Portraits of Leadership
Hyperakt’s new interview series hands the mic to nonprofit and cultural leaders around the nation as they guide their organizations through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today we’re talking with Susan True, CEO of Community Foundation Santa Cruz County. The Foundation supports effective programs that address community issues and enrich the lives of Santa Cruz County residents, and leverages resources toward a future that is just, equitable, and inclusive of our diverse community.
From your vantage point, what stories are not being told about the impact of the Coronavirus?
We have tragedy and economic devastation on our doorstep, but what helps me get through each day is the stories of those passionately and creatively finding ways to help others. Santa Cruz County is a home to a blend of incomes, enterprises, and geography.
We are an agricultural hub, a tourist destination, and a bedroom community of Silicon Valley. We are migrant farmworkers, Silicon Valley commuters, hosts and guides for vacationers, caretakers and retirees, and working families battling some of the least affordable housing costs anywhere. Together, we’re rising to meet our challenges.
An undocumented farmworker is organizing clandestine food distribution sites that offer her peers safe access to groceries, diapers, and financial aid. A food pantry volunteer saw clients being evicted despite an eviction moratorium. He created a bilingual tenant rights and information packet to place in every grocery bag.
Volunteers with a grassroots cultural education nonprofit for new immigrant families saw hunger on the rise as job losses and compliance with shelter orders sowed confusion and fear. They fundraised and set up a Saturday drive thru at the end of a cul-de-sac where families could arrange to receive $300 in emergency funds from the safety of their cars. A coalition of local tech volunteers staged a campaign that raised $430,000 in one night to support locally owned businesses.
It’s been our honor at the Community Foundation to support these acts that display our best selves as a caring community. In the past two months, community members have helped us give over $5.5 million in relief to help people stay housed and fed, able to pay for their prescription medicines, connect to the internet for school, and have safe childcare so they can return to work. It’s a privilege to be part of that story.
How have you needed to change how your staff works or the way you deliver services in order to meet the new reality?
Our job is to accelerate solutions to local problems. We’re a bridge between community and nonprofit leaders and forward thinking donors.
We knew our response to the crisis would require money. But we also knew it would require listening even more deeply to our partners and community members hardest hit.
We’re holding calls every day with local leaders to get a pulse on how seniors, immigrants, low wage workers, and our community health workforce were being impacted.
As CEO, I’m grateful for opportunities to learn firsthand. Onsite at our local food bank’s distribution, we learned who our newly hungry neighbors were. In the backyard of an undocumented farmworker, we learned about overcrowded housing and employment struggles in the agricultural sector. At a rental assistance distribution, we saw what it looks like to help people in need without sacrificing their dignity.
The crisis has prompted us to get as close to the pain as we could, walk side by side with our trusted partners, and to faithfully communicate in personal ways, how giving can make a difference.
What gives you hope in this moment?
We know the playbook for defeating the virus — test, trace, treat, and eventually, a vaccine. But on the economic side, we don’t know what it’s going to take to recover. The pandemic has bluntly pointed out the massive disparities between us. We’ll get a vaccine someday. But how can we take advantage of this moment to not just bounce back, but bounce forward, with a focus on more equitable outcomes?
I refuse to lose hope but this question is enormous and overwhelming if thought about on a global scale. So I choose to focus locally and with specificity. What specific systems have failed in this COVID-19 pandemic, and how are we going to fix them? One failure was that people didn’t know where to turn to get help. Newly unemployed immigrant families and formerly incarcerated people didn’t feel safe at the large food distribution sites where members of the National Guard were pitching in to help.
But relationships work. These folks turned to organizations they trust and those organizations were able to pivot and expand their services based on funding we could provide. For me, hope is where it begins. Actions of caring, generosity, and resilience are what will carry us forward, together.
Hyperakt is a purpose-driven design and innovation studio that elevates human dignity and ignites curiosity. We believe in design’s power to build a future filled with courage, optimism, and honesty.
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