As 2021 begins, it’s tempting to want to put the strain of the past year behind us. Yet I would be remiss if I overlooked the tremendous work of this team — and their unwavering commitment to meet the needs of our participants, who have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic’s negative health and economic impacts.
That’s why I am taking some time to reflect on what we have accomplished in the past year; how our community has stepped up to support growing numbers of career seekers in need; and how the incredible team of staff and board leaders at CWEE have met this tremendously challenging moment in our history and in our personal lives.
Immediate Pivot and Intensive Participant Outreach
In mid-March, when the pandemic forced a statewide stay-at-home order, CWEE was well-prepared to pivot and adapt. CWEE was successful because our team has a strong, trust-based relationship with those we serve. While adapting to a rapidly changing operating environment, this team maintained its focus in those initial weeks and months on our most important priority: assessing and maintaining the safety of our participants and their families. Every single staff member conducted outreach — including me and the rest of the leadership team. We made countless phone calls, asking the same questions: Are you safe? What do you need? What questions do you have? As the pandemic worsened in an environment rife with misinformation, we knew that CWEE was a trusted source of information for our participants.
By the second week, we had made contact with over 80% of our participant population, and these contacts informed every action we took afterwards. The people that CWEE serves have been disproportionately impacted by job displacement due to the pandemic. What’s more, their jobs — often in retail, food service and customer service — put them at higher risk of contracting the deadly virus. Add to all that the day-to-day challenges faced by CWEE career seekers that all but ensure they bear the brunt of this downturn. These barriers include transportation, child care, access to services and mental health support — all significantly disrupted by Covid-19.
Constant Communication Supported Cohesion During Chaotic Time
Throughout April and May, I huddled each morning with a broad swath of our management and leadership team to review the day’s priorities and assess the need for support. I sent all-staff emails each Monday morning to preview the week ahead and each Friday to debrief and inform. As managers, we checked in frequently with staff, many of whom were juggling work with children at home, virtual learning, and health concerns. We began holding all-staff town hall meetings every week, with a flexible format allowing for concerns to be shared and collective problem-solving. As these weekly town halls have evolved over the past several months, the agenda is more structured but the value of these virtual community meetings is greater than ever, allowing us to engage, connect and move forward with a true sense of cohesion — even in this virtual environment. We’ve also continued to focus on reaching participants each week with intensive one-on-one outreach, as well as weekly email updates, which are posted to our website and promoted via social media.
Bringing the Richness of CWEE Services to All Participants
CWEE serves over 1,000 career seekers each year. Yet prior to the pandemic, just 200 or 300 of these individuals would come on-site to CWEE for training, case management support or other opportunities. How could we ensure that we reach many more CWEE career seekers with all of the depth and enrichment of our workforce development programs?
This desire was not borne of the pandemic but of the goals and aspirations laid out in our organizational blueprint and three-year plan. But the pandemic did, however, offer an opportunity for bold action. We made the decision as a leadership team to double down on the goals of filling in the gray area between on-site programming and offsite case management and rethinking the skills that this changing labor market requires.
Centering Digital Equity, Access and Literacy
As an organization focused on employment in a virtual world, we understood that in order to position CWEE participants for success, we needed to focus on digital equity, digital literacy and skill-building. CWEE Basics, our intensive digital literacy program, was developed for this purpose. With online learning, as well as individual coaching and career exploration support, participants learn and apply technology skills that are essential for success on the job and in life.
We also initiated a massive, parallel effort to get each CWEE career seeker set up with a laptop and at-home internet service. We shifted internal resources to an emergency technology fund, to ensure we could respond quickly to the tech-related needs of our career seekers. We partnered with PCs for People, collected laptops donated by companies, and have purchased computers in bulk to ensure our participants’ technology needs are met.
Restructuring to Reflect New Programming
Like so many nonprofits, CWEE had to restructure to better support the programming that we were building and the goals we established. Though never an easy task, we undertook the restructuring process with as much careful thought and planning as possible. In the process of rewriting most of the organization’s job descriptions, we seized the opportunity to reflect the fact that CWEE is a skills-based hiring organization — for every role. One of my priorities has been to ensure that every staff member makes a competitive living wage and we have achieved that. The average years of experience for our new hires — 15 of them in the last four months of 2020 — jumped from two years to nine years.
Leadership and Partnership During Unprecedented Times
It has been remarkable to witness the ways in which the pandemic has tested — and strengthened — CWEE’s many community partnerships. A crisis exposes the true nature of partnerships and how far each is willing to bend and flex and make sure the most important work gets done. CWEE has always been a deeply collaborative organization, and today, our partnerships are more honest, resilient and trust-based than ever before. We have moved through this time together and we have stayed focused on what is most important.
Throughout 2020, CWEE leaders have also engaged in citywide and regional initiatives to assess and mitigate the impacts of the pandemic and to advance equity and conversations and action around racial justice. These have included my participation in the Strategic Partners Subcommittee of the Mayor’s Economic Relief and Recovery Council, as well as VP of External Affairs Stephanie Pacheco-Davidson’s participation on the Racial Equity Council.
Feeling the Love from Our Community
The support and partnership CWEE enjoyed extended to our community of supporters, who showed up in a major way to help us meet the growing need for career training and employment support. We were thrilled and overwhelmed by the generosity of our supporters — even in a year where it was impossible to gather for our traditional celebrations. Despite the odds, our fundraising initiatives in 2020 were a tremendous success, a bright spot that ensures CWEE can maintain our solid financial foundation and continue supporting Denver’s most vulnerable career seekers.
From Surviving to Thriving
This incredible team of experienced, committed professionals faces plenty of hard work in 2021 — but what we have accomplished is worth celebrating. I am so proud of what this team has built in 2020 and what’s in store in 2021. This year, our focus will be moving from surviving to thriving. How can we make our goals for the organization real? This year we will be focused on evaluating the new program we have developed and adapting our approach in response. We will work to build a sustainable fund for technology, and we will continue to closely monitor the public health risks and assess how and when we can begin a gradual return to CWEE’s offices. Across all of these priorities, CWEE will bring our commitment to continuous learning and quality improvement.
Crisis leadership affords a leader the opportunity to make decisions that may otherwise be hard to realize or seem too radical. This team has big goals and a big vision. Prior to the pandemic we were moving slowly in the right direction, making incremental improvements. Today, we can look back and see that the pandemic challenges helped CWEE leap forward and accomplish an incredible amount in just a handful of months. Now the important process of observing, evaluating and optimizing our program begins. We look forward to keeping our community of partners and supporters updated throughout the coming year!