By: Kevin Zwick
When I accepted the position as CEO of United Way Bay Area in June of 2020, I knew there would be big challenges ahead. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the inequities in our region and the lack of a strong safety net for those who need it most. I also understood the scale at which the pandemic would exacerbate the problems of housing and food insecurity for the hundreds of thousands of people who had just lost their jobs.
However, the recent shooting of Jacob Blake and the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many other Black men and women at the hands of an unjust system rooted in bigotry and police brutality, have only underscored the existential crises we as a nation face. The crisis of historically racist policies that lead to unequal outcomes for people of color, the crisis of a woefully underfunded public health system, as well as, the crisis of an inequitable safety net, all lie on top of our region’s unacceptable housing crisis. The imperative to serve those in need, to strike down barriers and to provide greater opportunities for all our Bay Area neighbors has never been louder or clearer.
A large portion of my first 100 days has and will be spent interacting with and learning from the people who make UWBA the special organization it is. Even though I meet with everyone virtually, I am no less inspired by the dedication of countless individuals throughout our region who make helping other people their life’s work.
UWBA—including our staff, partners, donors and volunteers—all work tirelessly to address the systemic inequalities that so many of us face. We live in a time of reckoning. As Bay Area residents we can no longer continue the same path, living in discrete corners of society, out of touch with the needs of those struggling to get by. The current Northern California wildfires just like the pandemic knows no boundaries, and yet we see how it has so gravely impacted our most vulnerable. We have before us an unprecedented opportunity to create a fairer, more equitable and just society, not just for ourselves, but for our future, for our children and grandchildren.
Many of us have often referred to where we live as the Greater Bay Area. But the pandemic, the economic and public-health disparities and the protests for racial justice have underscored that we live in an unfair and inequitable Bay Area. We don’t have to settle for that. We can all commit to creating a truly Greater Bay Area, rather than trying to settle back into the way things were before the pandemic.
I believe the nonprofit sector is uniquely positioned to help lead the path forward. Having worked in the nonprofit sector for 24 years, I’ve seen first-hand the kind of dedication, resilience, innovation and creativity that is meeting these systemic challenges head on. While action from the federal government can be frustratingly slow, the ability for people on the ground to respond quickly has been nothing short of awe-inspiring.
I am also inspired by the work that United Way Bay Area already does, with programs like SparkPoint, which provides financial coaching and career planning; 211, which connects individuals to supportive services like food, housing and help with utilities; and Earn It! Keep It! Save It!, a national partnership that provides free tax preparation and refund assistance to low- and moderate-income individuals. In addition, our work on the 2020 Census will help ensure that communities that have too often been left behind and at risk for further marginalization will receive their rightful allocation of resources and congressional representation.
When our Bay Area public health officers ordered a region-wide shelter-in-place in March of this year, local social-service agencies worked around the clock to ensure they could safely meet what was certain to be a massive surge in demand. Thanks to our donors and institutional partners who knew we had the ability to deploy these funds to our network of nonprofit partners, UWBA raised and distributed over $5 million in COVID-19 Relief Fund to shore up food pantries and emergency-relief programs, as well as, expand our 211 assistance line to help those in need of housing assistance, food and other basic needs.
What inspires me the most about the heroic efforts of our local nonprofit community is that they didn’t pack it in as things got rough. They doubled and tripled their efforts to bravely serve others, providing emergency groceries, rent, school supplies and other essentials safely.
As I reflect on my experience over the years, I am continually reminded that it is the people on the ground, and the communities they serve, who will successfully lead us into a brighter future. By working together, we will turn the tide of inequality that many of us have experienced for far too long.
UWBA has never been more important than it is now, working with our nonprofit partners on the front lines to leverage collective impact as we harness the energy and enthusiasm of local employers to help make a difference. Right now I’m seeing our employers and workplaces stepping up to donate both time and money, volunteering and recommitting to corporate giving campaigns that support our community. We need our business community to continue to step up, donate, volunteer, and advocate for those of us who are less fortunate. The nonprofit sector is vital in leading this work, but no one can do it alone. This is the power of the United Way model.
I am honored to join United Way Bay Area as the new CEO, and truly believe that UWBA is ready for this moment. So much more needs to be done in these difficult times, but I believe everyone in our region is up to the challenge. Needless to say, it will take all of us.
Let’s Live United!