I am amazed, in awe, and inspired by the way many nonprofit leaders – many of whom are women – are leading their organizations through the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19. So much so, that I’ve decided to do a special series about Badass Nonprofit and Small Business Executive Women who are living in the trenches, working to keep their nonprofit running, and doing critical work to continue to serve individuals and families during this crisis. I’m curious about their work and the people they’re serving, their biggest concerns, and how they are taking care of themselves and those around them. So I asked!
Dana L. Harrison, Interim Executive Director, Immigrant Welcome Center
Dana has been a leader and advocate in social justice work for nearly 20 years, focusing on un/underemployed women, marginalized youth, ex-offenders, and other uniquely challenged populations. Her earliest experience with immigration matters dates back to the 1980s when her family, through their church in Kentucky, provided significant support to a refugee family who fled Afghanistan. Her husband became a naturalized U.S. citizen in November 2017, and even with the resources they had at their disposal, she remembers how stressful, complicated, and challenging the process was. She’s working to change that – and more – for the 95,000+ immigrants living in our community.
Q. Who are you serving and how are you serving them during this crisis?
A. At the Immigrant Welcome Center, our work is focused on the core fact that immigrants (and indeed, all of us) will not access services they do not know about or do not trust. For immigrants, there are numerous barriers to being informed and to trusting various resources. These barriers include language differences, lived experiences, legal status, and more. It’s our job to navigate these points to help ensure that the 10 percent of our community who are immigrants – that’s 95,000 people, plus their children –have vital information and resources. Simultaneously, we are building the capacity of 100+ entities who support immigrants to do their work even better through weekly resource sharing and education on critical topics like securing healthcare as an uninsured immigrant. Last but not least, our assistance with pursuit of citizenship has shifted to remote approaches. We are continuing to support 30+ providers of English language instruction so that their vital work continues through this time of social distancing.
Q. Have you added, changed, or deleted any services because of COVID-19?
A. We have increased our services funneling information into immigrant communities and supporting agencies who assist immigrants. This has been driven by the urgency that COVID-19 created. We now have a dedicated Help Line (1-866-711-1342) where we can communicate with callers in 200+ languages; we convene weekly Partner Power calls with agencies working with immigrants across the community and interested stakeholders; and soon we will hire some of our volunteer Natural Helpers temporarily to conduct targeted outreach in their respective cultural communities.
We also quickly mobilized public advocacy efforts in order to raise the visibility of immigrants with our elected officials and other community leaders. This critical work helps to ensure that the experiences of local immigrants are being considered as policies and funding decisions are being made.
Q. What are your biggest concerns right now?
A. Indicators tell us that the COVID-19 crisis has only just begun, so my concerns center on our readiness as a community to rally and assist our neighbors for the next 12-18 months. I worry about homelessness that immigrants (and those native to the U.S.) may face when their jobs are eliminated, and they cannot afford rent. I also have concerns about our readiness as a community to continue the increased food access. We’ve done an amazing job rallying in this area over the past two months, but can we continue?
Another major concern is around the accessibility of help to immigrants. There are many resources for immigrants in our community, regardless of their status. However, the communication about these resources is often exclusively in English and not clear that ALL are welcome, so immigrants do not access the resources available to them. All that being said, I am heartened by the conversations we’ve had with community leaders and the changes we are already seeing around language access, eliminating unnecessary requirements for ID, and more that enable us to help our immigrant neighbors. This is a community of 95,000+ who brings so much to us all in terms of being caretakers, restaurant and hotel workers, taxpayers, and more. We all need help during this time and are worthy of that.
Q. How are you taking care of yourself, your staff, and your clients?
A. We are reaching out to our clients through Wellness Checks in which we are listening closely to how they’re doing and offering advice and resources. When we come across challenges where we don’t have solid resources, like mental health care for immigrants, we dig to find the resources or partner with others to make them available. We increased our staff by 50 percent in order to support the advanced outreach as well as the very challenging work of keeping up with and organizing information about resources county-wide.
For the first 8 weeks at home, our team started each day with a 30-45 minute Zoom call to discuss not only work-related topics, but also more fun/team building/support conversations. The staff has really grown as a team during this time, which is remarkable to see. A lot of the care for staff is giving space and encouraging people to be honest with themselves and their supervisor about what they need: more connection with others on the team? Less? Less meetings? More clarity on priorities? Modified goals? Time off? I honestly think listening and responding to someone goes a long way in caring for them.
My self-care happens with daily walks, weekend naps, enjoying fun take-out dinners with my husband, long bedtime conversations with my kids, and phone calls with close friends where no attitudes are taboo.
Q. What is your biggest need right now and how can people support your organization?
A. Before talking about the Immigrant Welcome Center, I’ll talk about our community. There is tremendous power in all of us taking time to look at experiences through the eyes of immigrants. If you were new to the city and didn’t speak English, how would you get accurate, local information about COVID-19? Where would you turn for healthcare? How might you interpret an order to “stay at home?” When we step back and look at experiences we are having through the lens of an immigrant, huge challenges become apparent. Making critical information multilingual – or pressing others to do so – has tremendous power. We work very closely with LUNA Language Services and encourage anyone thinking about expanding language access to talk with them.
Like all organizations, our funding is so important right now. Our signature event, Live Local Think Global, usually happens in the fall, but has now been postponed until Spring 2021, which is a $95,000 hit for us. We also must consider that some contributions we typically receive may be decreased due to the economic impact of this crisis, which makes the latter half of the year even more questionable. Contributions right now are essential for us to maintain the work we are doing in the community at this heightened level through the fall and the anticipated second surge of illness.
Q. What are you reading, watching, listening to, or doing to get through this?
A. As much as possible, I try not to listen to anything. I love silence and will joke about working late into the night “drunk on silence” because I find it so cathartic and energizing. I deliberately limit my news consumption because there’s too much noise that’s not really helpful.