Community Organizing Responses to COVID-19
Queens Spotlight was launched in April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time of incredible hardship and severe shifts in how society functions, we are continually inspired by the resourcefulness, responsiveness and resilience of Queens community members. In this series we highlight community organizing work and hope to provide insight into the vitality of this work within our borough during the pandemic.
July 2, 2020
Saeeda L. Dunston, Executive Director, ELMCOR Youth and Adult Activities Inc.
Saeeda, you are the Executive Director at ELMCOR. Could you give us a brief introduction to the work that ELMCOR does, and it’s history here in Corona and Elmhurst, Queens?
Elmcor Youth & Adult Activities is a human service/community-based organization started in 1965 by a group of concerned citizens in the East Elmhurst/Corona area of Queens, New York. During that time there were concerns about pockets of poverty, drug use and violence in the community. Most importantly it was a time of community organizing in Black communities around the country, rooted in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement. Our community was no different; the founders and community members described the organization as one created “By the People for the People.” As a community organizing outfit, being responsive to the needs of the community is paramount. The organization began with recreation programs for young people and after a few years, recognizing the need to address the issue of heroin flooding communities of color at the time, Elmcor responded by starting what was then called the Narcotics program.
These formative years were inspired by community self-determination and were the beginning of creating youth programs that provided recreation, childcare, afterschool programming, job readiness, GED, college and career readiness, substance use prevention, and in the last few years, STEM and the only Youth Recovery Clubhouse in Queens. Elmcor went from a small grassroots treatment program in a basement to providing a 51-bed intensive residential program; an ancillary Outpatient program; the only mobile treatment unit in Queens, and to offering HIV testing, prevention and education. We have two senior centers that provide space for connections, healthy eating, exercise and case assistance for our beloved aging population. Elmcor has been a provider of food programs since the beginning and so our economic development program hosts our food pantry and provides space for our employment training and placement programs.
Elmcor has developed from a small volunteer organization to one of the largest non-profit community-based service agencies in Queens, delivering culturally-appropriate programming for the quality of life needs of 7,000 individuals and families annually (86% of those served are people of color). Servicing primarily Northern Queens communities (East Elmhurst, Elmhurst, Corona, Jackson Heights, Woodside, Flushing and Long Island Cities) – communities that have significant populations of people of color, immigrants, youth, seniors, low income individuals and families, and residents who are marginalized – we provide a continuum of care that supports and sustains healthy and productive living. Our organization’s mission is to foster positive changes for individuals and families through skills development leading to self-sufficiency, a sense of accountability, and a strong empowered community.
While it took some time for the data to emerge, we now know that Black and brown communities living in historically under-resourced neighborhoods are most impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, both in terms of the actual death toll and in terms of the impacts on the livelihood and mental health of the community at large. Could you describe how these impacts are felt and have played out for the communities living in Corona and Elmhurst, and what is most urgently needed as we look to the future?
Even though it took some time for the data to be released, we were living this pandemic and witnessing firsthand the devastation it was creating in our community. Our agency lost two beloved staff members before the second week of April. Several of our staff lost family members, our participants were dealing with sickness and loss of loved ones, and some of our participants lost their lives as well. We didn’t need data to know we were going to be disproportionately impacted. Communities of color always are. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and has compounded the strain on an already under-resourced community: dealing with families living at or below the poverty line, food insecurity, seniors with social isolation, affordable living concerns, and an opioid epidemic. Elmcor is continuing to provide food in our community that was already identified as a food insecure community, through our pantry that prior to COVID was serving approximately 225-250 families weekly, and is now serving approximately 950 to over 1,000 families weekly. We are providing substance use prevention, treatment, counseling, and case assistance services to our participants and community members struggling to cope with the impact of grief, unemployment, unstable housing, hunger, isolation and several other traumatizing experiences. It is so difficult to pin down one urgent need as our communities had so many urgent needs prior. One of the reasons Elmcor is not a single issue agency is because we recognize that people’s lives are complex and so their issues are also complex. I would say we need to urgently address the need for community organizing.
As critical awareness grows around how systemic racism persists and kills, both through direct violence and through the long term effects of economic exploitation and lacking access to housing and health care, is there anything you think is missing from the conversation right now?
I am an anti-racist and anti-poverty advocate, and as a leader of an organization that has community organizing, anti-racism and anti-poverty principles embedded into its mission and approaches, we recognize that what is most needed is courage in the conversations. We have to be courageous enough to be uncomfortable. We have to address the real issue of power and how the structures and systems that support multi-layered violence upon Black people and other communities of color are designed to secure a power structure and are not accidental.