people putting canned goods in boxes

ASU center aids vulnerable populations affected by pandemic

It has been almost a year since the coronavirus spread across the globe, upending individual lives and the operations of businesses, educational institutions, nonprofits and government agencies alike.

During normal times, the ASU Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict would have maintained its focus on advancing research and education on the dynamics of religion and conflict in public life. But in responding to the urgent needs of the past year, the center expanded its outreach to address the needs of some of Arizona’s most vulnerable populations.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, the center partnered with 13 Arizona nonprofits to provide over $100,000 in funding that helped over 1,000 individuals and families. The center provided grants to nonprofits that work with at-risk, underserved and disproportionately impacted populations, such as refugees, asylum-seekers, DACA recipients, low-income immigrant families and Native American tribes.

“The ASU/Luce COVID Rapid Relief project was designed to expand the capacity of local organizations that are directly helping individuals and communities most severely impacted by the pandemic to meet basic needs: paying rent, keeping the lights on and putting food on the table,” according to John Carlson, interim director of the center and co-director of the project.

Individuals like Talal, an Iraqi refugee who was out of work and had a family to support, were among those helped. Talal had already received an eviction notice when he sought help from the Refugees and Immigrants Community for Empowerment. With grant funding the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict had awarded to the refugee-support organization, Talal got help to pay his rent and avoid eviction.

Lucia, a 22-year-old single mother from Honduras seeking asylum in America, is another person supported by the project. Although Lucia was fortunate to keep her restaurant job during the pandemic, her hours were sharply reduced.

Then, her expenses rose when she had to hire babysitters for her two preschool-age children after their day care center closed. With less income and higher bills, Lucia was finding it hard to afford groceries. The family remained fed, however, thanks to aid from the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project. The nonprofit was another recipient of a grant from the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict last year.

“Refugees and asylum-seekers are disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” said Connie Phillips, president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, another grantee. “Many refugees have lost jobs in the service and hospitality industries and are not eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance because they haven’t been in the U.S. long enough to qualify.

“Support from the ASU/Luce COVID-19 relief fund has helped refugees find stability in the short term so they can continue to build foundations to thrive in the long term."

Along with immigrants and refugees, Native Americans are another population that has been severely impacted by the pandemic and was a target of the relief funds. Navajo United Way used a grant from ASU to purchase and distribute diapers, baby wipes, formula, thermometers and other supplies to families with babies and toddlers.

“Due to the stay-at-home order in effect on the Navajo Nation, the daily curfews and the decrease in supplies and limited transportation, it has become challenging for families to attain essential items for their little ones,” said Laura Mike, executive director of Navajo United Way. “Over half of Navajo children lived in poverty prior to the pandemic, and COVID-19 has put an even greater strain on household financial resources.”

Two of the grantees, the Hualupai Tribe and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Charitable Organization, used their grants to help purchase refrigeration equipment to store produce and frozen goods in community food pantries to ensure a consistent supply of food to their communities.

“We realize that Arizonans’ needs resulting from the pandemic are overwhelming, and the aid from this project will not meet all those needs,” said Carlson. “Still, it is gratifying to be able to make a direct impact in the lives of those people who are most marginalized in our society. It’s quite different from the academic work we usually do. But in this time of pandemic, it’s so urgent.”

In addition to distributing rapid-relief grants to nonprofits that aid vulnerable populations, the center used part of its Luce Foundation grant to raise awareness of the challenges faced by these marginalized groups. In partnership with ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the center supported students who could write stories of how the pandemic has impacted vulnerable populations.

Students selected for the project had themselves lost internships due to the virus. They were paired with professional journalists who supervised their internships. The stories can be found in the “Southwest Stories” section of the online platform A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of COVID-19, developed by faculty from the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. Faculty also developed Podcast of the Plague Year, which features several of the grantees in its exploration of the impact of COVID-19 on Arizona.

“It was important to us and to the Luce Foundation that we preserve these pandemic stories,” said Tracy Fessenden, director of strategic initiatives in the center and co-director of the project. “We hope they raise awareness of how marginalized populations are adversely impacted and also allow future readers and historians to benefit after the crisis has ended.”

The grant to the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict was part of a major effort on the part of the Henry Luce Foundation to provide emergency relief to struggling communities and organizations across the U.S. and overseas. Since the start of the pandemic, the Luce Foundation has worked through its network of longtime partners to distribute over $12 million to local community organizations and NGOs, arts and cultural institutions, Native American tribes and COVID-19-related research activities.

Story by Barby Grant