A pandemic tests the Working Cities Challenge model: Does it work in a crisis? A pandemic tests the Working Cities Challenge model: Does it work in a crisis?

Cities across New England adjust to stay ahead of needs caused by COVID-19 Cities across New England adjust to stay ahead of needs caused by COVID-19

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May 28, 2020

Fallout from the coronavirus pandemic was mounting in Pittsfield, Mass., during the fourth week in March, just like it was around New England, and hunger was a big concern.

The school’s free lunch program was gone with canceled classes, reduced public transportation limited food pantry access, and people without savings were suddenly without jobs and a way to pay food bills.

It turned out a monthly meeting, established by the Pittsfield’s Working Cities Challenge initiative, was well-timed. About 40 people gathered via videoconference – including low-income residents and local political and business leaders – and began planning how to get food to those who needed it.

Restaurants and other organizations have since provided free meals to school children and front line workers, while volunteers began delivering boxes of food to isolated households with no income, according to Alisa Costa the WCC’s Pittsfield director. Meanwhile, food pantries are being rearranged to eliminate weekly holes in food availability.

“These monthly meetings provide a narrative of the hopes and wants of the community,” Costa said. “This time, we learned about the gaps and started to fill them.”

Communities are being tested, so is the WCC model

The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging communities everywhere, and in places around New England like Pittsfield, it’s also testing the Working Cities Challenge model.

The WCC is an initiative of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston that is active in 12 small cities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and more communities through the affiliated Working Communities Challenge in Vermont. It aims to revive communities through collaboration between groups that might not organically interact – for instance, faith-based and business groups. These groups become collectively accountable for progress in tackling chronic problems like crime and poverty, and they’re asked to continually learn and adjust.

WCC teams don’t address basic needs, they focus on improving overall economic opportunity for low-income residents. But the Boston Fed’s Colleen Dawicki, a WCC manager, said a crisis like this is what the WCC is designed for, because research shows strengthening a community’s civic infrastructure helps it better face challenges.

“People already know and trust each other in a way that doesn’t happen in all communities, and that makes for quicker connections and sharing of resources,” she said.

Reinvent the wheel? Not necessary

The WCC has been in Danbury, Conn., since 2017, but its initiative leader, Sandra Ferreira, has been around the area longer. She’d worked previously for Connecticut’s emergency management services and the city of Danbury.

When the pandemic hit, Ferreira had already been through the Ebola and H1N1 outbreaks locally. She’d also helped the WCC establish credibility with a wide range of local officials, providers, and residents. That’s why community leaders asked her to gather everyone under the auspices of the WCC to begin to organize a COVID-19 response.

Ferreira contacted what she called the “boots-on-the-ground-community”– including the police and fire chiefs and nonprofits – and got them in same virtual room. That began conversations that continue today and have helped Danbury take on a range of issues, from managing food collections and delivery, to getting cleaning and personal hygiene supplies where most needed.

“I think what people realized is that you shouldn’t reinvent the wheel,” she said. “Not everyone knew resources were available to do what they needed to do. It’s really about coordination.”

Experiment, fail, then learn to build it better

Coordination was also huge when the pandemic hit in Newport, R.I., and the city was extra prepared to do that because it had something of a “dry run” during a gas outage in January 2019, said Kate Cantwell, the Newport WCC initiative director.

Newport has a reputation for glamour, but its North End neighborhood is a square mile that hosts 5,000 families and multi-generational poverty. That gas outage left families without heat or access to ovens. Networks of people had sprung up among WCC partners then, and they were reactivated in March to help get people food, educational materials, mental health help, police protection, and other resources, Cantwell said.

The Newport WCC initiative also worked with the provider Buki to fast-track a Bluetooth-powered network it had been planning to debut this spring. The network allows people to communicate and receive key health and other information by phone without the internet. “If people were forced to choose between a cell phone plan and food, we wanted them to choose food,” Cantwell said.

Collaboration with residents and partners has been key, but the WCC’s emphasis on constant learning and adjustment has also been important, Cantwell said. Before the WCC, people attacked problems with heavy planning, then became too invested in executing the specifics of that particular plan, even if it wasn’t working, Cantwell said.

“Experimentation and failure weren’t an acceptable part of the process,” she said. “The Working Cities model incorporates learning as you go. We can see where the cracks are and build it better.”

“That’s important,” she said, “especially in a crisis.”

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