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Media Coverage | Presley Gillespie: Neighbors work together to aid Black community during covid-19

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By Presley Gillespie | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review | July 3, 2020 | Read the full story

As the covid-19 crisis continues to unfold, new concerns continue to surface in the community. Health inequities. Food insecurities. Job losses. Achievement gaps. Digital divides. Isolation and anxiety. To name a few.

Although covid-19 doesn’t discriminate, it does hit Black communities harder with a disproportionate number of diagnoses and deaths. One individual, or even one organization, cannot address these complex issues. However, groups working together can begin to meet the community’s needs. That’s why Neighborhood Allies isn’t approaching its work alone. We’re uniting with our neighbors to build capacity and resilience and deconstruct injustices. We must look through a racial equity lens to envision a new normal — one that ensures progress for all residents.

Through our Covid Accelerated Relief Effort (CARE) Fund, we dispersed $100,000 in emergency grants to nonprofits serving marginalized communities. Our partners quickly connected residents to food, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other essential items. The Way Organization handed out lunches to Hilltop residents, and Sankofa Village launched a summer food program. The Millvale Community Development Corporation worked to open the Gardens of Millvale, and The Brashear Association, Macedonia Family and Community Enrichment Center and the Larimer Consensus Group distributed care packages to seniors. Additionally, our Love My Neighbor grassroots grantmaking program funded new initiatives, including a mental health support group.

Recognizing that homeschooling is almost impossible without Wi-Fi or computers, Neighborhood Allies teamed up with Computer Reach, Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) and the University of Pittsburgh. We refurbished and distributed 1,200 laptops to the community, including the Department of Human Services, which conducted teletherapy sessions. We also ordered an additional 500 computers. One mom tells us the donation made homeschooling, or rather crisis schooling, less overwhelming for her family.

We’re trying to close the digital divide — the gap between those with access to computers and the internet and those without. Alongside PPS, we secured high-speed internet services for 1,000 households. Pre-pandemic, we started working with the University of Pittsburgh, Community College of Allegheny County and the Homewood Children’s Village to set up digital inclusion centers. Such technology will combat poverty and spark economic growth.

Our Financial Empowerment Center, an initiative with the City of Pittsburgh and Advantage Credit Counseling, provides free financial counseling to help people reduce debt, improve credit and access bank accounts. Our Financial Opportunity Centers help people obtain public benefits, apply for unemployment compensation and conduct job searches. These initiatives lead to financial stability and address unemployment rates, which are historically higher for African Americans, whether we’re in a crisis or not.

With the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the City of Pittsburgh, we’re helping 46 small businesses and organizations — 38 are minority or women-owned — develop an online presence during covid-19 closures. We contracted nine firms to set up e-commerce sites; eight are minority or women-led. We established relationships with lenders to ensure small businesses benefit from the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program. Our team partnered with First Commonwealth Bank and helped more than 20 organizations complete applications, securing $1.5 million in forgivable loans. As a result, more than 120 employees of predominantly minority and women-led organizations didn’t lose their jobs.

Now more than ever, we must support Black communities with targeted investments and policy changes that dismantle racist systems. We offered highly impactful, practical solutions, meeting both basic and complex needs. We created equitable opportunities in finance and education and devised strategies that could result in more positive outcomes. We must not rush to return to “normal.” Normal isn’t working for many residents. Normal isn’t equitable.

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The covid-19 crisis is new but racism, which was recently declared a public health crisis by the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, has long shaped society. This current crisis forces us to examine what we want our community to look like and what we must demand of our institutional leaders — long-term, large-scale solutions. To recover, we must reimagine and rebuild.

Until then, a new neighbor steps forward each day to help us stay strong and stay safe. Together, we will get through this.

Presley Gillespie is president of Neighborhood Allies in Pittsburgh.

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