Investing in Community for an Equitable Recovery

In March 2021, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan ACT (ARPA), a $1.9 trillion dollar effort to help individuals and communities recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Tacoma and Pierce County, the infusion of federal funds presented us with an opportunity to make transformative investments for youth and young adults. But to realize the potential of these dollars, they had to be spent not just effectively or prudently, but equitably, and in a way that was responsive to disparities that have existed for a long time – and that COVID-19 only exacerbated. 

At the Foundation for Tacoma Students, our ten-year track record of building partnerships and facilitating coordination positioned us to partner with Pierce County to rapidly administer more than $700,000 in ARPA funds. In doing so, we reached beyond our historical focus on the City of Tacoma, to support 28 summer program providers who served more than 2,100 students in communities across Pierce County through the Expanded Learning Opportunity Fund.  

“The focus with these dollars, and the reason why we were so eager to support that, was it was a first step for us to say ‘this is a necessary investment for us to redress what has happened over this last year,’ and to think about what we’re going to do differently as we move into a post-pandemic world,” Dr. Tafona Ervin says, Executive Director of the Foundation for Tacoma Students.

To best understand the impact of these funds, we want to highlight voices from three of the organizations that delivered these important summer programs.

Asia Pacific Cultural Center – The Tautua Youth Group 

“The pandemic has prohibited a lot of getting together in the past two years, but we are slowly getting back to being in person,” Faaluaina Pritchard says, Executive Director of Asia Pacific Cultural Center. The Tautua Youth Group was a welcome return to semi-normalcy for the predominantly low-income Asian and Pacific Islander youth that the program served in the summer of 2021. The program’s diverse curriculum includes career exploration, college readiness, civic engagement and activism,  and substance use and prevention. But above all, Tautua is about connection, belonging, and service. “The word Tautua literally means ‘serve’” Pritchard says. “A Samoan proverb is: O le ala i le Pule of Tautua!  This translates: The way to LEAD is to serve!  It is this belief that we train our students in such a way.  It is through this cultural club that boys and girls change their lives accordingly due to the in-depth cultural training they receive through the Tautua Club.”

The Tautua Youth Group

Pierce College District – Pierce Summer Equity Empowerment Programs

Pierce College’s EDI CARES (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: College Access, Retention and Engagement Services) Equity Empowerment Programs provides high school students of color and low-income students with culturally enriching programs focused on topics ranging from college and career preparation, identity and leadership development, health and wellness, socio-emotional learning, and STEM. “For a lot of BIPOC high school students, they don’t have a lot of learning spaces where they can be affirmed, and see themselves reflected,” Dr. Ciera Graham says, Associate Director of College Access, Retention and Engagement Services at Pierce College. “These programs were intentional in creating activities that affirmed the cultural identities and lived experiences of our students.  For example, our  Legacy of Indigenous & Native Knowledge program focused on experiences of Native & Indigenous students and their relationship to the local environment.” The no cost programs provided participants with transportation and meals, and combined a focus on social justice and activism with the opportunity to gain exposure to a college environment. “All of the programming took place at the Pierce College campus, which provided students access to the college environment, and [the opportunity] to meet EDI CARES staff members who identify as BIPOC, and share similar lived experiences,” Dr. Graham says. 

The Strong Experience – Strong Youth Institute Summer Academy

“Technology, in a very short period of time, took this switch from being: ‘this is something I can do recreationally,’ to ‘this is now mandatory that I’m using this technology,’” Jamel Jackson says, Physical Activity Coordinator for the Strong Experience. “The kids didn’t quite know it, but they were getting a little burned out from all the technology… To see them play a tag game or a dodgeball game and just laugh and have fun – they really took to it. I think they really needed it.” At the Strong Youth Summer Academy, recreation and games are part of a larger focus on community and culture among middle and high school youth. The program supported social-emotional health with a focus on self awareness, having a vision for the future, and identifying values. Participants also explored how to experience healthy relationships, and how to listen to others to understand their experience. “The program gives them an opportunity to practice communication skills and relationship skills, ”  Vanessa Caskey says, Co-Founder of the program. “They were [also] able to have fun and play, which is something that teenagers don’t have the ability to do. And we were able to do that for them… and we were able to see teenagers play and have fun and that was really important as well.”

If there’s a silver lining to the last two years, it’s that the pandemic has marshaled countless examples of organizations like the ones highlighted who are both persevering and adapting their work to address the impacts of COVID-19 on youth and young adults. If lasting change is the goal for investments like ARPA, then organizations like Asia Pacific Cultural Center, Pierce College, and The Strong Experience are essential to an equitable economic recovery.