WE Pilot Participants Adapt to Meet COVID-19 Economic Inclusion Challenges

This piece was co-written by Steve Tobocman.

Launched in February, the Welcoming Economies Technical Assistance Pilot (WE Pilot) supports local leaders in advancing policies, programs, partnerships, and practices that include immigrants as part of their local or regional economic strategy. Two of the three pilot initiatives are partnerships between a local economic development agency and a local government or nonprofit. Participants include:

Over the course of the year, the WE Pilot team (Welcoming America and Global Detroit) and other experts are providing each of the participants with more than 20 hours of direct technical assistance, hands-on coaching, and peer learning opportunities, where leaders can learn from each other’s expertise, share ideas, and provide updates on their progress.

Initially, the WE Pilot team planned to convene an in-person peer-learning opportunity at the Welcoming Interactive in Charlotte, NC this month (rescheduled for April 21-23, 2021). However, when the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, it became clear that we needed to adapt the peer learning structure, and the participants needed to adapt their local goals. In the first months of the WE Pilot, the participants refined goals to focus on connecting immigrant business owners with loans, grants, and technical assistance, and connecting immigrant families with housing resources.

As time went on, the plans for local in-person outreach efforts and face-to-face community engagement were disrupted (much like other Welcoming Network members), and it was not possible to safely meet as a peer group.

Very quickly, the WE Pilot participants pivoted to filter their program goals through the new realities of COVID-19, moving from small business assistance focused on expansion to emergency assistance focused on safety and survival, and from ongoing housing assistance to COVID-specific relief. They found new opportunities for outreach that didn’t involve door-to-door or community meetings. The WE Pilot became a place to present COVID-19 challenges and troubleshoot ways to ensure immigrants were part of the inclusive economic response and recovery.

Since then, the WE Pilot team has continued monthly individualized coaching calls with each community and convened all the participants via video call to discuss small business assistance in the early days of COVID-19 with the Neighborhood Development Center and the Build from Within Alliance. This month, we met again by video for a mid-year peer-learning opportunity where each community shared their goals, progress, challenges, and questions.

Some of the milestones for the participating communities so far include:

  • Launching an Immigrant Relief Fund in Champaign County, IL, by the YMCA to provide emergency financial assistance to local immigrants regardless of status. Also, a survey was administered over the phone to 39 immigrant small business owners to understand their experiences during COVID-19 and connect them to resources.As Mike Doyle, Executive Director of the YMCA at the University of Illinois put it, “Being selected to participate in the WE Pilot came at the perfect time – it provided us with the support and direction critical to building our presence among immigrant businesses in our community.”
  • An online directory of over 100 immigrant-owned small businesses launched in Louisville, KY with a regular promotional series. The directory—which includes maps sorted by ethnic community and business type—will serve as the foundation for additional surveys, workshops, marketing and promotion of Louisville’s immigrant-owned businesses.Sabeen Nasim, Director of the Office of Globalization for the City of Louisville, shared that “being part of the WE Pilot has been incredibly beneficial. Making connections to successful models and receiving feedback from national experts has been monumentally impactful as we work to improve our strategies in empowering our international communities.”
  • In Pittsburgh, PA, the Urban Redevelopment Authority allocated emergency funds for the COVID-19 housing crisis to community-based organizations who are best prepared to assist immigrant and refugee families with their rent, utility payments, and mortgages.Jeremy Carter, Program Manager of the Housing Opportunity Fund at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, said of the program: “It has been great to learn and hear what other cities are doing to increase access and engagement to economic opportunities with immigrant and refugee communities. The support from the WE Pilot has helped us hone our goals to further engage these communities throughout COVID-19 and beyond. The WE Pilot has brought us together [locally] to really discuss and formulate an aggressive plan to reach our engagement goals with the immigrant and refugee communities. While our programs are focused on affordable housing, we are learning things from the small business and entrepreneurship programs that are applicable to our efforts as well.”

The staff at Welcoming America and Global Detroit have learned much from the WE Pilot participants and are honored to continue supporting their efforts to build welcoming economies through this remarkably challenging period in American history.

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