Buck up. Step up. Run for office. Undertake personal acts of civility and inclusion. Don’t wait for others to do any of this for you.
Those calls to action emerged at a Community Foundation for Greater New Haven (CFGNH) gathering of not-for-profit group staffers and city activists convened to take stock of how New Haven has fared in 2017, a year characterized by budget uncertainty and cuts in Hartford and the launch of a Trump administration that is cracking down on undocumented immigration.
The event took place Wednesday evening at the Lawn Club, where 200 people listened to “local leaders who are on the front lines” review 2017 and look ahead to next year.
CFGNH CEO Will Ginsberg said the gathering was “neither to congratulate [ourselves] nor to wallow in our troubles but to take stock” and to see how the area not-for-profits, leaders, and beneficiaries are “meeting the test of our time.”
The three featured panelists — immigrant rights activist and outgoing CFGNH Board Chair Kica Matos, Cornell Scott-Health Center CEO Michael Taylor and Clifford Beers Clinic CEO Alice Forrester — all concurred with Ginsberg that in 2017 the community’s values of inclusion, generosity of spirit, and unity, have been under unprecedented assault.
That assault has partly been financial in terms of serious cuts to not-for-profits; Taylor said if the federal government doesn’t reauthorize the community health care centers, his stands to lose 12 percent of its budget. Panelists also described a profound attack on the core fundamental value of the sector, namely that inclusion trumps exclusion and that the whole of a community should share in progress.
In response, a new sense of resolve and self-activation has tipped the balance over despair, reported Forrester. She said her client families, especially the parents of the kids, have committed themselves in innumerable individual ways to becoming leaders.
“People feel this is the time to question authority, and to become authority,” she said.
At the Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center Taylor reported that “the reaction has evolved from fear and vulnerability at the start [of the Trump era]. As people have become — I hate to say it — used to a new ‘normal’ of aggression and bigotry—people have found their resolve. They have come to understand the importance of [participating in] the political process.”
“And what can happen if you don’t,” he added in a minatory tone.
Matos reported that the local immigrant community does feel that New Haveners and its institutions have indeed rallied to support of immigrants such as Nury Chavarria and Marco Reyes, in their seeking refuge from deportation. But ultimately, she noted, “they know [resolution] is on the federal level.”
Helping The Helpers
“I see my staff stressed. They’re overloaded,” Forrester said. Given the assault on the immigrant community in town, she cited the growing difficulty of finding bilingual care-coordinators.
Forrester also said that for the first time in her two decades helming the clinic, she has convened trainings for her staff on the prevalence of racism and how unconscious attitudes might affect people’s work.
“I had never gathered my staff together to talk [as a group] about racial inequity, raising issues in an open way to call people on cultural humility,” she said.
Ginsberg asked panelists what advice they might offer up-and-coming leaders.
“Leave the country,” Matos replied with whimsical irony. Yet she also conveyed an evident sense of crisis: “My heart calls for everyone to fight for the democratic institutions and the most vulnerable. If we don’t we will see the demise of our democracy.”
Matos cited the reinvigoration of members of her own family in attending rallies and coming, often on short notice, to support her work with immigrants facing deportation, as in the recent case of Miriam Martinez-Lemus, the Stamford mom of a child with serious juvenile diabetes who was facing deportation to Guatemala over Thanksgiving.
During the Q & A, one audience member bemoaned low voter turnouts, especially in neighborhoods where the unengaged are paying the biggest price in lack of services.
Another questioner, Executive Director Erin Boggs of the Hartford-based Open Communities Alliance, cited recent studies focussing on how being “economically and racially segregated contributes to driving voting across all issues.”
Ginsberg cited “the too low voter turnout by the very people whose not-for-profits we support” as one of the areas the foundation hopes to focus on in 2018.
At the meeting’s end, Ginsberg said he was inspired by what he had heard. People are fired up and mobilized by a fighting spirit, he said. “I couldn’t be more proud.”