These Detroit grassroots groups are stepping up to help kids during the COVID-19 pandemic

These past few weeks haven’t been the easiest for Ailleyna Jeter. She's a single mother who lives with her two daughters, ages 3 and 8, in Southwest Detroit. And like a lot of parents, she's suddenly had to adapt to all the changes and restrictions brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's orders, including sheltering in place and closing schools for the rest of the year.


Before the quarantine, Jeter spent her days working as a skills trainer with an organization that provides job training and support to people with disabilities and mental health issues. The requirements of social distancing, however, have disrupted both her work situation and the daily routines of her children. The early days of the crisis, in particular, demanded a real effort from her just to ensure that her family's basic needs were met.


“It was really hard honestly to get food and to get [my daughters] comfortable with what’s going on," she says. "And it's been hard … finding somebody to [watch] my kids, because I'm all they have right now.”


To navigate these challenging times, Jeter has been receiving support from a local place-based nonprofit, Urban Neighborhood Initiatives (UNI), located in the Springwells area of Southwest Detroit. Although it's set up to be a community development organization, UNI has found itself stepping a little outside that traditional role to help assist people in its 1.4-square-mile focus area during the coronavirus crisis. It’s one of several local grassroots organizations mobilizing to help struggling families in Detroit and the surrounding area.


These days, Jeter is receiving regular check-in calls from the organization to see how her family is doing and help them with assistance.


"A young lady named Shacheli Gomez, she’s been calling my family every single day," says Jeter. "She'll text and let us know about different programs they have for my girls to eat and stuff like that. They've been a major help."


Jeter is not alone. All over Metro Detroit, families are struggling to make sense of life under quarantine. Some parents have been sickened by the virus, others have lost jobs. For many local kids, the lockdown has meant being stuck at home, isolated from friends and unable to learn in the way they've grown accustomed to at school. For others, the situation has been even more dire.


Challenges for kids and families

In Detroit, the governor's decision to close K-12 schools, initially until April 5 and now for the rest of the year, drastically has restricted access to school breakfast and lunch programs in a city where more than 60% of the student population is eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. The number of public schools now participating in these programs has dwindled from 58 schools participating down to just 17. And whereas these meals were once provided five days a week, students now can only pick up pre-cooked bagged lunches two days a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, as supplies allow.


Then there's the issue of water, which families need to prevent the transmission of diseases like COVID-19. Although Whitmer, Mayor Mike Duggan, and the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department on March 9 announced a joint plan to restore water to every home in Detroit (reversing an earlier policy of shutting off water to those unable to pay their bills), many households in the city still remain without water. According to the Associated Press, the city of Detroit has restored water to 840 homes so far and is slated to work on 190 more. That said, though, Detroit's water department is uncertain how many of the city's homes are without water and is now planning to check with 5,400 residences to get a better grasp of the problem.


A lack of internet connectivity has also made sheltering-in-place difficult for local families, cutting many off from valuable information and resources. A 2015 FCC study rated the Motor City among the worst cities in the nation when it comes to the digital divide, finding that 38% of residents and an astounding 63% of low-income households did not have broadband internet access at home.


Organizers stepping up


Local organizers have been getting involved in the effort to assist people. Mothering Justice is a statewide grassroots group of mothers of color dedicated to policy advocacy and leadership development centered around economic justice. 482Forward is a Detroit-based citywide network of organizations, parents, and youth that focuses on changing educational policy in ways they feel will benefit local students. Both groups have been compelled to join the fight to help local families, even when that has meant changing the way they might usually do things.


While Mothering Justice may not be able to do any face-to-face organizing right now, they have been ramping up phone calls, social media and texting campaigns, and communicating with legislators on COVID-19-related issues like childcare, paid family leave, and economic stimulus. They've also been putting together a series of videos to help educate people on the virus and share news, updates, and resources. What's more, Mothering Justice volunteers have been providing direct assistance by delivering educational packets and food packages to mothers who can't pick them up from their children's schools due to transportation or timing issues. According to the group, demand for school lunches is high in Detroit, and the trucks carrying food are often unable to supply everyone who has lined up for meal packages.


While Eboni Taylor, the group's deputy director, feels the demands of the pandemic are difficult to ignore, she also believes people need to pay attention to the inequities it highlights and think about what comes after the crisis.


"This virus is showing where we have some really deep holes. And it's critical that we try as nonprofits to help," she says. "But this should show us what we need to do beyond this virus, that we should live like this every day where we care about everybody!”


As a group made up of working-class moms of color, Mothering Justice is very conscious about pay and access disparities linked to things like race, gender, and citizenship status. And the outbreak of COVID-19 and the recession that has quickly followed in its wake have only heightened its concerns about the ability of local families to pay for essential needs like groceries, utilities, childcare, and health care. For this reason, the group is continuing its longtime push for policy changes around issues like earned paid sick time, affordable child care, maternal and infant mortality, and bolstering social safety net programs. Responding to the pandemic, it's also been calling on Whitmer to declare a moratorium on rent, mortgage and utility payments for the duration of the current crisis.


Like Mothering Justice, 482Forward is now faced with the challenging task of responding to on-the-ground issues, while also staying focused on its long-term efforts to improve Detroit's educational system.


Right now, there are a ton of questions floating around about how school closures will impact students. How will it impact seniors looking forward to high school graduation? What will at-home learning look like for students who don't have access to online tools? To what extent are the home study materials being sent to students busy work or supplemental to their core studies? 482Forward has been pushing for clarity on the answer to these questions from Detroit's public school district and charter operators. It's also trying to respond to the reality that parents, for all intents and purposes, have suddenly had to become educators while their kids are stranded at home.

"There's a real concern about learning, because now every parent has basically become a homeschooler," says Wytrice Harris, 482Forward's director of operations. "And many are not prepared at all to be homeschoolers. So there are some learning curves."

To deal with this, the network has been connecting parents with resources and other parents who have experience in different subjects to make the homeschooling process easier. Together with Mothering Justice, it's currently circulating an online form among parents to assess needs, concerns about the school closing, and their ability to offer tutoring and academic support and help with other needs.

Both Mothering Justice and 482Forward also believe access to reliable information is a priority. To that end, they've been directing families to the city's website, which has a list of trustworthy resources parents can access during the pandemic. As part of the Covid313 Community Coalition for Families and Students, the two groups have also teamed up to put together a virtual town hall that brings together knowledgeable panelists to speak with parents and residents about a variety of issues related to the pandemic. The virtual town hall broadcasts live on Detroit Public Television's Facebook page from 12 to 2 p.m. every Thursday.


‘An all hands-on-deck moment’


UNI, the group that's been helping Jeter and other residents in the Springwells area of Southwest Detroit, also supported the recent COVID313 town hall. Like a lot of nonprofits, they've taken on a variety of new roles during the pandemic. In addition to shifting some of its youth development and educational classes online, it's been having staff make regular phone calls to check in with folks like Jeter who live in their neighborhood.

Digital Stewards help UNI install an antenna to extend their internet access into the neighborhood.
Living in a community with a lot of Spanish speakers, it's helpful that most of UNI's staff is bilingual, which lets them fill an important communication function. In addition to traditional resources the nonprofit is also supporting and using the Combating COVID-19 in Southwest Detroit, an online mutual aid networks dedicated to assisting individuals to help one another during the pandemic. The network makes use of Google Sheets and a Facebook group to facilitate offers and requests for resources like housing, food, and transportation.


In addition to the phone calls and supporting the mutual aid network, UNI has also been collaborating with partners like Gleaners Community Food Bank to distribute things like food and cleaning supplies through mobile distributions held outdoors.


One of its more noteworthy collaborations is with Detroit Community Technology Project's Equitable Internet initiative (EII) and Digital Stewards volunteers affiliated with Grace in Action Church. They helped put in an antenna to extend UNI's internet connection further in the neighborhood and also installed a solar recharging station residents can use to recharge phones and other devices. Dedicated to combating the digital divide in several Detroit neighborhoods, EII is also setting up an intranet service to connect neighbors, which should be in place later this spring, and hopes to use its solar-recharging stations to host WiFi hotspots in the not-too-distant future.


During the pandemic, UNI has also been collaborating with and learning from organizations like the Detroit Parent Network, Congress of Communities, We the People Michigan, and Detroit 21, a coalition of Community Development groups that includes nonprofits like Brightmoor Alliance, Hope Village Revitalization, and Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation.


This cooperation is bearing fruit, allowing groups to put together projects like the virtual town hall and share tactics like putting out sandwich boards to reach residents who might not have internet or phone access.


Christine Bell, UNI's executive director, is grateful to be working alongside these other groups and individuals from the mutual aid network. She sees their joint effort as a reflection of the deep commitment many Detroiters have to community. And that's an invaluable resource to have at a time when the pandemic is really pushing people to their limits.


"Everybody is working really, really hard while we're experiencing this," says Bell. "This is truly an all hands-on-deck moment."

This article is part of a four-part series in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan exploring the impact on youth and local organizations serving youths as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.