After city’s $146M infusion, LELE team helps ensure those most in need aren’t forgotten
Worcester team works so unheard communities have say in ARPA funding allocation
The city of Worcester has never seen a funding infusion like the $146 million it was allotted in pandemic relief in the American Rescue Plan Act. That kind of money needs to have a “generational impact,” said City Councilor Etel Haxhiaj.
She added the relatively paltry initial allocation of $10 million for loosely defined “community-based initiatives” seemed unlikely to do that.
That’s one reason Haxhiaj, Gina Plata, and Casey Burns – all co-leaders of the Worcester team in the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Leaders for Equitable Local Economies initiative – joined citywide efforts to alter and open up the allocation process.
The team advocated for a larger funding share for priorities like housing, mental health, and infrastructure. They also pushed to give voice to the minority communities hit hardest by COVID-19, to ensure the money was equitably allotted.
Worcester responded by creating five committees to help distribute the designated funds and inviting all citizens to apply to join them. It also bumped up the “community-based initiatives” allocation to $50 million.
“We’re going to call that a victory,” Plata said.
LELE leader: Results won’t change if process doesn’t
The $350 billion American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, was passed by Congress early last year and included $130 billion for local cities and counties. The money aims to help communities relieve pandemic-induced financial strains, and it can be used for anything from road repair to cybersecurity.
Worcester learned its allocation amount last summer, and Plata said the initial stirrings had her worried the people most affected by the pandemic might miss out.
“It’s not a criticism of the city, but with funding in general, you give to the people who know you and the nonprofits that are known,” she said. “You don’t always listen to the grassroots.”
Burns said the money – no matter how great the amount – won’t change anything without new thinking on distribution, and that’s what advocates have tried to offer.
“We need to do something different about how we distribute resources if we're going to expect different results,” she said.
Worcester appeals to residents for input
The city announced its altered approach in January, when it asked for volunteers to serve three-year terms on five new committees to help guide distribution of the $50 million. The committees have the following areas of focus:
- Affordable Housing Trust Fund (which received the largest piece of the allocation, at $15 million)
- Business Assistance
- Community Project/Programs (including for needs like child care and food)
- Creative Economy/Cultural Plan (to develop the arts and the creative sector’s workforce)
- Mental Health Programs
To ensure the committees included the historically underrepresented, the LELE team said they texted, emailed, and followed up with as many potential volunteers as possible. They then helped with applications, resumes, and the applicant’s required “personal statement,” as needed. Ensuring all applicants got an interview was a priority.
By the February deadline, Worcester had gotten more than 140 applicants for 25 resident slots, and Burns said the committees are far more representative than they would have been.
Making sure small agencies aren’t forgotten
But Plata said as the funding is distributed, many organizations that directly serve communities of color don’t have the staffing or know-how to properly respond to the city’s “request for proposals,” which solicit funding recipients. The LELE team is now working to make sure the agencies are fairly considered, Plata said.
Haxhiaj added the financial resources and networking available through LELE have really augmented the team’s efforts.
“We most likely would have done it at a lower scale and not moved with the speed that we have or the confidence that we have,” she said.
The Boston Fed’s Ines Palmarin, a co-developer of LELE, said the initiative was founded to find and support local leaders passionate about racial equity and economic opportunity. Now, it’s helping those leaders reach into their own communities to do the same thing.
“LELE amplifies voices, and then its leaders amplify other voices, and we see progress toward better and more equitable results for communities,” she said. “What’s happening in Worcester shows that.”