Diversity & Inclusion
COVID-19 / DEI / Delaware / Digital access / Nonprofits

Technology’s impact — and limitations — in community advocacy during the pandemic

One Village Alliance CEO Chandra Pitts looks back at the challenges of COVID-19, and why there is no light at the end of the tunnel without structural changes that go far deeper than needles in arms.

One Village Alliance President and CEO Chandra Pitts. (Screenshot)
On March 11, 2020, One Village Alliance (OVA) received the keys to what would become its Freedom Center, a building owned by UAME Church in Northside Wilmington.

Chandra Pitts, president and CEO OVA, and UAME’s Bishop Charles Amos are both honorees of the NAACP Youth Impact Award, and she was approached to help bridge a gap with the community and the church via its youth-focused programming. The partnership would include giving OVA use of the 10,000-square-foot space.

Just two days later, it would have to close its doors under COVID-19 lockdown orders.

While some companies and nonprofits made a full shift to virtual, Pitts was faced with some hard choices. The organization’s work as a social justice organization included some services that theoretically could have switched over to an online platform. But the reality was that it was a front-line organization offering essential needs that wouldn’t neatly translate into a Zoom format. It soon became clear that OVA would need to open its doors before schools, restaurants and some businesses would return to in-person.

“We realized within days that our families and youth were in a state of emergency long before this global pandemic was announced, and our children are feeling a greater burden, especially as schools are closed and we’re dealing with a summer learning slide,” Pitts said. “Now we’ve lost a year in structured learning and healthy learning environments for our kids, and it wasn’t enough just to provide virtual classes. That doesn’t fill the gap for education.”

The decision was not an easy one in the spring of 2020.

“It was very stressful and scary and sometimes very emotional, going back with deadly pandemic and youth and families in need.” Pitts said. “We could have continued to function just on Zoom, but that’s not why I’m here. We have historically marginalized families and I’m watching the margin grow at a rate that you can’t quantify.”

She kept a close eye on the governor’s guidelines, and as soon as she could, she reopened the Freedom Center as a fully COVID-compliant place where young people could come to receive everything from meals to mentoring, and even jobs.

“The first thing we did was wire [The Freedom Center] so we could not only put out programming to the world, but we could also be a hub for the local community to access not only the internet, but computers, learning pods and creative spaces,” Pitts said. “That was the big transition for us — leveraging technology and building a technology, art and economic development center right here in the heart of the city.”

We're not having vaccine and testing conversations, we're having How do we stay alive in the midst of this growing pandemic while lacking funding or investment or resources? conversations.

In addition to necessities like food and mental health support for parents, OVA was able, with funding from the state Department of Health and Human Services, to create a fellowship, called the Freedom Fellows, for 25 young people in the community that provided them jobs at $11 an hour.

“These are youth from high-poverty families,” she said. “They instantly became the highest earners in their families.”

The jobs, she said, were largely technology-based.

“We made our summer camps fully virtual, and our kids became producers, connecting through Instagram, Facebook and TikTok with leaders and philanthropists and organizations from every continent around the world. They designed a virtual curriculum. They became philanthropists themselves — we began a food program, we gave out 2,500 meals every single week right here from the Freedom Center. We started a coat giveaway program with Project Warm. We gave them the power of giving back to the communities, and then engage them as leaders.”

Through technology, they launched a global virtual mentoring program through the National Organization of Young Barristers’ platform that expands mentoring beyond the previous site-specific program. Through technology, youth were able to host different political leaders in listening sessions, including the Wilmington mayoral candidates, city council candidates, senators, state reps and engaged with the electoral process in regard to the school board elections.

Looking forward, Pitts is planning to travel this year with OVA’s youth organizations, Girls Can Do Anything and Raising Kings, including the third summer trip to Ghana, something that was canceled in 2020 — though the youth in both locations have stayed connected virtually.

None of this is to say that there is a proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel,” as many see the release of COVID-19 vaccines to be. COVID-19 is something OVA deals with on a daily basis, but the vaccines are not seen as a cure for the challenges the community faces.

“We have talked about COVID, but honestly, the conversations that we’ve been having since the summer are about how $90 million had already been spent down on COVID mobilization, just for testing, just in Delaware,” said Pitts. “At the same time, we’re talking about $1.3 million invested into youth organizations across 15 different agencies. We’re also seeing a mental health pandemic, under a mayor who is continuing to concentrate resources just in the downtown and riverfront area. We’re seeing protests happening, civil unrest, egregious injustices happening with regard to incarceration, homicides, lighting in communities, safe havens. We’re not having vaccine and testing conversations, we’re having ‘how do we stay alive in the midst of this growing pandemic while lacking funding or investment or resources’ conversations.”

Laser focusing on “needles in arms” in communities of color is not closing inequity gaps, says Pitts.

“Every COVID mobilization organization focuses on needles in arms, and it’s sobering that we would be celebrating that approach to dealing with the diverse, dynamic and vast impacts of this pandemic,” she said. “Not to minimize the need for vaccination, but it leaves generations of people of color in communities to falling in a gaping hole in regard to the inequity gaps in education, for one.”

Series: Coronavirus

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