While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the traditional service delivery models of many of leading non-profits, some leaders have used the opportunity to make their organizations more resilient, expand their service offerings, and reach more people. Vivian Fraser President & CEO of the Urban League in Essex Country, New Jersey (Newark); Elizabeth Lindsey, President & CEO of Byte Back in Washington, DC; Roxanne Fuentes, Executive Director of Harbel in Baltimore, MD; and Verizon’s Mario Acosta-Velez spoke about these challenges and opportunities at a US Tech Future event. Transition, transformation, and technology were key themes from the discussion. Three salient lessons emerged: The organizations had to transition overnight from face-to-face service delivery to online delivery. As they are not seeing clients in person, they transformed their offices into food distribution centers and safe havens for youth. Going forward, the organizations see inventing their value propositions though 5G.
Transition: From face-to-face to online overnight
For some 50 years, Harbel has provided in-person counseling for people with substance abuse and mental health challenges. When the pandemic hit, Harbel transitioned to online service delivery in just three days. Having broadband meant that they could continue service to their clients without a disruption, though Fuentes notes the hoops they to jump through to ensure compliance with HIPPA and other regulations.
Urban League’s Fraser described how their clients quickly learned and adapted. For example, many were not ready for home schooling, but now they are doing it. Seniors have special challenges given that the physical interaction is part of their well-being, and they tend to be less digitally skilled. However, their elderly clients are not only learning new skills, but also teaching each other.
Lindsey of Byte Back, which provides inclusive tech training that leads to living-wage careers, notes that the technology itself has become the safety net. To protect themselves from the virus, people need technical skills and tools to work from home. For 23 years, all of Byte Back’s training was done in their physical locations, but in March 2020, they instantly became an online learning provider. But the faced the challenge that many of their students don’t have a computer or broadband connection. On the other hand, many of their graduates, already armed with digital skills, have been more likely to have and keep a job during the pandemic. COVID underscores that jobs in the future will have online components, making Byte Back’s work all the more vital for the community.
Transformation: Using assets in opportunistic ways to serve communities in need
Fraser described how the Urban League provides “a safety net and a trampoline” for its clients. But the pandemic required that her organization temporarily shift its value proposition from empowering clients from long term economic advancement to short term economic relief. COVID has revealed how many clients have challenges to secure adequate food, housing, and financial resources. Many of the people they serve are front line workers who themselves have been infected, if not killed, by the virus. Many Urban League employees have experienced family members passing away during this time, but the employees and the people they serve have had to grieve on the go. On the positive side, Fraser sees that they pandemic helped people overcome their reluctance to telehealth, notably health insurers, which did not want to reimburse online health services prior to the pandemic.
An urgent need during the pandemic has been food. Two days a week Harbel opens up for food pickup, offering 500 meals per week and home delivery for seniors. Harbel set up a solar umbrella so visitors can charge their phone when they visit. Harbel has also seen the need for their youth program increase. Children and adolescents need a safe haven during periods of unrest, and frequently, a place to do homework. Working with local schools, Harber endeavors to equip kids them with positive ways to express anger, confusion, and frustration. Training for job skills is also part of social justice for youth.
Some organizations that the switch to online delivery has increased community participation. First time home buyer workshops have more online attendants than they had in libraries.
Technology: Reinventing community organizations with 5G
The participants agreed that the situation would be even worse had it happened 10 years ago when broadband and internet technology was less diffuse. They observe that the technology has helped people be more resilient. They are optimistic for the future, as they see how their work will be a blend of in-person and online service, ultimately expanding the number of people they reach and services they offer. They see 5G as critical to that transformation, particularly as it offers an improvement in speed, capacity, and lowered latency to current broadband connections.
Fraser noted that what the Urban League did 100 years is not the same work that they will do in the next 100. While their mission is advancing economic opportunity for all, technology will play a greater role than before. Fraser sees how 5G will bring a democratization of technology, equalizing opportunities for poor children, and that together, users and providers will shape the future.
The leaders of the the organizations noted the importance of communities, local government and 5G providers all working together to make technology a reality for people in urban areas.