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BIPOC-led nonprofits weather pandemic

Leaders of historically underfunded BIPOC organizations tackle new community responsibilities, burnout exacerbated by COVID-19

Ray Rickman, executive director of nonprofit Stages of Freedom, is used to getting a few calls and emails each day from community members. But when the organization decided to give away masks at the height of the pandemic, he received 1,400 calls and emails in a single day.

“You have to answer them all,” Rickman said. “It took three days.”

Nonprofit organizations led by Black, Indigenous and people of color are historically underfunded. The Herald spoke with leaders of three BIPOC-led nonprofits in Providence that are facing additional challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They spoke of new responsibilities to the community, issues with funding and the personal toll the pandemic has taken.

Rickman founded Stages of Freedom with current program director Robb Dimmick. The RI-based nonprofit organization couples a swimming empowerment program — which provides swim lessons to BIPOC youth — with cultural education programs available to the community.

Stages of Freedom hosts a number of events for youth and for the community at large every year, including a Victorian-esque tea party for young girls of color, an event paying tribute to Maya Angelou and an event called “Bow Ties for Boys,” which provides young boys of color the opportunity to learn etiquette skills. 20 events had to be postponed or canceled because of the pandemic.

Stages of Freedom’s museum, bookstore and office are all closed as well.

Rickman is a mentor to about 100 alumni of his swimming program but he has not been able to see them because of the pandemic. “It’s kind of painful,” he said. Rickman only has the emails of about 30 of the mentees, and he emails them monthly to check in.

Rickman has tried to help the community through the pandemic — he has created a Stages of Freedom COVID-19 website with information and has purchased masks to distribute. COVID-19-related issues take up four or five hours of each day, Rickman said, between sending out updates on the website and responding to calls from community members.

For Rickman, time spent on pandemic issues means less time spent on other aspects of the organization. He spends several hours a day applying for grants, and more time fundraising from small donors. Before the pandemic, he would spend an hour a day cold calling community members to recruit them for the swimming program. With pools closed and less available time during the day, Rickman said he has missed 200 hours of recruitment over the last few months. 

“Every morning of my life, I get on the phone and I call six people,” Rickman said. Typically “five give me money and it’s not much.” Rickman said that the organization relies almost entirely on donations of around $25, and he asks around 2,000 people a year to donate. 

“We have been unable to get any support from anybody with real money,” Rickman said. “Real charity checks go to the rich.” He added that a sizable donation for Stages of Freedom — $25,000, for example — is small change compared to donations that nonprofits like the University receive. For comparison, the University received $25 million for a new entrepreneurship center in 2016 (now the Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship).

Bigger donations can lead to more financial stability for nonprofits, Rickman said. Money can go into longer-term investments, instead of short-term projects.

“That's what I would like for every nonprofit: that they have structure, own their own property and have an endowment so that they can continue, no matter how turbulent things get,” Rickman said.

John Hope Settlement House, a nonprofit organization in Providence that serves the community through programs for youth and families, also relies on smaller donations, largely from businesses and community members. 

“All agencies are fighting that dilemma right now,” said Sean Holley, president of John Hope Settlement House Board of Directors. “It's a tough time to try to raise funds. It's a tough time to ask for donations.” The pandemic has paused nearly all fundraising for John Hope.

The nonprofit offers an early learning center for preschool-aged children, before- and after-school programs for youth and other services. Before the pandemic, JHSH was serving 100 families daily, according to Executive Director Brandford Davis. Beginning in mid-March, JHSH had to stop most of its in-person programs.

After reopening in June, nearly 90 percent of enrollment has returned to the organization’s programs, Davis said. JHSH now offers in-house help with distance learning for youth.

Many of the families involved with JHSH lost jobs because of the pandemic, so the organization tried to directly support families with its programs, Davis added. “The pandemic really was able to bring out the disparities within different communities,” Davis said.

Other nonprofits that work to address disparities have felt the sting of COVID-19. The Equity Institute, a nonprofit focused on creating equity in education, has been “immensely” impacted by the pandemic, according to CEO Karla Vigil. 

The organization hosts monthly meetups for teachers to network and discuss new ideas, but the meetings had to become virtual after the pandemic hit. Vigil said that the organization struggled with how to “create community in virtual spaces.” 

In addition to transitioning The Equity Institute fully online, Vigil noted that she has had to pause her work in the past several weeks because of the personal toll of the pandemic. The work of running a nonprofit is already taxing, Vigil said, but the additional stress of the pandemic made her and Carlon Howard, chief impact officer of The Equity Institute, step back and “take care of ourselves.”

Fighting injustice and inequity in the world is tiring, especially when the pandemic has aggravated lots of those inequities, Vigil said.

“How do we take care of ourselves so that we can continue to push this work and fight for things that we want to fight for?” she said.


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