11/6/2020 Reflections on the Kafenia COVID Response
What a long strange year it’s been. The crises are deepening as I write this: COVID, the economic shutdown and its devastating effects on millions of Americans, especially Black, Brown, undocumented, and other communities of color, continued racism and police violence without accountability, unprecented political polarization and instabiity that threatens the peaceful transition of power nationally, and last but certainly not least, the accelerating effects of climate change with severe drought record-breaking wildfires.
Amidst all of this, the Village of All Together is growing, bringing more people together to build a world for all of us. Here’s what we’ve been up to since March.
Kafenia had just started the spring series on civic engagement at Cafe Zoe when California imposed shelter-in-place to deal with the rapidly escalating COVID crisis. We immediately converted our planned gatherings to zoom calls and convened a civic engagement session to decide how to help with COVID. A COVID working group formed with Mary Jane Marcus, Sarahi Espinoza Salmanca, Evelyne Keomian, Melanie Bielefeld, and Barbara Weinstein.
We started by publishing an opinion piece in PA Online and looking around at what more we could do.
Black and Brown people had started losing work immediately as businesses closed and households canceled visits from caregivers, gardeners, and other service workers. People in Palo Alto wanted to help, but weren’t connecting with those who needed the help. So Sarahi surveyed neighbors of hers in East Palo Alto and learned that rent was the major concern. Sarahi, the founder of Dreamers Roadmap, had previously introduced Kafenia to the Sequoia High Dream Club and worked with Mohamed Geshash, Mary Jane, and Barbara on last November’s Peace Meal.
To raise rent we needed contributors and an infrastructure to collect money, distribute it, and publicize the campaign. Kafenia friend and EPA Poet Laureate Kalamu Chache connected us with Live in Peace, which has a long history in EPA as well as the infrastructure that could enable us to get rent money to families quickly. So Heather Starnes-Logwood and Laura Gross from LIP joined the team.
The campaign kicked into gear and the first rent checks were distributed to grateful families. Through a friend at Silicon Valley Community Foundation, we met fundraiser extraordinaire Howard Kuslan. Howard suggested the campaign name, First of the Month (#FirstOfTheMonth), and helped us raise $1,000,000 in less than 3 weeks. In the hopes of stabilizing the families through what we hoped would be just a few months of hardship, the campaign committed to up to 3 months of rent for each family. That meant that the $1,000,000 would enable us to stabilize at least 150 families.
With the first million raised and shelter-in-place continuing, the FOTM team upped the goal to $2,000,000. As the number of families grew, Sarahi took on the full-time job of community lead: reaching out to families, communicating with them, and distributing checks. Kafenia and Dreamers Roadmap together identified families in need from our local networks, while Live in Peace did the same for their network. All of it was trust-based. Because we knew the families and their needs, we could get help to them much faster than other organizations. And we were able to dispense with the formal vetting and probing questions that made many undocumented families fearful of asking for help.
Meanwhile, Evelyne started working her own magic. During the first month of shelter-in-place, she noticed an increase in the number of RVs parked on El Camino in Palo Alto. Knocking on the doors of a few, she met many of the families and discovered some with multiple school-aged and younger children living in severe economic distress and barely able to participate in school. Evelyne, an impassioned education advocate whose Karat School Project runs a school in Ivory Coast, decided to start a new local ‘Edu-Kits for RVs’ program.
Kafenia wound up the weekly spring series, which had become virtual weekly zoom gatherings. Session topics had included self-care, becoming change agents, poetry with Yosimar Reyes and the Dreamers, Mohamed on LGBTQ asylum seekers, and shelter-in-place with Paul Bocanegra. Mary Jane and I had met Paul back in January at a Human Rights Watch screening of the film ‘Just Mercy’, which we attended with Kafenia friend Troy Williams. Paul had been sentenced to life without parole as a youth of 17 and had served 12 years in isolation and 25 years total. He spoke of cultivating inner strength and taking control of his life even while in isolation.
FOTM was able to connect with the New Story, an organization that works internationally on homelessness and had shifted temporarily to the U.S for COVID relief. Their grant of several hundred thousand dollars would help us reach 100 more families. But their process required quite a bit of vetting about economic status, and Sarahi, who was already working more than full time, needed some help. So we reached out to Kafenia friend and recent SJS grad Guadalupe Moreno, who agreed to help out as an intern.
Evelyne continued reaching out to the RV families every two weeks, bringing educational supplies and household necessities. Meanwhile, Kafenia helped with fundraising, and Kafenia friend Kala Mehta and her daughter joined the program to help deliver supplies.
And Kafenia friends joined the millions of people around the world who protested the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd.
Kafenia’s mission includes bringing more of the feminine into our Silicon Valley lives. We’ve reflected on how women tend to occupy private spaces, while men predominate in public spaces. Kafenia friend and board member Lisa Petrides thought a lot about that and decided to move into public space by running for office. So she declared her candidacy for the Community College Board of Trustees.
It was a busy month for FOTM, as we worked on raising more money, reaching out to families, and managing the New Story work. With eviction moratoriums in place, families who couldn’t pay rent were less threatened by immediate eviction, but the situation was tenuous, and no long term solution was in sight.
Based on state requirements and the COVID case load, it was clear that schools couldn’t open in person. While hard on most, remote learning is hardest on children who don’t have the space, the equipment, and the other support to be successful. Evelyne also learned that some of the Palo Alto RV children were registered for school in San Jose where their families were last housed. So she and Mary Jane started to reach out to see if the children could be registered in Palo Alto. Lauren Williams, a local education activist who is on the Palo Alto Community Fund board, has been a great advocate of the Edu-Kits for RVs program. Lauren was able to work with the school board and ultimately get the children registered! The school district was also made aware of the children’s critical education needs, including computer and networking equipment and access to power.
And the Edu-Kits working group welcomed Danielle Roots, who is based in Sacramento, to the team.
FOTM reached $2,000,000 with more than 300 families helped. But it started to look like time to wind things down. With the lengthening of the COVID crisis and the election season heating up, donations slowed and some of us started to realize that it wouldn’t be possible to continue in campaign mode indefinitely. It was a possibility that the team was initially reluctant to consider, because the need for rent support was increasing, even with the stabilization that we were able to do.
Kafenia friend Flora Sullivan had suggested that we get in touch with her friend Shanna Uhila, an activist in the Native Hawaiian - Pacific Islander community in EPA. From an initial conversation with Shanna in September, I had learned of her family’s deep involvement in EPA, including a commitment to criminal justice reform. A light bulb went off and I realized that we had to connect her with Paul. It turns out that while Paul is currently on the San Mateo Criminal Justice commission, Shanna’s mother, Mama Dee, had been on the commission for 15 years. And Shanna wanted to connect our whole team with her friend Josh Becker, a candidate for State Senate.
At a group call with Josh, Shanna, Paul, Mary Jane, Sarahi, and Barbara, we learned that Josh is committed to criminal justice reform. He proposed hosting a public meeting on Prop 17 that same week with Paul as the spokesperson on the importance of allowing parolees to vote. The meeting a few days later was attended by 30 community members and activists.
Sarahi and Guadalupe distributed some of the last FOTM rent checks, as we began to close the campaign. We raised a total of $2,300,000 and were able to help approximately 350 families, most of them with a full 3 months of rent. It was an extraordinary accomplishment for a small partnership.
Of course the future is terribly uncertain for the families who are still affected by COVID and who haven’t been able to make up the rent that they still owe. The latest rent moratorium will end at the end of January, and unless the state legislature acts, thousands of people will be forced to become homeless or leave the area. East Palo Alto, East Menlo Park, and parts of Redwood City remain at high risk of losing their diverse populations.
The budget needs for Edu-Kits for RVs have declined, since the children are now getting most of their supplies from school. But fundraising has also become more difficult. Next year, the Edu-Kits team hopes to introduce a mentoring program to help the children succeed in school and to work on helping the families get off the street. A Safe Parking location will accommodate some of them, but there’s more work to do.
The Kafenia COVID team has talked for a while about the importance of focusing on policy as the path to longer term and more sustainable change. With that in mind, it’s exciting that Josh Becker won election to the State Senate. We’ll now have a friend and advocate in Sacramento. And we’ll have a local education policy advocate, as Lisa Petrides won her race for the San Mateo Community College Board of Trustees. Finally, thanks to the passage of Prop 17, Paul Bocanegra will be able to vote in the next election for the first time in his life.
Here is our closing night question:
Share an artifact that symbolizes what you want to bring forth from this shelter in place journey -- to help you REMEMBER the wisdom of this time and PARTICIPATE in building a Village of All Together.
When someone is on a journey, in folktales, myths and history, they often have a talisman or symbol or actual "tool" that helps them move forward and overcome challenges. I thought it would be powerful to see if there is a tool or symbol from this time to remind us of how we want to walk in our lives, our civic engagement, after shelter in place is lifted.
You don't need to plan in advance -- we can do this together.
What came to me immediately was this Bamboo Staff. I used it once, to walk around the block on a day of fatigue because of balancing the huge need for survival help I was seeing and hearing, and what I was able to do. I grabbed this bamboo which was made for reaching things, and started to walk. Suddenly I felt transported to my Dad's village in Greece, where the goat herders (like above) also carry a staff. I thought of Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. When I walked, I felt more connected to village wisdom, to old ways, and settled into my being for this journey. It was also a symbol of just taking the next step, which we have done on this journey.
There were 2 other images- artifacts that came to mind. FIrst, chocolate, since for me it symbolizes self-care, the joy of being with oneself and savoring the moment. This kept me going many times. If it's not chocolate, it could be a walk, playing guitar, calling a friend.
The final image I added was Shards of Glass. It feels like there is something so broken in how we are living, and I want to remember this brokenness when I get caught up in my daily life. We can put the vase back together again, we can reconnect, and our work is to bring love, humanity to piece us back together again -- but with a full acknowledgement of how many people are hurt by these shards- economically, psychically and physically.
Wow, I can't believe we are wrapping up the Spring. How far we have come from the joys of Zoom to the fatigue after being online all day. We traveled with Poet Yosimar to Undocujoy, with Paul Bocanegra who guided us to recognize we aren't as confined as we think (and he understands confinement after 25 years in prison from the time he was a minor), to Melanie who shared the question: HOW do we want to be at this time? what are you doing? what kind of civic engagement role do we want to play? She brought us Deepa Iyer's powerful framework: do you want to contribute as an artist? a guide? a weaver? a first responder? a healer? a builder? a disrupter? a storyteller? a visionary? I find I am a weaver but I long to be more of a poet, a social artist, an instigator. So I'm tuning into those pathways.
The road was windy, partly because we dove so deep into our CIVIC ENGAGEMENT theme by actually doing stuff that could measurably make people's lives better. We couldn't ignore what was happening to people who lost work and got no help. This turned into Evelyne's RV support project, and Sarahi/Dreamers' Roadmap and Heather and Laura of Live in Peace led FirstOfTheMonth campaign. We were so busy actually doing work it was hard to have this evening series of reflection and connection. But no matter what, I always feel better after than I do before. And I think it is because it is a time of slowing, of tuning in, of pausing and reflecting and listening. There is a wisdom of the collective that is much greater than my own, and we can tap into that well when we are together.
And just as COVID revealed our economic inequalities through the suffering of our poorest (financially, not in other ways) neighbors deprived of legal rights, and the racial injustice because black, Latina and Pacific-Islander were getting sick and dying at much greater rates, it also made visible the extent of state-sanctioned murder of black people - a problem after 400 years we can no longer ignore. It may seem like many issues, but is it? Is it possible for us to actually live as people say that "we are all in this together?" Can we build what I was first inspired to build when I heard of it on Lesbos -- a Village of All Together?
The Spring has taught me we can just do what is in front of us. Not abstract big ideas, but bring our whole hearted loving selves to what is in front of us. We didn't plan to have this women-led, collaborative rent fund project, but we started with a commitment to listening, and we brought the love we already shared with each other. It's messy and hard and tiring, but we are showing up - day after day - and asking - what now? How can the collective vision be stronger than getting what I need for my people or project? And when I get tired, I ask myself -- what role am I playing? what role do I want to be playing? how do i move towards the poet, the storyteller in my role? Can I bring more creativity to how I engage? How are you engaging? how do you want to be engaging? how can we rally around a shared vision of a truly prosperous Peninsula for everyone? how can we challenge old paradigms of inequality, racism, immigration 'othering" so deeply entrenched here? what can we do right here, right now? what can you do what here, right now? what's in front of you? and what is the heart inviting you towards?
A bit of creativity from the April 3 Kafenia World Friendly salon.
Nowhere to go
Across our miles and lives
Time for lusciousness
And sweet connections building love around us
With squiggling drawings and kazoos
and Parisian lamps
Pain outside but stillness within
Temptation to self-censor but yearning to scream
Let’s all get an ice cream
Not virtual - real What flavor would you like?
And cashew pistachio chocolate melt
To melt our hearts and warm our spirits
Time to zoom out
Jennifer, Tamara, Isabelle, Mary Jane,
Hard to believe that it’s been just a couple weeks since Kafenia retooled for life with COVID. Early in March it became clear that we had to go virtual, so Kafenia Zoomed into action on Wednesday March 11. Callers from as far as Seattle and San Diego joined local Kafenia Villagers to check in on how everyone was doing and explore how we can come together and activate our collective wisdom instead of fending for ourselves.
Virtual Kafenia Wednesdays are now going strong. Karla and Guadalupe Moreno led an awesome self-care session on March 25. And what a treat on April 2 to have Yosimar Reyes, undocu-poet extraordinaire and the Sequoia Dreamers for a fantastic Peace Meal reunion! (You can read more about Yosimar’s evening in a separate post.)
Of course, Zoom calls are nowhere near as good as hugs and sharing feta and mint tea together. But we still get to see each other’s faces and connect with friends from near and far who have been unable to come to gatherings in person.
And there’s more. We’ve started a World Friendly Visioning salon Fridays at 11am, hosted by Jennifer Wells, who’s in Paris for a few months. Jennifer is leading us in an exploration of how to re-envision society now that everyone is forced to slow down and recognize that we can’t take anything for granted anymore.
Finally, Kafenia has started a major COVID response effort to support people in our community who are hurting and in need. Read about the COVID response in a separate post.
--Barbara Weinstein, April 3, 2020
What a fabulous virtual evening with undocu-poet Yosimar Reyes on April 2! How delightful to spend time with Yosimar and to welcome back Sequoia High School Dreamers who we haven’t seen since the Peace Meal with Dreamers in November.
Yosimar’s been working on a new one-man show that was supposed to premiere in June. Though the show is postponed, he treated us to an excerpt of what he’s working on -- recollections of his early life that are at the same time hilarious and heartbreaking.
Then Yosimar got us all involved. His exercise was fantastic! He prompted all of us to use childhood memories to get started writing. A great time for memories is ages 8-10, when we were independent but still young. We each jotted down the year we remembered, where we lived at the time, the big headline of the year, our best friend, and what we were scared of. Then everyone just wrote for 5 minutes.
A few people shared what they thought of, including about collecting old photos and writing stories for each, experiencing racism at school, living in Mexico and having the same best friend then and now, and of being really happy but worrying about drowning in a bottle.
Next, we asked how is everyone doing? Alberto shared how he unintentionally became a spokesperson for students at Sequoia when he wrote a 2 page letter to his teacher summarizing the challenges he and others are facing with virtual school life: conflicting times for different class sessions, having trouble keeping on task for meetings, having trouble getting things done, and keeping track of everything.
And guess what? His message is getting through. He was asked if his letter could be shared with other teachers and the principal. Hopefully they’ll listen and be responsive.
We’re all learning that this is a time to speak up.
We heard from a few others, from Tulare County to East Palo Alto, who are having a range of experiences.
Some other challenges we heard friends are facing are...
To reach Yosimar, Join his FB and Instagram.
Help support Yosimar!
Yosirey Paypal: Yosirey@gmail.comVenmo: Look up Yosirey and then you need to verify his phone number: 3778
--submitted by Mary Jane Marcus and Barbara Weinstein
It’s been a whirlwind for the Kafenia COVID response team, which kicked off in mid March. The team started by creating a COVID CIVIC Engagement Guide, with 5 practical things that people can do to help along with resources for people in need. To get the word out, we wrote an opinion piece about the suggestions, and the piece was picked up by PA Weekly!
Mary Jane noticed that people in Palo Alto were offering to help others in their own neighborhoods, but few people were responding that they needed help. Meanwhile, in East Palo Alto, people were feeling the economic bit immediately. So we created two surveys for our own cross-community network, one for people to offer help and the other for people who need help.
From the people who needed help, the overwhelming ask was for rent assistance. Many people, especially undocumented families in East Palo Alto with no other resources, struggle to make rent every month under normal conditions. And these are the people who were slammed immediately with the loss of income in construction, restaurant, gardening, and domestic work due to shelter-in-place.
What came next seemed like a miracle! Members of our community stepped up with contributions and we were able to provide rent assistance for April to ALL the people on our original list. We’ve partnered with Live in Peace, a long time EPA organization, to accept the donations and pass them directly to landlords.
There’s so much more to do, and we could use more members to join the team and take the lead on projects. The team meets several times a week. If you want to learn more, contact Barbara (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Thanks to the awesome team, including Sarahi, Melanie, Mary Jane, Evelyne, and Barbara with the help of Gregoire, Mohamed, Dennis, Caroline, Zoe, and others.
--submitted by Barbara Weinstein