Two funds managed and distributed by a coalition of human rights organizations have distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to communities in need. But perhaps their biggest impact, coalition members say, is the infrastructure the funds have created to mobilize for vulnerable communities.
The Oregon Worker Relief Fund and the Climate Change Fund were both borne from disaster. The former was created to help undocumented Oregon workers who faced financial hardship due to the pandemic but were not eligible for other forms of assistance like stimulus checks or unemployment insurance. The latter is intended to supplement income lost due to extreme weather like heat and wildfire smoke.
While the coalition is looking back on its impact so far, it also is thinking about how to leverage this new infrastructure to keep helping vulnerable Oregonians for years to come.
“Climate disasters are still going to happen,” said Isa Pena, director of strategy at Innovation Law Lab. “Our communities are going to be disproportionately impacted and we’re going to need to be responsive.”
Pena said she’s confident the coalition is equipped to keep responding.
Starting from scratch
The Climate Relief Fund and the coalition that manages it is novel in its approach to financial aid, Pena said. Community advocate and welfare groups were accustomed to advocating, at a high level, for the needs of the people they serve.
And each organization – PCUN, Innovation Law Lab and Oregon Food Bank, among nearly 100 others – had its own needs to fill.
Then COVID-19 hit, Pena said, and each individual office was overwhelmed with people needing assistance.
“We thought, OK, instead of each organization creating their own small version of a relief fund and raising their own small dollars from their base, how can we leverage our collective power to create a larger system?”
So the organizations came to the same (virtual) table and drafted a proposal for the first round of worker relief. More than 100 organizations supported the effort; more than 25 actually work with applicants and distribute the funds.
The legislature green-lit an initial $10 million for immigrant Oregonians who were not eligible for other forms of assistance.
And once the walls were in place, it became easier to help more Oregonians more immediately than Pena had ever seen, she said. The coalition has since secured and distributed more than $100 million from a combination of state, city and private donor dollars.
“Prior to worker relief, we had tried to coordinate but had separate programming,” Pena said. “Now … we’re really shifting that mindset. We want to work together, and will serve more people if it’s coordinate. We have more ability to activate organizations to move dollars, services, whatever it may be in a way that we hadn’t coordinated before.”
The coalition is not its own organization – just a group of passionate representatives from organizations doing similar work, Pena said.
“It doesn’t feel very revolutionary in theory, but in practice it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re all working together towards the same goal,’” Pena said. “We can all thrive.”
No other safety net
To date, the Oregon Worker Relief Fund has distributed more than $134 million to nearly 70,000 immigrant workers and their families. Most of the funds have gone to agricultural workers who lost income due to COVID-19.
Applications have closed for the most recent round of funding, but the coalition is still navigating people who have already applied through the system. Pena said they expect all funds to be distributed by the beginning of January.
Immigrant communities were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, Pena said, but did not have access to government assistance during the pandemic. Most of those safety nets have expired, anyway, but immigrant communities are still trying to make up for losses they faced.
“People talk about COVID as if it’s over,” Pena said. “But our communities are really disproportionally impacted. We’re still trying to get folks out of the immense losses of family, wages, and more, into a world in which everything has gone up. There’s still a lot of work to do.”
For most recipients, the relief funds came as essential income. According to data from Oregon Worker Relief, most fund recipients had at least one child and used the money for basic necessities like rent, utility bills and food.
One in eight Oregon workers is an immigrant. Undocumented Oregonians contribute $81 million in taxes every year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
“Immigrant Oregonians are contributing to our collective prosperity,” Pena said. “We all contribute to our collective prosperity.”
The Climate Change Fund, meanwhile, has distributed more than $3 million to agricultural workers who lost work and wages due to extreme heat or smoke.
Infrastructure built to last
Pena said Oregon Worker Relief will continue to ask government and private entities for funding for both funds as long as they can. They are also thinking about how to use the infrastructure they built to build a permanent system of aid to immigrant workers.
“How can we work on helping communities thrive and not just survive?” Pena said. “That’s part of the dream for worker relief that I have.”
That will include permanent funding for climate emergencies, because those aren’t going away, Pena said.
The group also wants to tackle issues like housing, legal representation, and health care. It is considering an eviction prevention fund to help families stay in their homes.
Oregon Worker Relief also was the fiscal agent for Senate Bill 1543, which establishes a fund for immigrants facing deportation to access legal representation. That program is tentatively slated to launch in spring of 2023.
The infrastructure exists now, Pena said, and she and her colleagues will continue to look for ways to leverage it “to keep helping these communities.”
“There are real opportunities to make clear impacts on peoples’ lives,” Pena said. “That is exciting to think about.”
Shannon Sollitt covers agricultural workers through Report for America, a program that aims to support local journalism and democracy by reporting on under-covered issues and communities. Send tips, questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org