to COVID-19 relief and economic recovery. In the state, many government, nonprofit and private entities are stepping up.
This includes two that aren’t much in the public eye: the Boston Fed, and the state’s community foundations.
The Fed has nurtured a program to help low-income persons in five municipalities get training and jobs. The larger foundations have made record-setting commitments of funds to meet basic needs and promote inclusive economic recovery.
“The community needs us to spend at historically unprecedented levels, because there has been so much suffering and grief from COVID,” said William W. “Will” Ginsberg, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. “We would not be spending this extra money without having these extraordinary needs.” [Editor’s note: The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and other foundations are among those who support the work of The Connecticut Mirror].
In addition to the spending, the state’s three largest foundations are positioning themselves to have a stronger voice in state policy.
Each of the dozen regional Federal Reserve banks has a community development arm, and part of the Fed’s mandate is to encourage full employment. The Boston Fed is on the case. In 2009, it released a study that examined why some mid-sized, post-industrial cities were doing well and some were not.
The two most important factors in successful communities, the study concluded, were leadership and collaboration. Putting this and other research to work, the Fed developed a grant program called the Working Cities Challenge, funded by local donors, to help low- and moderate-income residents find jobs and get engaged in their communities.
The program started in Massachusetts and was exported to Connecticut in 2018, with programs in Hartford, East Hartford, Middletown, Waterbury and Danbury. Communities designed their own programs and have different emphases. Hartford’s is focused on young adults, Middletown’s on single parents, Danbury’s on its immigrant community and Waterbury’s on a specific neighborhood.
East Hartford’s program is called East Hartford CONNects and is open to the whole town. It has two full-time and one part-time employees. It is located in the Silver Lane School, a neighborhood school to which — as is no longer common — all children walk.
It was introduced in the fall of 2018 and got up to speed in 2019, said director Amy Peltier. It has three goals: “educate, employ, engage.”
The program’s major offerings include a Professional Skills Academy in conjunction with Goodwin University, a four-week “career readiness boot camp” that covers everything from resume preparation to computer skills and financial literacy. Clients can also take advantage of one-on-one career counseling, in English or Spanish, and assistance with child care and transportation, which often are barriers to work.
EH CONNects also offers individual training or career day programs through an array of other partners including the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, the Capital Workforce Partners, Stanley Black & Decker, Pratt & Whitney, Liberty Bank, the East Hartford public library and the town’s adult education program.
EH CONNects also runs the town’s summer youth employment program, and, pre-COVID, hosted community gatherings and other activities such as a resident advisory council to encourage civic engagement.
The program “is my second home,” said Veronica Rosario, who took the skills training and then landed a job with the school system.
In the past year, with programs somewhat curtailed by the pandemic, CONNects still managed to get 25 people into jobs, delivered career coaching to 55, gave complete financial literacy workshops to 95 people and connected more than 1,000 residents to services that meet the basic needs of food, clothing, health support and shelter.
All of the Working Cities programs began with three years of funding and now need support to keep moving. Peltier said she secured commitments for a fourth year. One of her backers, at the start of the program and now, is the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.
The state has 21 community foundations, some small with no full-time staff, up to the Hartford Foundation, the state’s largest, with a staff of almost 60. It is usually ranked among the largest 25 community foundations in the country.
When the pandemic struck, many foundations moved quickly, before the first wave of federal assistance arrived.
“We have a long history of working with nonprofits and community leaders, relationship building that has brought us very close in to what was going on with people in the communities,” said Juanita James, president and CEO of Norwalk-based Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, the state’s third largest behind Hartford and New Haven.
James said her foundation immediately launched a COVID contingency fund and was getting money out the door within two weeks of getting it in: “Everybody sprang into action.” The money went for an array of basic needs such as food, housing, child care and medical supplies, housing, and to “get people out of very crowded homeless shelters.”
Long-term commitments followed. The Hartford Foundation awarded more than $52.7 million in grants to nonprofit agencies in its 29-town region in 2020, a record amount, said President and CEO Jay Williams.
“It is a reflection of the sense of urgency and generosity of our donors,” he said. Williams said this round of grant making has been made with eye toward communities of color that have been disproportionally impacted by the pandemic. “We have been very intentional, viewing grant-making through the lens of inclusivity.”
He said one strategy in helping urban communities is to “reintroduce ourselves to communities of faith — all faiths,” because of their strong connections to the community.
The New Haven foundation announced a three-year, $26 million commitment to address COVID relief and racial equity. The effort, called Stepping Forward, will increase regular spending by $15 million in 2021-23 and create three new permanent endowments to advance basic needs, racial equity and civic engagement, said Ginsberg. He said the new initiative is being funded through donor contributions and through an unprecedented supplemental extraction from the foundation’s endowments that will collateralize a 10-year, $11.5 million bank loan.
“We have never done anything on this scale in our 93-year history, but hopefully the commitment is significant enough to make a difference,” said Ginsberg.
To battle racial inequity and support inclusive growth, the large foundations will support Black-led organizations and promote Black leadership and also support workforce training and minority and female entrepreneurs.
With the influx of both federal dollars and foundation funds, Williams thinks there is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to attack racism. One way the large foundations plan to do this is by working together.
As Ginsberg explained, the 2015 publication of “ Our Kids — The American Dream in Crisis” by Harvard social scientist Robert D. Putnam, which described how difficult it had become for poor children to move up the social and financial ladder, galvanized some 45 community foundations across the country to find ways to increase social mobility for children.
This group, formed in 2016 as the Community Foundation Opportunity Network, began to share ideas and practices. But when the foundations saw communities of color being hit harder by the pandemic, and after the killing of George Floyd last May, they realized they needed to focus on racism to close the equality gap.
So the network formed a smaller group of nine foundations to battle racism. Their initial thrust, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, is to build power and leadership among marginalized people and increase their incomes and wealth.
Some members of this ennead are big city foundations, such as Cleveland’s and Seattle’s. Connecticut’s three largest foundations joined as one entity, to support and influence state policy in issues around inclusivity. “It seemed natural to pool knowledge and work together,” said James.
The foundations aren’t starting from scratch. Williams sits on the governor’s workforce council. The Hartford foundation is registered as an organizational lobbyist and works with lawmakers on a variety of policy issues. Staffers from other foundations sometimes testify at the Capitol.
This new partnership brings it up a notch or two. Notably, the three foundations plan to hire a staff person to coordinate their efforts around education, housing, job training and other issues connected with dismantling racism and promoting underserved communities.
Karla Fortunato, president of the nonprofit Connecticut Council for Philanthropy, said community foundations can play “a really important role … in closing the opportunity gap.”
Obviously, their checkbooks are important. With wide donor bases, the foundations can raise money quickly. Fortunato said the 14 community foundations that are members of her organization dispersed more than $20 million in pandemic relief funds from April to August of 2020.
But, she said, it’s not just the money.
The foundations are connected both to the nonprofits working in the neighborhoods and business leaders and others in their donor bases, “the grassroots and the grass tops,” so can connect one to the other, she said.
Williams agrees. Because the foundations know their communities, he said they are “uniquely positioned” to help steward the $1.56 billion in American Recovery Act funds coming to Connecticut cities and towns. He will sit on a Connecticut Conference of Municipalities advisory committee that will make recommendations to towns on how to best use the funds.
Fortunato said foundations have the advantage of not having to run for office or meet quarterly profit targets. This means they are free to take risks and commit to long-term solutions. The large foundations cover multiple towns so can encourage regional action, something of a rarity in Connecticut. Finally, they know what works, and they have institutional memories.
“They remember the lessons learned over different political administrations,” said Fortunato. This makes them excellent partners with state, because when the state proposes a program, the foundations “remember how the last 10 programs went.”