A group of Fellows posing together in Philadelphia.

Learning How to Adapt: Fellows Discuss the Changing Landscapes of their Organizations

Adaptation and flexibility are key for Fellows and their host organizations. Fellows get candid about their experience so far, discussing what they and their organizations have learned, and what they hope for the future.

How has the pandemic affected the ways in which your organization delivers direct service and how has your day-to-day work changed?

Emily Hynes, Year Up New York | New Jersey: We have had to move all our instruction and programming to Zoom since going virtual in the middle of March. We now teach all our classes virtually and have our touchpoints with our participants online. This change has prompted us to think about the ways we can shift our lessons, both technical and professional, to the virtual space so that the message still translates, which has forced us to rethink how we conduct programming. It has also made us think further about inequities and differing levels of ability to participate in virtual learning, both in terms of having the appropriate technology and being able to sit in front of a computer screen for seven hours a day. It hasn’t done a whole lot to change my day-to-day work, as most of my work aside from direct service was already able to be done virtually.

Nick Mitch, Riverkeeper: Our work continues, but we’re seeing every single aspect of our work affected. Adapting means not only considering what steps we need to take to be able to continue to engage in the same activities we have but also considering whether and how our activities need to change.

Angela Ortiz, Generation Citizen: With our programming primarily taking place in the classroom, the pandemic has significantly altered our direct service delivery. With teachers facing the significant challenge of switching all their classes to virtual learning—and attempting to address the equity issues that are highlighted in this crisis—our project-based curriculum is difficult to prioritize for many teachers. In this context, much of my day-to-day work has shifted from checking in on classrooms’ progress on their projects and providing advocacy support to helping develop virtual resources to continue teaching action civics and helping translate these activities for Spanish speaking students and families.

Annie Want, The Food Trust: Much of our direct service work takes place in schools, including my own. To that end, many of us who depend on school access to reach students are having to be creative about our work. Nutrition educators are starting to build out videos for teachers to use, and we on HYPE are just doing our best to keep in contact with our school-based advisers and support them to the best of our abilities. The Food Trust also runs farmer’s markets and delivers food bucks so that low-income people have increased access to fresh produce, and these efforts have been expedited and ramped up to meet the demands of the pandemic. Some of our markets are opening earlier than usual, and the farmer’s market team has been working extra hard to make sure that shoppers and vendors are safe as markets continue.

Joyce Kim, uAspire: In the post-secondary realm, our direct service delivery structure has not changed drastically since we already work virtually to connect with students. However, we have had to adjust the content of our programming so that we can address the ripple effects of this pandemic, and support students in navigating the transition to remote learning, figuring out the CARES Act, and discussing other needs for themselves and their families. We are slowly shifting back to our financial aid content but staying flexible to the changing landscape so that we can alert students of new resources or policies.

The pandemic doesn’t eliminate the need for the services your organization provides to the community. What obstacles have you faced in reaching the people you serve?

Lauren Hurley, Breakthrough Greater Boston: Shifting to seeing and interacting with many students every day in person to trying to get in contact with students over email or phone poses new challenges. It’s trying to find a balance in reaching out to students to support them and their families and also acknowledging all the different things that people are dealing with during this time. We would never want to make families and students feel more overwhelmed during this time.

Taylor Reese, Year Up Greater Philadelphia: Ensuring the same level of support that we provide when we are in person has been the most challenging. There are a lot of moving pieces, and some things fall by the wayside until someone else can pick them up. In this case, I’m picking up Student Services check-ins. I’ll be calling students who previously identified needing support in a certain area, and hearing about their progress and how we can help. I’m excited to be involved in this area of program, and honored to be trusted enough to make it happen. I imagine it’ll continue to be challenging, though. Through digital, you can send email after email or text after text into the abyss and not get a response. When we were in person, it was a lot harder for students to not respond or not engage.

Annie Want, The Food Trust: A lot of our work depends on schools, markets, corner stores, and community centers. With many of these sites closed, and with the need to restrict person-to-person contact, we’re needing to think about how to still get food bucks to people, how to support business owners in applying for stimulus money, and how to reach students. The high rate of poverty in Philly means that so many of the communities we serve are struggling with a lack of childcare, working in essential jobs like transportation and grocery stores (and so having an increased risk of getting sick), housing insecurity, lack of health insurance, and being undocumented, in addition to having increased levels of food insecurity.

Meredith Jones, Jumpstart New York: A significant obstacle is the way this pandemic has exacerbated social inequities. Many of the families we serve are facing serious challenges, so home education understandably has to come after basic necessities. I’ve also heard that despite companies offering free internet or school districts providing laptops, it has taken significant time for families to actually receive these supports.

How did you prepare to engage with students online? Did you have to adapt material or the way you interact? What’s a typical session look like now and how is it different?

Emily Hynes, Year Up New York | New Jersey: A lot of preparation went into online learning, both at our local site and nationwide. We planned and prepped for about two weeks, knowing we’d have to go virtual, before going fully virtual, and programming was put on a nationwide pause for a week after going virtual to ensure everything would work correctly and that all our students had the appropriate technology to connect to online sessions, including laptops and a reliable WiFi connection. It involved a lot of adapting material and the way we interact, because we try to make most of our learning hands-on and interactive which is obviously made more difficult by not being physically near one another.

Lauren Hurley, Breakthrough Greater Boston: I run weekly Zoom calls with students where we check in and talk about some of the challenges of virtual learning and talk about some highlights of their weeks. We’ve also invited some former Teaching Fellows to join the calls and play a fun game of Kahoot each week. I’ve found that students are really enjoying the Kahoot quizzes and I think it can be a way to disengage from the constant conversation about covid.

Taylor Reese, Year Up Greater Philadelphia: We took a week off from delivering program to learn about Zoom and all the other virtual platforms we’d suddenly had to embrace. I think taking that pause set us up to be successful; instead of learning on the fly, we got to take some time with it and work out some challenges. Resuming program was not without its hiccups, but overall it went well.

Erika Apupalo, Reading Partners: We have prepared resources to be shared with families and volunteers. This is shared via social media and bi-weekly emails. We are in beta testing phase to provide our quality services digitally.

When the pandemic is over, what do you think organization will take away from this experience?

Nick Mitch, Riverkeeper: In a lot of ways, this pandemic reinforces the value of in person events, activities, and engagement. I think we’ll move forward with an appreciation of how special it is to come together as a community, and an awareness of the way that can’t be fully replicated online.

Taylor Reese, Year Up Greater Philadelphia: I think we’ll have a greater proficiency with the technology we are utilizing and be able to carry that over–whether it be instituting Work from Home days to get our future students acclimated to that kind of environment, or something else. I think there are more possibilities opening in front of us. And it’s generated a lot of interest/effort behind some future Year Up pilot programs, so that roll-out should be interesting, given that a lot of it will be based off what we are learning now.

Angela Ortiz, Generation Citizen: I hope that my organization will put compassion and equity at the center of our work in a meaningful way. Transforming our teacher professional development and working on our curriculum so that we are meeting the needs of low-income students, students of color, queer students, undocumented students, and those who need a path to civic action and societal transformation the most.

Annie Want, The Food Trust: I think that this experience is emphasizing the parts of our work that are crucial. At the core of our work is food access and battling food insecurity for all Philadelphians, and that has never been more relevant than right now. I hope that we take away a renewed commitment to our incentive programs which reduce the barrier to healthy food, and to our markets.

Meredith Jones, Jumpstart: I think we’re gaining a deeper understanding of structural inequalities that have always existed and place families in a precarious state during an emergency like this. I also believe organizations are discovering a flexibility and resilience in their ability to adapt that will be crucial with future challenges.

You and your organization have this new skill/capacity. What will you do with it?

Emily Hynes, Year Up New York | New Jersey: I think this is a useful lesson for me to learn just starting out in my career. It’s proving to me what I’m capable of in stressful situations I never dreamed of while in school. It’s pushing me to continue showing my supervisors the value I bring to our team even when we’re not in person for them to see the value I’m adding. It’s pushing me to advocate more for myself and my work than I think I would have in the physical space. It’s showing me also that direct service doesn’t have to be in person and that in person service can sometimes be limiting or prohibiting for those who need it most.

Nick Mitch, Riverkeeper: One of my greatest hopes is that we’ll be able to use technology to engage new stakeholders in our work.

Angela Ortiz, Generation Citizen: I think the skill set our organization develops here will primarily impact how we think about expanding our program and policy footprint. Before hit with this crisis, our organization was in the midst of strategic planning and having a lot of conversations about what remote support of our partners looked like. I don’t imagine that the education world, or the world at large, will look the same after this- so I think remote programming and virtual action civics is going to be a much larger consideration for our organization.

Meredith Jones, Jumpstart: I hope we continue to use these resources to reach families who might not usually have access to our direct service. I also hope that this new flexibility will improve organizations’ willingness to increase accessibility and accommodations for different kinds of learners.




Taylor Reese is the FAO Schwarz Fellow at Year Up in Philadelphia.