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Adapting Project Soapbox in the Time of COVID-19

Written by Justine Hipsky, Program Director of Mikva Challenge DC

A bustling auditorium. Dozens of middle and high school students pouring in the front doors and following the signs down the escalators, some springing with excitement and some whispering to their friends and their teachers about how nervous they’re starting to feel. A lively registration table with pump-up music playing in the background and an assortment of colorful nametags out for the taking. The sound of 120 young people playing musical questions to start the day before launching into a spirited Rock Paper Scissors tournament, building community and shaking off any nerves. This is a typical start of Mikva Challenge DC’s annual Citywide Project Soapbox event, an electrifying in-person celebration of youth expertise.

One of Mikva Challenge DC's in-person Soapbox events, prior to COVID-19

One of Mikva Challenge DC’s in-person Soapbox events, prior to COVID-19

Mikva DC’s work revolves around amplifying youth voice and creating meaningful opportunities for DC’s young people to “learn democracy by doing democracy” through Action Civics, with one of our cornerstone programs being Project Soapbox. Project Soapbox asks young people to, well, get up on their soapboxes! Answering the prompt of “What is the most pressing issue facing your community, and what should be done about it?”, over a thousand middle and high school students from all eight Wards of DC write and deliver a 2-3 minute-long soapbox speech in their classrooms during the fall semester – on topics ranging from housing costs to gun violence to the inequities of public education – with finalists from every classroom attending our annual Citywide event each December.

Throughout a typical fall, we host professional learning community dinners and curriculum trainings for our incredible partner teachers. We visit schools, run guest lessons to kick off the Project Soapbox unit, and coordinate over 75 adult allies to visit these classrooms as civic partners and guest judges.

One of Mikva Challenge DC's in-person Soapbox events, prior to COVID-19

One of Mikva Challenge DC’s in-person Soapbox events, prior to COVID-19

Of course, now, as we look ahead to the start of a new school that seems anything but “typical,” we’ve been asking ourselves the same questions as so many others. How do we continue to support our teachers and students effectively in the lead up to Soapbox and beyond? And how do we meet this moment to not only adapt our existing model but to also innovate and improve?

A huge piece of this innovation has been to adapt our Issues to Action curriculum to accommodate both asynchronous and synchronous remote learning. Mikva’s Issues to Action curriculum guides students through six steps of community problem-solving:

  1. Identity and Community Analysis
  2. Project Soapbox: Issue Identification and Envisioning Change
  3. Research
  4. Power Analysis
  5. Strategizing and Taking Action
  6. Showcase and Reflection.

Not long after social distancing began, we collaborated as a national team to convert key lessons and activities to be student-facing. From media literacy to how to create a community asset map to how to identify a Project Soapbox issue, we’ve compiled an array of resources for this age of physically distanced education. After receiving teacher input, we are continuing to expand our digital activity offerings to cover the span of the Issues to Action curriculum and to create and share fun instructional videos, student-facing PowerPoints, as well as opportunities for students to attend virtual election events this fall.

We are thrilled to continue to provide as many digital resources to our teachers and students as possible to amplify youth voices remotely, but we also know that teaching and learning don’t happen in a bubble. Since we sadly can’t bring our teacher cohort together in person for training and fellowship in the coming months as we normally would, we hosted a highly interactive, three-day Action Civics Institute over Zoom in early August. During this institute, we modeled how to build community and develop empathy in virtual classroom spaces in preparation for Project Soapbox and held two immersive Project Soapbox sessions where teachers got to explore how to facilitate digitally, as well as write and deliver their very own powerful speeches! To close, we asked participating teachers to encapsulate their professional development experience in one word. Some of the responses included:

“Ready!”

“Inspired!”

“Invigorated!”

A recent Mikva Challenge DC's virtual teacher training

A recent Mikva Challenge DC’s virtual teacher training

To build on this momentum and further foster our professional learning community as we move from summer to fall, we have planned out a series of virtual teacher “dinners,” where programming will allow for community-building, best practice-sharing, and a chance to connect with Mikva DC staff.

As we move from summer into an unchartered new school year, we will be continuing to partner with our teachers to find out just what Mikva DC’s 2020 Project Soapbox will look like, sound like, and feel like. However, what we are certain of is that there is no stopping youth voices, and that DC’s young people need a microphone and a platform now more than ever. Project Soapbox speeches will still be delivered by middle and high school students from all eight Wards of the District, and we will be showcasing the finalists through an online platform.

We look forward to continuing to connect young people from across the city, as well as bringing youth voices directly to adult community members and elected officials. We may not have an auditorium this year, but we have this city’s leading community experts and they deserve to be heard.

If you are interested in learning more or serving as a Project Soapbox adult ally to support and celebrate DC youth voice this fall through our Project Soapbox program, please email Mikva Challenge DC’s Issues to Action Program Director, Justine Hipsky, at justine@mikvachallenge.org.

6 Strategies to Secure Foundation Funding

For nonprofits, foundation grants are a highly competitive source of financial support, with the ability to provide significant financial resources. These steady sources of income are more important than ever for smaller organizations, especially due to the cancellations of in-person fundraising events and the increased cost of shifting virtual or remaining in-person. Here, we have a list of 6 strategies for nonprofit professionals to secure sustainable foundation funding to support their mission.

Strengthening Foundation Relationships

Strategy #1. Survey the Foundation Landscape

Educate yourself on new trends of the ever-adjusting world of foundation funding. Given the ongoing interconnected crises of 2020, many foundations are shifting their funding priorities. The three most common themes that we’ve noticed are emergency funding for basic needs (e.g. food, housing, health), more funding for structural equity (e.g. racial justice, systemic injustices, representation), and a focus on collaboration. Examine the work being done by other organizations in your community – where does your nonprofit fit into the wider ecosystem? How do you stand apart? How can you align your work to these emerging focus areas? Are there opportunities for collaboration? When in doubt, ask your program officer about how their priorities are changing.

Strategy #2. Cultivate Personal Relationships

As with all major donors, now is the time to engage foundation staff one-on-one. Personal relationships with program officers are vital during shifting priorities. If these individuals know you, then they’ll be more likely to advocate for you when the time comes to make difficult financial decisions! Share programming updates more frequently and before you make public announcements – this will make them feel like a priority and keep your organization at the top of their mind. Reach out to simply say thank you, demonstrating your appreciation for their past support. Invite them to attend virtual events, which are more convenient to hop onto than in-person events used to be. Even if they don’t join, they’ll feel engaged by the invitation and will be reminded of your ongoing programming.

Strategy #3. Ask for Non-Financial Support

Foundations can provide more than just funds! Take advantage of their expertise, by inquiring about pro bono legal consulting, financial counseling, or general strategic advice. Foundations are also excellent networking hubs, able to connect you with a wide variety of funders, experts, and opportunities you might not be able to find through an internet search. For ongoing grants, consider asking for more administrative flexibility given the unprecedented current circumstances. For example, they might choose to extend or eliminate reporting deadlines, or allow you to use previously restricted funding for general operations purposes.

Strategy #4. Paint a Picture about Your Impact

During the 2008 Great Recession, one major shift was toward larger, but more competitive grants that leaned toward data-supported impact. When writing grants, we recommend taking a Past-Present-Future approach. This is a time of flux, so you need to cover your bases: traditional programming, new programming, and reopening plans. Use concise yet striking statistics to demonstrate your traditional programming’s effectiveness back during “normal” times – but be careful to not linger too long on the past. Then, explain how your organization has been addressing the ongoing crises, either through a scale-up of your workload or a completely novel programming pivot. Tell specific and memorable anecdotes about your clients’ challenges, your virtual programming’s successes, and your team’s innovation and resilience.

Strategy #5. Plan for an Uncertain Future

Even though nobody knows what the world will look like 6 weeks from now, foundations still want to know that you’re planning ahead. In grants, lay out your tentative strategy and budget for the next 6-12 months – even if you’re not sure! Include contingency plans for possible major variables (e.g. the presidential election, resurgences of social distancing mandates, the 2021 spring school semester) and explain how you would respond and adjust accordingly. Explain the financial implications of your new normal. What resources will you need: equipment, skill sets, software? Will your new strategy require fewer staff, new staff, or restructured staff? Be able to explain to foundations specifically how their financial support will drive your action now and in the future.

Strategy #6. Demonstrate Urgency

A foundation needs to know you are making a difference now, not just in the future post-COVID-19. Demonstrating your work’s urgency is always a crucial element to grants, even during non-crisis fundraising. Make the case about why your program needs funding now to address increased needs, emergency needs, and future needs. Explain your nonprofit’s place within the greater, long-term context of your community; you may need funds now to begin making shifts that will ensure that you will still be around to support clients during the post-crisis recovery.

 

 

The Right to Dream

Written by Koube Ngaaje, Executive Director of District Alliance for Safe Housing

Imagine being 18 years old again, about to begin the journey into adulthood. No longer a child, but not yet a grown up, navigating the enormous changes and new demands that come at this major transition point in life. You might be exploring numerous new roles and transitions, leaving behind your adolescent support networks, finding a job, and forming more complex intimate relationships. It can be an exciting time, but unfortunately it is also a time of intense vulnerability.

Transitioning youth (aged 18 to 24 years) are more likely to experience domestic or sexual violence during this phase of their life than at any other time. The 2015 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that almost half of women who experienced violence by an intimate partner first experienced it between 18 and 24 years of age. For marginalized populations, such as LGBTQ youth and those living in poverty, experiencing homelessness, or exiting the foster care system, this period is particularly precarious, and their risk level is even higher.

To compound this issue, transitioning youth often have the least contact with support services. Transition services that are geared specifically to smoothing the progression from adolescent to adult services are few and far between, so these young adults are often pushed into adult services that are ill-prepared to meet their needs, especially as they recover from abuse. In DC, the experience of domestic violence is the most defining characteristic of homelessness or housing instability for this age group.

The District Alliance for Safe Housing (DASH) is the largest provider of safe housing for survivors of domestic and sexual violence in Washington, DC. We believe that all survivors deserve a safe place to call home, including transitioning youth. This is why we have created our newest, innovative program, Right to Dream.

What is Right to Dream?

Right to Dream is a scattered site housing program for transitioning youth (aged 18-24 years) who are survivors of domestic and/or sexual violence and are experiencing housing instability or homelessness. Like all of DASH’s programs, it is survivor-centered, low-barrier, voluntary, and trauma-informed.

DASH 1

Through Right to Dream, 20 transitioning youth survivors will receive wraparound supports and housing assistance for up to two years. They will be partnered with a DASH advocate who will help them find and set up their new home in the DC Metro area, check in with them regularly, and help them develop a plan for their safety. DASH advocates will support participants to identify their long-term goals and help them eliminate the barriers to achievement, helping them gain the skills, knowledge and supports to be confident adults who break the cycle of power and control their abusers forced on them.

Right to Dream participants will have access to educational opportunities, job training and career planning as well as a range of other community-based supports to help them recover from their trauma and become empowered. The goal at the end of the program is for each participant to be economically secure and able to maintain the lease on their own or, if they choose, to move to similar lease, and transition to self-sufficient adulthood.

DASH 2

Why are we doing this?

There are very few long-term transitional housing programs in our area that cater specifically to transitioning youth survivors. DASH saw the immense need for support services for this population and designed the Right to Dream initiative to start filling the gap. Right to Dream will expand the availability of youth-friendly, survivor-focused, long-term transitional housing and services.

What are we hoping to accomplish?

Our Right to Dream program has two primary goals: to ensure short-term and long-term stability for transitioning youth survivors. We want to assist youth survivors to get stable housing right away, and we want to help them find long-term economic and housing stability, meaning a secure job, and a place they can call home. But ultimately, this program is about more than just providing safe housing. For many of these young people, the support DASH provides will help break intergenerational cycles of abuse and enable them to build lives free of violence.

You can learn more about the program on our website or contact us by emailing righttodream@dashdc.org.

DASH 3

 

The Poverty Pandemic

Written by Leah Paley, Executive Director of Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services

What a year it has been. COVID-19 served a devastating blow to those who were already experiencing hunger, homelessness, and fear of an uncertain future. I will personally never forget the shaky voice of the mother who called us from a motel with her four children crying in the background. At the height of the pandemic, she was running low on food and money to keep her family sheltered for another night. This call was just one of hundreds we have received over the past six months.

I asked our frontline staff to reflect on what things have been like at Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services (LARS) since the start of the pandemic. This is what our Emergency Services Manager, Alli Milner, shared with me:

What has work and/or life in general been like for you over the past few months since the pandemic started?

“During the pandemic it seems like even the simplest task has become complicated. Before, we could easily unlock our doors and allow clients to come in and sit down. We could easily hand them clipboards with their paperwork and collect their information. Now, our doors are locked and we have to wear masks and gloves. We try to avoid handing things like pens and clipboards to clients, and when we do, they are sanitized after use.”

What feelings have you had?

“Some days, I feel like we go non-stop. Right now, there are so many people who need support and it can get overwhelming. But, it has been great to see how people in the community are stepping up and supporting one another.”

What feelings or worries have your clients expressed?

“Clients are expressing a lot of concern for the future. Many of our clients have lost employment or they have been furloughed. There are also concerns for safety and some feel that by leaving their home to get help they are putting their health at risk.”

Although Maryland’s infection rate is declining, thousands of residents across Prince George’s County are terrified of losing their housing now that the moratorium on evictions has been lifted. The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) reported that “Before the pandemic struck, a quarter of all renters – and 71 percent of extremely low-income renters – were paying over half their incomes for housing, too often leaving them one emergency away from eviction. Now we’re seeing millions of people all have those emergencies at once.”

Across Laurel’s four zip codes, the average housing wage (the hourly wage one must earn to afford a modest two-bedroom rental home without spending more than 30% of their income on rent) is $34.80, or $72,400 per year. This is more than three times the earnings of a minimum wage worker. A single parent working as a grocery store cashier would need to work over 120 hours PER WEEK just to afford basic shelter for their family. Essential workers in food, transportation, health, and other service industries are the backbone of our community, and this pandemic has made that even clearer. Yet these vital members of our community are up against impossible odds. The numbers simply don’t add up.

Despite the disheartening state of the world right now, we have also witnessed incredible acts of kindness in our community, like City of Laurel employees who helped us quickly transport food to that family in the motel, along with many of our senior and immuno-compromised clients. Or the young man who collected over 200 bags of toiletries for LARS in lieu of birthday gifts. And LARS’ Permanent Supportive Housing participant who called us to meet him at Giant to collect a cart full of groceries he had just purchased for our food pantry. Or LARS’ Self-Sufficiency Program participant who received a bonus at work and donated it to LARS to pass on to someone in greater need. Often, we see that those who have the least give the most. Because they know what it’s like to go without their basic needs met, and the difference it makes when that worry is lifted.

LARS Donation

 

 

Kindness, gratitude, and hope have propelled our organization forward through this dark time. Let us make this collective experience a lesson on the importance of caring for all members of our society in good times and in bad.

For more information on LARS and how to get involved, visit www.laureladvocacy.org.