Three Actions Philanthropic Funders Can Take to Advance Equity for Immigrant and Refugee Workers

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Three Actions Philanthropic Funders Can Take to Advance Equity for Immigrant and Refugee Workers
By: Monica Munn, Senior Director, WES Mariam Assefa Fund

Since the onset of COVID-19, immigrant women like Leonor Albarran, a janitor in Santa Monica, California, have acted as the front line of defense in the fight against the virus. Leonor’s work entails cleaning a commercial office building and ensuring that workspaces are sanitized, thereby minimizing the virus’s spread. 

When the pandemic began, Leonor did not have expertise in disease prevention. But over the past few months, her knowledge and skills have grown considerably thanks to her completion of the Infectious Disease Certification Program created by Building Skills Partnership (BSP) in collaboration with property service workers, her labor union, the SEIU-USWW; and her employer, Allied Universal.    

BSP empowers California property service workers to advance in their careers. When COVID-19 emerged, BSP quickly realized that workers would need support to address new safety and cleaning requirements. They rapidly designed the Infectious Disease Certification Program, which has benefited California’s immigrant population, that makes up 61% of property service workers in the state.

Development of this program was funded by a grant from the World Education Services’ (WES) Mariam Assefa Fund, where I serve as Senior Director.   

Initiatives like BSP’s have immediate and long-term benefits. They empower workers like Leonor with the tools they need today, and at the same time help workers develop in-demand skills that will enable them to advance into better jobs in the future.   

Leonor believes the program has also provided benefits outside the workplace—she now understands how to protect herself and her children at home. “I learned how to properly disinfect equipment, wash hands, and practice social distancing,” Leonor says. Everything I’ve learned, I’m now sharing with my kids at home and with other workers.”   

When the WES Mariam Assefa Fund launched last year, we knew our mission of supporting economic mobility for immigrants and refugees—particularly those in low-wage jobs—was vital, and in need of more philanthropic capital. In 2017–2018, funders directed barely 1% of their total grantmaking toward immigrant communities, according to NCRP. 

However, we could not have predicted the rapidly increasing need due to COVID-19’s impact on immigrants, who are disproportionately likely to work in jobs deemed essential amid the pandemic. COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear that the work of Leonor and others in low-wage jobs both protects our communities and is essential to our economy.  

Perspectives of immigrants and under-invested in workers are similarly vital to economic recovery. This moment’s challenges have created a rare opportunity for the emergence of a more equitable, resilient economy and workforce, particularly for immigrants, people of color, and women. Those of us in a position to catalyze this shift must act—its emergence is not inevitable.   

The Fund’s conversations with BSP, our grantee partners, and others have helped us distill three critical actions funders can take to create a more equitable economy.    

#1. Provide unrestricted funding to organizations that center their efforts in workers’ perspectives.      
The success of BSP’s Infectious Disease Certification Program is due, in part, to BSP’s rapid response to changing conditions.  However, many organizations’ ability to meet the moment is constrained by highly prescriptive funding. Unrestricted, multi-year funding provides worker-centered organizations with flexible resources to pivot, experiment, and share their work with others who can replicate promising solutions. BSP has begun offering tools to organizations across the country, including 32BJ SEIU in New York.     

#2: Support initiatives that empower workers to drive the design and implementation of solutions.    
Workers should be the decision-makers when developing solutions to their workplace and training needs. To make decisions effectively immigrant workers must have a seat at the planning table. Key to BSP’s efforts has been designing trainings that are informed as much by the workers themselves as by the employers.    

#3. Invest in worker ownership models.    
Ensuring that immigrants and refugees can advance into better jobs is not just about improving workforce training; it’s about creating more quality jobs. For decades, worker ownership models, such as cooperatives and employee stock ownership plans, have created and sustained quality jobs, generated wealth for workers, and built inclusive local economies.    

We’ve seen a renewed interest in the promise of worker ownership models through another Fund initiative, the Opportunity Challenge, an open funding opportunity we launched with the Tarsadia Foundation in March. For instance, one of the Challenge’s semi-finalists is Brightly, a franchise of worker-owned, women-run, community-led cooperatives that offer eco-friendly cleaning services. Brightly and several other semi-finalists represent a small fraction of worker ownership proposals we received through the Challenge.     

By exploring and investing in solutions that enable immigrant workers to thrive, the Fund has learned the importance of listening, collaboration, and flexible capital. The insights above are guiding our way forward, and we hope that worker-driven solutions can attract more resources—especially in this moment.    

In doing so, we can ensure a more inclusive economy for all.  

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