Looking for Solid Ground

by Alise Shafer Ivey, Director, Pedagogical Institute of Los Angeles

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When nations turn their backs on those fleeing war, violence, religious persecution, and domestic abuse, children are often the collateral damage, caught in the crossfire of political machinations. The Pedagogical Institute of Los Angeles, commonly referred to as PILA, is a grassroots organization that supports vulnerable children worldwide by providing early educational experiences that mitigate the effects of extreme stress and trauma.

Like most grassroots movements, we take the ground for granted – where there’s grass and there are roots, there is always ground. And from this ground we build. Yet suddenly, as COVID-19 ravages what was already a bleak landscape for millions of refugee children worldwide, the ground is harder and harder to identify. Shuttered in our Los Angeles office, with our funding and mission stalled, we struggle to find solid ground on which to respond to the alarms sounding across the globe: borders closed, supply chains choked, hunger, disease, families holding on by an ever fraying thread, barely.

"The ground is harder and harder to identify."

There are two ways to tell the story of how PILA responded to the pandemic. The first way is full of heroic undertakings – stepping up, reaching out, empowering.

  • We quickly gathered masks, money, food, and supplies to distribute to the shelters and communities we serve.

  • With the Nests shuttered, our community volunteers in Tijuana set up their own makeshift Nest in a small space inside the shelter. Borrowing supplies from the Nest across the street, these dedicated Nesters carried on the work without us. The pandemic gave voice to our Nesters as they stepped into leadership roles and found ways to support one another. For example, Wiston, a 20-year-old percussionist from Venezuela, started a music program for toddlers in the shelter where he and 150 other refugees isolated themselves.

  • We organized online parenting classes to support parents as tensions and fears of the virus grew.

  • In the Congo, our Nest teachers made their way through their villages spreading health and hygiene information, distributing food, and playing a leadership role in their communities.

The second way to tell this story is to share how COVID-19 shook PILA to the core, disorienting us and causing us to fall into a temporary crisis of identity as we tried to decide how to respond to hypotheticals. What do we do if the shelters… if the camps… if the children…? How close do we stay to our educational mission if COVID-19 tears through the overcrowded shelters in Tijuana? How far do we stray from our purpose as we try to meet the emergency needs of refugees infected with the virus?

From what seemed like an impossible distance, we tried to make sense of conflicting information about the needs on the ground.

"It gave us time for a long, backward, over the shoulder glance at what we have accomplished and where we could strengthen our programs and systems."

As a small, young organization that grew up quickly, we are always running as fast as we can. When the pandemic hit North America, PILA was juggling five Nests on three continents and supporting four low-income public schools in Los Angeles. We are stretched thin, financially, and organizationally. If the pandemic had an upside, it’s that the time shuttered allowed us to stop running, or at least to slow down to a steady, measured jog. It gave us time for a long, backward, over the shoulder glance at what we have accomplished and where we could strengthen our programs and systems.

In retrospect (though we are by no means out of the woods), we learned a lot from this unexpected, tumultuous time. We learned that even in an emergency, counting to ten is helpful. There’s value to waiting and seeing, even when a ticking time bomb requires that we simultaneously prepare for the worst. We learned that there’s immeasurable benefit in understanding the broader NGO environment and how each organization fits into the picture by addressing particular needs. We can’t be and thankfully don’t need to be all things to all people, not even in a crisis. Our first instincts to mobilize and act in the face of an impending disaster had to be balanced against the reality of our resources, our mission, and the protection of our organization. These were hard lessons – ones that kept me up at night – but invaluable and an inevitable part of our growing pains.

Our next steps will be tempered and informed by the knowledge that our bold grassroots achievements are precariously laid upon a ground that can never be presupposed. Knowing this, maybe we tread more gingerly, with measured steps and less certainty. Or maybe we intrepidly shore up the ground, and fiercely keep on going because now, we know this terrain. We’ve recalibrated the GPS to recognize the road closures and detours wherever they lie. And we’re stronger for it.

Read the full magazine here!

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