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When the COVID-19 Crisis Hit, Here’s How FUSE Fellows Moved Into High Gear

Across the country, as the COVID-19 crisis continues to take its toll on communities, FUSE fellows are providing critical support to government agencies in whatever capacity is needed.

Many of our fellows and alumni have been mobilized to help with both the public health crisis and its economic fallout. Here are just a few of their stories.

Relief to the Hardest Hit Small Businesses

Working with the Business Development Department in Oakland, California, FUSE executive fellow Marsha Murrington is helping with the city’s economic resilience response to COVID-19, ensuring that small businesses run by underserved constituents remain solvent and supporting laid-off workers. She supported the city’s efforts to mobilize city staff to connect with and survey Oakland businesses to determine the pandemic’s impact on their operations, including loss of revenue and employee layoffs, and to provide information about emergency resources to those who need it. Marsha conducted her outreach campaign through all available channels — social media, emails, and personal calls to business owners — and compiled responses in a database to streamline future notifications and help with further analysis. Her team is also working to strategize about what’s needed to help businesses reopen. Beyond supporting small businesses, Marsha has also helped the Chief Resilience Officer identify nonprofits eligible for grants and, in turn, quickly disperse those funds, which resulted in the purchasing of equipment to set up eight COVID-19 testing sites throughout the city. She’s also helping identify nonprofits that can disperse funds to community organizations serving vulnerable populations, such as people experiencing homelessness, to help ensure that these people are being served and protected from exposure to the virus.

Responsive Government Services

In Stockton, California, FUSE alum Ann Rogan has become a key strategic advisor to Mayor Michael Tubbs in addressing a range of economic development issues — driving green economy opportunities, Opportunity Zones, and capitalizing on innovative tech industry collaborations. In the past several weeks, responding to the COVID-19 crisis, Ann has supported a cross-sector, citizen-led coalition in creating a human-centered responsive website to help residents navigate city and nonprofit resources for questions about food, loss of income, and small business support. This includes sharing critical resources and data from school districts, community foundations, and chambers of commerce, among others. She’s also building a rapid response operations team to assist the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Health and Nutrition Aid to Isolated Seniors

Most low-income seniors are in self-isolation, and the normal activity routines they’re accustomed to — going to the grocery store, attending senior center activities, and such — have been suspended. The health ramifications of inactivity are dire for seniors, so FUSE executive fellow Kishani De Silva, who works with the Los Angeles County Development Authority, connected with Blue Marble Health to give seniors in public housing free access to its app, which has action plans, exercise routines, and education modules geared to keep them active while staying safe indoors. To help seniors who don’t have cell phones, Kishani also reached out to T-Mobile, which donated 200 phones. As a volunteer, Kishani is also helping to get L.A.’s unhoused population to available beds in hotels and motels.

Shelter for the Unhoused

FUSE alum Cynthia Shields, whose project focused on building a workforce pipeline for Pittsburgh, now oversees housing and homelessness programs in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. During the COVID-19 crisis, she’s focusing on opening isolation and quarantine locations for those experiencing homelessness, living in congregated shelters, as well as those who are involved with the behavioral health, child welfare, medical, and justice systems. To provide shelter-in-place spaces for youth, single adults, and families, her team has secured the use of empty buildings and hotels, taking on the logistics of leases, insurance, and occupancy permits, and contracting with service providers. Her team has set up hygiene stations in the most populated encampments and is working with the health department to implement healthcare within the shelters. She’s also been tasked with locating personal protection equipment for the staff working at these sites.

Translated Resources for Immigrant Communities

One in three residents in Los Angeles County is an immigrant, and the COVID-19 crisis has added economic and health insecurity to their already growing concerns of immigration status. FUSE executive fellow Michael Nobleza has developed and is helping to implement a community outreach and engagement strategy aimed at connecting immigrants with vital information about county services. He catalyzed an effort to translate materials into Spanish, Mandarin, Tagalog, Korean, and other languages, as well as to leverage ethnic media discussions with foreign language media outlets to address larger community issues arising from the pandemic. In addition, he will be updating the Office of Immigrant Affairs (OIA) website and developing the outreach and education plan for those who are eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The plan includes the launch of the OIA’s first official e-newsletter, as well as social media content and a FAQ for DACA enrollees about how to push for re-enrollment in the DACA program despite the COVID-19 crisis.

Child Care for Healthcare Workers

For essential healthcare providers at Los Angeles County’s Department of Health Services who are putting their lives on the line to care for an onslaught of patients, school closures have meant scrambling to find child care for those with kids in school. To address this need, DHS has opened child care centers at four of its hospitals, and FUSE executive fellow Anna Vold, who was originally hired to develop a staff management model for DHS, was redeployed to find emergency child care infrastructure and help staff the facilities. As part of these efforts, she assessed needs through surveys and recruited county volunteers to help the hospital-based child care centers. She also worked with libraries, which donated crafts, kits, and materials for kids of different age groups to keep kids entertained and engaged. The centers are now open to all essential county employees. To provide more child care options, Anna is working with the Child Care Alliance of Los Angeles. They are exploring a range of issues, including options for employees who work graveyard shifts and employees with special needs children.

Food for Underserved Kids

Responding to the COVID-19 crisis, FUSE alum Wendy McCulley, who focuses on academic acceleration for African American children as part of the Fresno Unified School District in California, is working to bring equity to the forefront of decision-making when it comes to underserved students. Under the leadership of the superintendent, Fresno Unified staff has provided food services for kids and their families, with more than 61,000 meals being served in just one day. The district is also distributing 40,000 laptops and 30,000 tablets to students, as well as launching online instructional resources for students, parents, and teachers.

Support for the Transition to Remote Work

As shelter-in-place orders moved many people to work-from-home setups, Oakland-based FUSE executive fellow Jana Good helped the city transition employees to remote work so that operations and services could continue without interruption. She has been providing support throughout the COVID-19 crisis, developing and implementing strategic communications, tips, and resources through a series of emails, newsletters, and website updates. With her help, employees have been able to gain access to and use remote tools to do their jobs safely from home, and the city has been able to continuously serve its residents.

Faster Hiring of Physicians

FUSE executive fellow Nancy Villasenor, who has been helping the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services create a comprehensive recruitment, hiring, onboarding, and marketing plan to attract a larger pool of primary care physicians committed to public healthcare, is also supporting DHS’s COVID-19 efforts by helping fast-track the hiring and onboarding of physicians during this crisis. Addtionally, she worked with the Ambulatory Care Network to recruit volunteer physicians to help homeless people who have contracted COVID-19.

A Food Service Program for Housebound Seniors

Swati Chandra, whose fellowship involves using strategic marketing for bolstering services for Los Angeles County, is project managing the county’s deployment of the Great Plates Delivered program. The county joined the state’s initiative to offer restaurants the opportunity to cook meals to be delivered to people older than 60 who are homebound during the pandemic. Three meals a day will be delivered to those who qualify through the county’s Department of Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services and the Office of Emergency Management. Swati is responsible for coordinating all aspects of program design, ensuring the agency has the appropriate systems and data flow.

The Impact on Transportation and Mobility

In Minneapolis, FUSE executive fellow Danielle Elkins, who is in her second year working with the Minneapolis Department of Public Works on equity issues in transportation technology, is supporting city staff in responding to the COVID-19 crisis by adjusting and launching new pilot programs. Danielle is addressing how the impacts on transportation systems will affect the city’s planned emerging mobility pilot programs and deployments, such as mobility hubs and micromobility. She is also working nationally to influence longer term changes to streamline the eligibility process for low-income transportation programs, so when people start applying for federal benefits, the city can help facilitate enrollment in shared mobility equity programs.

Increased Hospital Capacity for COVID-19 Patients

In Los Angeles County, the Department of Health Services has been working to help hospitals respond to the surge of COVID-19 patients. As part of these efforts, teams are working to transfer non-COVID-19 patients to dedicated facilities, freeing up capacity at acute-care hospitals. Most of this work has been coordinated through the county’s new DHS Transfer Center, which FUSE fellow Ernest Shahbazian helped establish. Ernest is now helping lead the COVID-19 efforts at the Transfer Center, which is pivoting from the repatriation of DHS patients to the safe and appropriate transfer of non-COVID-19 patients to other facilities, ensuring that DHS will be ready to care for all patients as needs arise.

Access to Capital for Businesses in Underserved Communities

In light of COVID-19, government and other organizations have assembled financial and technical assistance for small businesses, but many small businesses in underserved communities continue to struggle to gain access to such resources. Returning to the Economic Development Department in Long Beach, California, former FUSE executive fellow Daniel Han is leveraging his project, which focused on inclusive and equitable access to capital, to work closely with regional Community Development Financial Institutions, community-based technical assistance providers, and local government to ensure that disaster and emergency loan programs are accessible to the underserved small businesses that are most vulnerable during this state of emergency. He primarily works with frontline staff that communicates directly with the small businesses. Although the focus today is to help small businesses survive during this pandemic, Dan is beginning to shift gears and focus on building and strengthening partnerships with Responsible, Affordable, Inclusive Lenders (RAIL) to ensure access to equitable, inclusive capital during recovery and reconstruction.

A Collective Voice for the Black Community

Hired by Wichita, Kansas, to promote economic development in low-income and underdeveloped neighborhoods, including Opportunity Zones, FUSE executive fellow Angeline Johnson was asked to join the Black Alliance, a coalition of Wichita area organizations and activists, to help address the disparate impact that COVID-19 is having on the black community in Wichita. The alliance and its efforts were recently highlighted by ABC News in a report about how nearly one third of the COVID-19 deaths in Kansas are African Americans, who account for only about 5 percent of the population. The focus of the alliance is to serve as a collective voice addressing this community’s concerns around a number of COVID-19 issues, including fair and equitable use of government funding for public health, testing availability and accessibility for the black community, lack of accessibility to personal protective equipment, and better communication and education about prevention, symptoms, and monitoring.

Enhanced Communications and Outreach to Local Businesses

In Fresno, California, as in many cities, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted gaps in communications channels, including the ability to reach out to the business community when normal city hall operations were interrupted. FUSE executive fellow Clair Whitmer, who is working with the Office of the Mayor to attract investments to the city’s Opportunity Zones, helped the economic development team pivot and develop a Facebook page, mailing list, and deeper, more interactive website to help businesses cope during this time of economic crisis. The mailing list now includes more than 2,200 businesses, giving the team a critical channel for communicating with this community during and after the COVID-19 crisis. Relying on her background in digital marketing, Clair pitched in on the development of these tools and also cross-trained the team in MailChimp, Survey Monkey, and Facebook administration. Her team also worked on the city’s Save Our Small Businesses program, which distributed $750,000 to Fresno small businesses, with 20 percent set aside for micro-businesses with less than five employees. The team worked with an outside partner to accept applications and identify recipients through a random selection process. Clair contributed to the development of the online application and outreach channels, as well as to the management and analysis of applicant data. The city council recently passed a resolution for a $2 million second round of funding and assigned the administration of the project entirely to the economic development team, which is responsible for providing guidance on program parameters and administering the application and distribution process. To target businesses operating in distressed neighborhoods, the team crafted final guidelines that double these businesses chances to receive grants.

Tax Help for Low-Income Residents

In this climate of economic uncertainty, helping low-income residents get free online tax preparation services is even more crucial, especially with the closure of onsite locations. Los Angeles-based FUSE executive fellow Nicole Richardson, whose project is focused on outreach strategies to take advantage of earned income tax credits, is working with the Department of Business and Consumer Affairs to push out a campaign to use myfreetaxes.org, a free method to access online tax return services. Nicole is ensuring that the campaign involves employing smart social media strategy, an inspiring and instructional video, as well as clear COVID-19 messaging on the Free Tax Prep L.A. Alliance websites.

Advocacy and Outreach for Opportunity Zones

Originally working with the Economic Development Agency (EDA) in Riverside County, California, to help develop the county’s Opportunity Zone ecosystem, FUSE executive fellow Stacy Cumberbatch has shifted since the COVID-19 crisis to research, advocacy, and outreach about the impact of the pandemic on the Opportunity Zone community, as well as potential solutions to these challenges. She engaged U.S. Digital Response, which is providing pro bono technology experts to government workers responding to the pandemic, to build a public data tool that tracks the effects of COVID-19 on lower-income populations in Opportunity Zones statewide. She participates in a weekly strategy meeting that aims to align Federal and state aid with the needs of the local community. As a result, HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) and California’s GO-Biz (Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development) produced videos that help businesses and communities leverage funding tools in response to the pandemic. Alongside the EDA staff, she also conducted individual outreach to businesses in Riverside County’s Opportunity Zone community to share available resources for assistance, including loans from the Small Business Association and the county’s newly created microloan to grant and business assistance grant programs.

Creative Approaches to Financing Community Projects

Given the projected fiscal shortfalls in cities and counties due to the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, creative approaches to financing are required to enable projects prioritized by communities. FUSE executive fellow Gil Keinan, who is overseeing Opportunity Zone development in San Bernardino County, California, is working with nonprofits, academia, and multiple governments to encourage private-public partnerships and thus reduce the need for public dollars. In his approach, he is focused on creating tools and driving local education to spur development and investment in low-income neighborhoods that are qualified as Opportunity Zones. Concurrently, he’s working to develop a financing vehicle that would enable larger loan guarantees to de-risk resilient projects and encourage increased lender participation. This strategy includes a novel use of credit and mortgage insurance and reinsurance — policies that large lenders use to reduce their carried liabilities and liquidity requirements — to invite new participants to the table and accelerate projects. The pilot for this product will potentially include the development of a community center and offices for supportive services of low-income housing. Gil has also supported weekly meetings between FUSE fellows and the California Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz) and the SoCal office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). These direct lines of communication have enabled California fellows working on economic development to be at the forefront of state-level efforts while also addressing local issues.

Revised Budget and Plans

Working with the Information Systems Bureau (ISB) in the L.A. County Probation Department, FUSE executive fellow Alok Bhatia has helped the bureau devise a new budget in light of pending cuts due to the COVID-19 crisis and shift its priorities away from nonessential projects. He helped enable teleworking for the Probation Department staff, and he is working to finalize remote training opportunities for ISB staff, as well as modify the ISB teleworking plan in preparation for eased COVID-19 restrictions.

 

At this time of national crisis, the entire FUSE community is working tirelessly to advance our mission of enabling local governments to more effectively meet the needs of urban communities. We all know, however, that there is much more work to be done!

We want YOU to share your suggestions about specific ways that we can make a difference right now. Is there a particular way that we can support your city or county government? Is there a distinct project that you think an executive fellow should undertake?

Email your ideas to [email protected], and one of our team members will respond directly to you for a discussion about the possibilities.