Portraits of Leadership

Center for Urban Pedagogy Confronts COVID-19

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 Christine Gaspar, Executive Director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy. CUP is a nonprofit organization that uses the power of design and art to increase meaningful civic engagement particularly among underrepresented communities. CUP projects demystify the urban policy and planning issues that impact our communities, so that more individuals can better participate in shaping them.

From your vantage point, what stories are not being told about the impact of the Coronavirus?

Image for post
Image for post

We’ve been talking with our community partners a lot about what support they need from us right now, and what issues are coming up for them.

Some are obvious, like people really need help navigating unemployment applications. But others are more subtle and less visible. For example, we know our educational systems are already profoundly inequitable. The shift to remote learning is pushing students with less consistent access to technology further and further behind.

For the most vulnerable students who have special educational needs, their families’ inability to access their regular services will be profoundly detrimental, and may also lead to those families being seen as negligent.

As many of us know through our efforts to access PPP funds from the federal government, the many new laws and relief measures intended to help actually present tremendous barriers for those who don’t already hold power. Many programs are offering remote access to services, but where is the support in navigating that access? There is free WiFi available, but who will show you how to set it up? There are so many meaningful gaps right now that need to be closed.

How have you needed to change how your staff works or the way you deliver services in order to meet the new reality?

We’ve been privileged to have enough technology to make the shift quickly to working remotely, which was very new for us. That said, it’s been difficult for all of us in different ways, and we’ve tried to make ways to check in on each other and make space for just being human together.

We have a Thursday afternoon “staff meeting” that is really just a place for us to hang out, talk about what we’re going through, and be together in community. At the beginning of our staff meetings, we go around and talk about how we’re REALLY doing. While my pre-pandemic self would have been counting those minutes in my head,

I now realize how little of an investment it feels like to really be our full selves with each other, and I want to think about how to always make room for that.

The bigger challenge we’re working on now is figuring out how we do the part of our work that involves working directly with impacted members of the communities we work with. What does it look like logistically to have those conversations now? What is it okay to ask of folks, given everything else they are facing? And how do we manage the mechanics of talking about design remotely, with folks who have different levels of access to technology? How do we use high and low tech to make it work?

I’m excited and inspired by these conversations, as I know we will learn from what we do in ways that will definitely make our work post-pandemic stronger.

What gives you hope in this moment?

The work our partners are doing every day, against all odds, just as they have been through every other kind of adversity we can imagine. The agility, strength, and generosity of the nonprofit community in fighting to survive while living our values, in ways that larger institutions with much greater resources are failing to do. The commitment, perseverance, creativity, and genuine level of care for each other among the CUP staff.

My job right now is to hustle really hard to keep our doors open and to keep all these amazing people employed and together, and the ways they are showing up for each other and for our partners keeps me going.

Explore the Center’s work at WelcomeToCUP.org and on Instagram. Read more interviews in the Portraits of Leadership series.

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.

Are you a leader in the nonprofit, cultural, or design space? Want to share your perspective on confronting COVID-19? Please fill out this Google Form.

Hyperakt crafts transformative brands and digital storytelling experiences for clear-eyed champions of social justice and creativity.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store