Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s common to hear people express a desire to get “back to normal.” But there’s one major problem: the old “normal” wasn’t always a friendly environment for marginalized communities. The pandemic simultaneously exacerbated and shined a light on inequities these communities have been facing for decades.

As we rebuild, there’s an opportunity to change the systems that make it difficult for many people to access quality education, housing and economic security and support success for all.

Working toward inclusive recovery

“The pandemic pulled back the curtain of what was already happening in our society,” says Kris Hermanns, chief impact officer of Seattle Foundation. “[These inequities] intensified in a very short period of time and, since we were all in our homes in lockdown, we saw and experienced the pandemic—but in very different ways.”

The pandemic made more visible an existing problem: the systems currently in place stack the deck against marginalized communities. This has sometimes resulted in failures to provide the necessary health care, food security, housing and education opportunities that make it possible for these workers and families to be secure, healthy and engaged in public and civic life.

This is what led Seattle Foundation to launch the Fund for Inclusive Recovery, which provides grants to organizations led by Black, Indigenous and people of color, individuals who possess firsthand knowledge of the barriers faced by their communities. This past spring, the Foundation announced that 21 organizations will receive $12.6 million over the next three years. This funding will provide a reliable cash flow to these organizations, while also allowing grantees to determine how to best use the funds.

Hermanns emphasizes the importance of these organizations taking the lead as we work toward inclusive recovery.

“The people closest to these problems know exactly how our systems have hurt their families and communities,” she says. “It’s one thing for me to say, ‘that policy makes sense.’ It’s very different for a parent who, for example, has a child with a disability and is trying to advocate for them in the school system. These parents know very clearly what’s working and not working.”

These lived experiences are crucial to building a more equitable society, Hermanns adds, which is why she says it’s so important for workers, families and advocates to have a seat at the table with business leaders and public decision-makers. This gives them the opportunity to say, “I understand you think this policy makes sense, but let me tell you what the impacts are on workers and families.”

Working for long-term change

Two of the Fund for Inclusive Recovery grantees are OneAmerica, the largest immigrant and refugee advocacy organization in Washington state, and Surge Reproductive Justice, which is dedicated to advancing reproductive justice specifically for Black women, women of color, and queer and transgender people of color.

Although each organization has a niche, there’s a common thread: their work to advance outreach and specific policies will improve access to health care, education, food security and housing for the communities they represent.

For example, OneAmerica is currently working to pass a bill that would permanently provide unemployment benefits for undocumented workers in Washington.

Roxana Norouzi, executive director of OneAmerica, emphasizes that before COVID hit, the structural issue of undocumented workers paying into a system they don’t reap the benefits from has been an ongoing problem and example of inequity.

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“COVID exacerbated that because it was very clear that beloved members of our community would fall through the cracks without this additional support,” says Norouzi. When these individuals lost their jobs due to the pandemic, it impacted every aspect of their lives. The loss of income and lack of any unemployment benefits put food security and housing in jeopardy, and these workers not only lost their insurance, but weren’t eligible for Affordable Care Act coverage due to their undocumented status.

“People of color and low-income folks have been impacted by the ways that our system has been built to push people out,” says Norouzi. “[The pandemic] put an even brighter light on these inequities and sadly the situations of folks who were already struggling to put food on the table and keep their livelihoods were significantly exacerbated.”

The bill championed by OneAmerica and other advocates is meant to provide a long-term solution that will ensure undocumented immigrants are entitled to unemployment benefits for good, as opposed to finding a band-aid solution that would only benefit workers who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

Similarly, Surge Reproductive Justice is working toward creating a future where marginalized communities are granted the same rights as cisgender and heterosexual white residents.

Jackie Vaughn, executive director of Surge Reproductive Justice, describes the organization’s intersectional approach and emphasizes that those who are directly and disproportionately impacted by current policies should be leaders in creating solutions and policies that will benefit everyone.

“We work on health equity, but we also look at different systems of oppression and how different institutions work together to simultaneously oppress, exploit, or underserve our communities,” says Vaughn, noting that the major issues faced by these communities, such as food security and housing, are all interconnected.

“Everything impacts a pregnancy, especially stress. So, if you don’t have access to quality child care, a living wage job, and safe and affordable housing, all those things impact your pregnancy,” she explains. “We like to say that there’s never any single issue; it’s all multi-issue, and it’s all connected because the different institutions all work together.”

But while institutions can perpetuate inequality, organizations like OneAmerica and Surge are also collaborating with one another to push for systemic change.

Vaughn is hopeful that funding for these communities will lead to more BIPOC people having a seat at the table as legislation and strategies are crafted. “We want to see more institutions that are led by those who are from our communities,” she says. “We want institutions that are re-imagining what their work and services look like and doing that with the community members they’re going to serve.”

The Fund for Inclusive Recovery seeks to elevate the work of organizations led by members of these communities and provide them with an opportunity to lead and spearhead policies and solutions by drawing from both their intellect and their experiences. A “new normal” will only succeed if marginalized communities are given a voice and a key role in forming policies and solutions that will benefit everyone in the long term.

Seattle Foundation ignites powerful, rewarding philanthropy to make Greater Seattle a stronger, more vibrant community for all. It envisions shared prosperity, belonging and justice, where all individuals and communities have equitable access and outcomes, regardless of race, place or identity.