"Standing In the Doorway—Looking Back and Looking Ahead" by Lynne Algrant
One of the strangest aspects of the pandemic is the bending of the space time continuum.
Things that feel like they happened just moments ago, really happened several months or a year or a year and a half ago. I am approaching my first anniversary, having joined Greater Bergen Community Action on July 1, 2020. And yet I have many colleagues with whom I have barely been in a room.
The pandemic has changed time, space and what is “normal.”
Thus, I sit here in June, having written a blog post in January, in which I talked about liminal spaces, that feeling of being on the threshold between what was and what will be.
The highest threshold in January was between vaccine and vaccination:
When would there be enough doses?
When would it be our turn?
When would enough people be vaccinated so that we could begin to live “normally”?
Trying to See Into the Future; Trying to See a Better Future
The weather was cold and bleak; I felt I was holding my breath; the future felt far away. And yet, personally, and professionally, I was determined to outline goals for the year that would move us to a “what will be” that is better for all.
Today, 6 months later, the weather is sunny and hot; and the future feels present.
So, I am taking this opportunity to revisit the goals I discussed in January and the way that we, as an organization, are dealing with the present conditions, and thinking about the future strategically for our organization, for our community.
So first, the liminal space that is between the vaccine and vaccinations. And quite honestly, it is the only threshold that matters; it is the door that opens to all other doors.
“Do Not Enter”—Finding Barriers at the Doorstep of Vaccine Access
In the toughest days in late January and early February, we realized with our COVID Equity Team that we were not battling vaccine hesitancy, which many people thought was going to be the challenge in communities of color and in low-income communities. We were battling vaccine access.
It was nearly impossible to get an appointment. I have described it as being like trying to get Springsteen tickets which is very palpable for New Jerseyans. A doctor, who was leading the vaccination program at one of our hospitals, described it to me as the Hunger Games.
Yes, vaccine doses were scarce in the early and middle weeks, but at the same time, in our hospital rich community equitable access, sadly, was nearly impossible.
All the language about an equitable distribution of the vaccine to make sure that the hardest hit and most vulnerable community members could get access first—was just language, not action.
Finding our community in a contest of Survival of the Digital Fittest, we partnered with Bergen New Bridge Medical Center, a hospital that stayed mission focused, and ensured that vulnerable seniors, members of the LGBTQ community, and people of color got appointments.
When supplies were tight, New Bridge gave us appointments every week that we then filled through our grassroots network. We began to ensure African American and Latino senior citizens had appointments. And we connected New Bridge with our friends in the Muslim community, with our friends in the Ramapough Lenape Tribal Nation, and our friends in the Korean Pastors network.
It has been incredibly rewarding to be an organization at the forefront of ensuring equity in vaccine access. This work continues until we reach every person in our community, regardless of status, or race or income. If they want a vaccine, we are going to be sure that they get one.
And if they are scared to provide their information because they do not know how that information might be used against them, we are going to create a safe space.
In the coming months, we will begin to turn our sights to the other liminal spaces between the economy that was and the economy that will be.
Information and Support to Access Assistance
As part of our efforts to assist people in their current conditions, Greater Bergen is playing a pivotal role in both information and direct assistance. Currently, in addition to our long-standing programs, we are:
· Providing case management support to help people apply for rental assistance through an online portal.
· Assisting families in registering for the expanded Child Tax Credit benefits, which will come to families in monthly deposits of up to $300 per child.
· Providing up to $10,000 worth of home repairs to qualifying homeowners.
And as we turn our attention to the future, Greater Bergen Community Action is embarking on a comprehensive community needs assessment and strategic plan, to ensure that as an organization we are ready to meet new and emerging community needs, such as:
Childcare as Infrastructure
“My child is a good eater now,” a parent reported, thrilled by the healthy meals provided by Head Start Food Services.
The pandemic dramatically revealed how essential childcare is to a functioning economy. Head Start, which has always been part of our commitment to the community, ensures that children from low-income families are ready for kindergarten.
Research shows that high quality pre-school is one of the best investments we can make to set a child up for a productive, healthy life.
How do we bring high quality pre-school experiences to more families across the income spectrum? In Northern NJ, because the cost of living is high, many families who are “not poor” by federal standards, struggle mightily.
Here at Greater Bergen, we are studying this issue and closely watching new public policy announcements, to see how we can be part of the solution to affordable childcare.
Are there a host of workers who need to be retrained for a new and emerging jobs in our economy? We think the answer is yes, and a lot of these workers are women, who were overwhelmingly impacted by the pandemic economy.
Greater Bergen is reaching out to our corporate friends to explore their needs, and how can we match the good jobs in region with the people who need jobs that are safe, healthy, rewarding, and that can support a family.
My parents are part of the generation that saw “Urban Renewal as Human Removal,” where development and programs actually destroyed neighborhoods or pushed people out. Greater Bergen is proud to work on neighborhood reinvestment and revitalization through which the community stakeholders have a strong voice in envisioning their community; through which the character of the neighborhood is enhanced; through which people feel invested in, rather than pushed out.
We are so proud of our work with the City of Garfield, through the Neighborhood Preservation Program. The State of NJ has issued a call for proposals for additional communities to join the NPP program, and we are excited to assist another neighborhood.
And so, six months in to 2021, as our attention turns to summer, outdoors, and the future, our work is ongoing. We are both focused making a difference every day and gearing up to be more robust in the next six months, and in the years to come.
Not Poor, But Not Thriving
During the pandemic, many of the people who were hardest hit are not “poor,” according to the federal government, but they are struggling, especially in Northern New Jersey, because housing transportation, and childcare are very expensive. In many cases, these folks, just above the poverty line, do not qualify for the support that exists, such as food stamps, housing vouchers, or subsidized childcare.
And yet they are here. They are our neighbors and friends, and they are struggling in our community. I have begun to think of them as the “$1 More Families;” the $1 more that they earn makes them ineligible for assistance, and yet that $1 does not change their circumstances.
Defining Our Role in the “New Normal,” A World of What Can Be
Our strategic planning process is designed to better understand how the pandemic really impacted our community, so that we can begin to provide our expertise, resources, and the talent of our staff as we build a new Northern New Jersey; one that is more equitable for everyone who lives here. A Northern NJ in which zip code is not destiny. A Northern NJ where the American Dream is available to everyone.
We invite you to join us.
Help us with our strategic plan.
Bring us your ideas about community needs that you are seeing in your area.
And we hope you will support us, so that we can offer our services, support, and expertise to $1 More Families.
Lives Changed Here