By Erica Boniface, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation staff
“A problem is a chance for you to do your best.” – Duke Ellington
There will be thousands of stories to tell our future generations as we explain the coronavirus pandemic. Stories of healthcare workers and frontline employees who put their own lives at risk to help save the lives of countless strangers. Tales of grocery store workers who came to work every day to help their customers and stock shelves with essential items. Memories of how communities came together to help each other from lending a hand to an elderly neighbor to landlords waving rent for out-of-work tenants.
As we move forward, it’s important to acknowledge individuals who took charge and made a difference during the pandemic. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t tip our hats to our very own Livingston Fellows, who exemplify what it means to be leaders during difficult times.
The Livingston Fellowship Program in and of itself is all about honing an individual’s leadership abilities in the nonprofit sector – the program reflects Bonfils-Stanton Foundation’s belief that no investment in the tangible assets of a nonprofit organization can equal an investment in its greatest asset – its leader.
Watching the Livingston Fellows take charge during the coronavirus pandemic to help guide their organizations, colleagues and communities has been awe-inspiring. We reached out to just a few of our 80 Fellows to see how they shifted their focus and stepped up – from changing their missions to help others to writing powerful articles to help uplift others.
Warm Cookies of the Revolution
Fellow: Evan Weissman, Class of 2019
A 4-year-old son and newborn daughter at home, Evan Weissman has his hands full to say the least. “I won’t even start to complain about the pandemic because most of my friends just lost all of their work. Without any other hands around to help, it is difficult to get much done as they both demand 100 percent attention when they’re awake.”
Evan and his team at Warm Cookies of the Revolution acted fast when Colorado was first hit with the outbreak. They needed to shift from planning a live program and figure out a way to get artists paid for their work. So, Evan, Molina SPKX and Mary Grace Legg started brainstorming how to bring a bit of happiness to people in a time of sorrow and tragedy. That’s when the virtual gift baskets came to life. The idea is simple: The baskets include work of local artists via online videos and are broadly sent to recipients to bring entertainment to the comfort of their homes. Take a look at what the virtual gift baskets are all about on their website here.
When it comes to Evan taking away important leadership skills after going through the pandemic, he says it has made him even more trusting that other people will come through on their own commitments and with their own expertise. “We’ve had more requests for our work than ever since the pandemic hit. People are trying to figure out how to connect with others and that is good to know that they value our engagement and our artistic merit’. The program has received wide media attention in Westword and the Denver Post.
Fellow: Tony Garcia, Class of 2011
Tony Garcia and his team at Su Teatro were hit particularly hard – closing his entire company and cancelling upcoming performances and events. Tony, being the principled leader he is, was determined to pay his staff, which was a difficult pursuit with no ticket revenue coming in during the state’s stay-at-home order. On top of maintaining his work at Su Teatro, Tony is also a faculty member at Metropolitan State University in the Department of Chicano/a Studies. “Switching to online classes has been very time consuming and stressful. I feel bad for the students, they signed up for a class with a live and interacting professor,” says Tony as he explains what it’s like teaching students remotely during the pandemic.
“As far as Su Teatro goes, we had the XicanIndie Film Festival scheduled in April. We were able to transfer those to virtual screenings. The filmmakers were so cooperative and excited to engage remotely,” explains Tony. “The post screening platicas (discussions) were in depth and we could really see the role that artist could have in the face of a crisis. In so many cases they were able to make connections from the films to the current pandemic – whether it was a question of isolation, uncertainty or even post-traumatic connection.”
Tony applauds the quick work of Su Teatro’s financial and development personnel that have worked to make sure the company’s budget needs were all met. That swift-thinking also led to action with the creation of the Performers Emergency Support Opportunity Fund (PESO) to provide assistance to the artists who have lost gigs and teaching work. They’ve been urging the community to help by “Putting a Peso in the Pot.” So far it’s working – the initial goal was set for $20,000 and currently the fundraising initiative has brought in roughly $16,000.
As far Tony’s personal experience during the pandemic, he says “My partner and I have been taking walks on a more regular basis. We used to do that a long time ago when we first got together. I like that we spend that time just talking and not juggling,” says Tony. But through the positivity of walks, he also says, “There is a sadness though. There is a danger if we are not cautious. I just turned 67 while in quarantine and I think of all my contemporaries who are equally vulnerable.”
Boulder Bridge House
Fellow: Isabel McDevitt, Class of 2018
“As the COVID-19 pandemic grips us, nothing is more important than effective leadership,” writes Isabel McDevitt in a blog post for Boulder Bridge House.
Isabel is one of the helpers, the heroes if you will, that have stepped up in the crisis to help others in need. But that’s not new for her – she’s been the executive director at Bridge House since 2012, which provides a range of services and programs to help adults experiencing homelessness.
“This pandemic has exposed so many injustices for the people I have served over my career. I feel a burning sense of urgency to go bigger in how I leverage my skills and experience to address economic and social inequities on a larger scale,” Isabel writes to Bonfils-Stanton Foundation. “For me, I find extra motivation with the fact that I am helping people which fuels me more than financial compensation or climbing the corporate ladder would – it is easy to work when you have a sense of purpose.”
In addition to Isabel’s inspiring blog on leadership during the pandemic, she has also been participating in complimentary leadership webinars geared towards other leaders. You can view and register for the webinars on Center for Creative Leadership’s website.
“I have always been a transparent leader but I have tended to do a lot myself, but during the pandemic I have been forced to delegate more and I have increased my communication with more frequency and direct communication with all levels of my team”
Second Chance Center
Fellow: Hassan A. Latif, Class of 2020
In 2012, Hassan founded the Second Chance Center (SCC), a community reentry agency dedicated to the successful transition of people returning from incarceration in 2012. The organization usually has daily activities for SCC clients, mentoring trainings, addiction counseling, employment services and more – but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve had to switch their services all online and close in-person classes and sessions.
“We’ve been able to work remotely and hold virtual groups, sessions and labs,” explains Hassan as he discusses how they’ve handled the stay-at-home order. “We’ve had to close in-person services. Staff and client safety was the impetus for this difficult decision.”
But with the work SCC and Hassan’s team does for their clients – it hasn’t been easy. “Mentoring groups are joined in by halfway house residents and mental health and substance disorder support continues on Zoom, but it’s been a challenging process for all impacted to say the least.”
With most Livingston Fellows, Hassan uses the pandemic as another learning experience to add under his leadership belt. “This has been an opportunity to further engage the imagination and leadership of my team. I have been pleased with the adjustments everyone has willingly made. I have actually been able to ponder my own inevitable exit from the day-to-day functioning of SCC.”
Fellow: Garrett Ammon, Class of 2011
“We have produced almost 100 videos between our Project Wonder and Dance Along! initiatives in the past weeks during the pandemic on wonderbound.com,” says Garrett Ammon, Artistic Director and Choreographer of Wonderbound.
“The stay-at-home order was announced the day before our company dancers returned from a well-earned week break. We had already been operating under an approach I’ve called ‘precautious optimisim,’ so when the order came out, we knew our first priority was keeping all of our dancers and staff on payroll. The second was keeping the dancer’s minds, bodies and creativity active. The third was finding a way to keep serving our community through our mission.”
Garrett and his team went quickly to work producing videos (ranging from dance films to tutorials) and releasing new ones every Tuesday on wonderbound.com and then pushed them out on the company’s social media platforms.
When talking about his dancers, Garrett has an overwhelming sense of pride. Positivity in a world of so much uncertainty. “I’m seeing sides of them [dancers] I would have never seen otherwise. They are discovering things about themselves that many may have never known.”
Although the future is full of a lot of unknowns, Garrett is using his leadership abilities to develop ideas, research for projects in the future and actively planning. “I think we will be stronger, more versatile and a more effective version of Wonderbound as we move ahead post-pandemic.”
Food Bank of the Rockies
Fellow: Erin Pulling, Class of 2010
You’ve read stories asking people for donations to food banks. For extra help. More assistance. Erin Pulling, CEO of Food Bank of the Rockies describes the pandemic as a “perfect storm of decreased food supplies, volunteers, and staff – and an incalculable increase in need.”
The coronavirus pandemic keeps piling countless problems Erin’s way at Food Bank of the Rockies, “It has been the epitome of building a car while we are driving as we have rolled out an entirely new operational system. Our budget is out the window as we are tripling our food purchasing and with total COVID-related expenses projected at many millions of dollars.”
But rather than dwell, Erin also looks at the situation as an opportunity to grow as a person and a leader. They are saying “yes” to every feasible community need and partnership. They are saying “yes” with the belief the community will step up and help make the impossible possible.
Erin reflects on the outpouring of love they’re experiencing. Someone even hand-delivered a $25 check to them after losing their job. A simple gesture, but that $25 meant the world to Erin and her team.
“While it is my usual MO to move quickly, to be a strong leader, I need to maintain constant awareness that this isn’t just impacting our work, it’s impacting each of us individually. We have team members that are terrified, those who have been sick, and those who are struggling as single parents with no childcare. We’re trying to step up for each other. The gratitude we’re hearing from frontline staff tells me we’re doing that successfully so far.”
Youth on Record
Fellow: Jami Duffy, Class of 2016
Jami Duffy recently learned about something she didn’t expect rolling into 2020 – before the Coronavirus. After a few days working from home, she struggled to remember small details. After sharing this with a colleague – wondering what was going on, her colleague said she had something called “trauma brain.”
Since 2009, Jami has been leading Youth on Record’s vision and successful programs helping at-risk youth turn their lives around through music and education. So, having this struggle of ‘trauma brain’ was a new concept for her – how can she go from being on top of all the small details to being all over the place, so to speak?
Jami did what any good leader knows to do –she took what she was going through and processed it to help others. She moved from experience to teaching and published a powerful blog on Youth on Record’s website called “Caring for your team during coronavirus: A trauma-informed approach.”
In it she writes, “We approach our students at Youth on Record with an understanding they have likely experienced some sort of trauma, and that the traumatic experience has impacted their ability to learn.”
Jami lays out helpful tips for others leading teams through such uncertain times, from encouraging a routine to creating a calming home office.