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.