In 2018, protestors march against family detention and separation in San francisco.
In 2018, protestors march against family detention and separation in San francisco.

In California, new variants of the COVID-19 virus and lagging vaccination rates have led to a surge in cases in recent weeks, followed by the reinstatement of mask requirements in parts of the state. It’s a reminder that the pandemic is far from over, a frightening setback as we continue to claw our way out of the worst public health crisis in decades.

Even so, California likely remains on the path to recovery, and public health officials remain confident that the number of cases in California won’t reach the same levels they did during the fall and winter surges last year, when the state became the national epicenter of COVID-19.

For many nonprofits, this new stage in the pandemic means a pivot from crisis response to recovery. This is especially true for those who serve the communities that the pandemic hit hardest.

According to several reports from UCLA Health, Latinos have borne a disproportionate share of the COVID burden in California. Despite making up about 40% of the state’s population, Latinos account for 56% of positive cases, according to the most recent data from the California Department of Public Health. One of the largest contributing factors is the fact that Latinos make up more than half of all essential workers in the state. In other words, Latinos are overrepresented in “essential” job sectors while significantly underrepresented in sectors like media, health and technology.

While the pandemic and the subsequent economic fallout led to a temporary increase in funding for Latino-serving nonprofits, the focus there was primarily on short-term relief. Now, funders like the Latino Community Foundation (LCF) are looking to invest in long-term support so that Latino communities can start to heal and rebuild, and perhaps even more importantly, address the systemic inequities that led to the pandemic’s skewed impacts in the first place.

LCF is a statewide foundation funded through individual, foundation and corporate donations, carrying out a mission to build power among Latinos in California through dedicated funds, donor circles, campaigns and more. On June 15, LCF launched its Latino Power Fund, a five-year, $50 million initiative to support Latino-led grassroots organizations in the state. For LCF, these groups are “the heart of Latino power-building.”

“This is one of the most important things that we will do in the history of the Latino Community Foundation,” said LCF’s CEO Jacqueline Martinez Garcel. “We know that it was Latinos who were working. They never stopped working. They kept our economy running, and now, it’s our turn to invest in their leadership.”

LCF hopes that the fund will strengthen Latino-led grassroots organizations, ensure equitable distribution of federal recovery funds, increase the civic leadership and political participation of Latinos in key regions, increase the pipeline of progressive Latino political leaders, and advance solutions shaped by and for Black and brown communities.

The foundation is working to raise the $50 million and wants to award the fund’s first round of grants in November. Backers so far include the California Health Care Foundation, the San Francisco Foundation and the Sierra Health Foundation. The first two rounds of grants will focus on core support for organizations that can begin distributing the public resources that the state will receive and to support organizations working on redistricting.

A bumpy road

For years, LCF has been working to build political power for Latinos, primarily by engaging voters directly through its own efforts and by investing in Latino-led grassroots organizations intent on organizing, informing and mobilizing voters. In January 2020, ahead of the presidential election, LCF was preparing to launch a Latino Power Fund with those goals in mind. Then the pandemic hit, and everything was put on hold.

“We had to press pause on all of those plans and just pivot and respond,” said Martinez Garcel. “We knew for a fact at the beginning that Latino families were going to be hit so hard by this pandemic because we know the numbers in terms of who is on the front line and who are essential workers.”

In March 2020, LCF launched its Love Not Fear Fund, which backed Latino-led grassroots organizations serving front-line communities and essential workers. As part of that work, LCF engaged in advocacy with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office to secure necessary resources. According to Martinez Garcel, LCF also worked to turn out Latino voters in November and encouraged everyone to complete the U.S. Census as they “rode the wave” of the public health crisis and economic fallout.

In February of this year, LCF launched a campaign to get all Californian Latinos vaccinated. “We like to say 2021 started with healing first and then focused on rebuilding. And so we began to start resurfacing our plans for the Latino Power Fund,” said Martinez Garcel.

The fund officially launched on June 15, 2021, the same day that the state lifted all COVID restrictions and fully reopened its economy. According to Martinez Garcel, this day was purposely chosen because it symbolized a turning point for both California and LCF—a shift from crisis response to investing in a full recovery and a more equitable future for the state.

LCF’s vice president of policy, Christian Arana, said that the recent increase in cases only underscores the importance of the Latino Power Fund and the need for bold investments in Latino communities.

“We are now living at a time where getting vaccinated is a civic act,” said Arana. “It is imperative that we continue to work with trusted messengers at trusted organizations to mobilize Latino communities for the sake of our public health and for the future of our democracy and economy.”

On the front lines

One of the key issues that the fund hopes to address is the repercussions of Latinos’ far higher participation in essential jobs during the pandemic compared to other groups. Researchers at Stanford University estimated that the death rate for Latinos in California was 1.5 times higher than white residents. According to LCF, more than 25,000 Latinos died in the state in less than a year.

In addition to their greater risk of exposure at work, Latinos who work essential jobs are also twice as likely as non-Latinos to be uninsured, according to a report by UCLA Health and the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture. That can put them at even greater risk.

For LCF, Latinos’ role in the darkest hours of the pandemic cannot be underestimated—or forgotten.

“We need to be mindful again that it was Latinos who brought us out of the crisis,” said Martinez Garcel. “And when I say brought us out—because we were able to work from home, because we had people that were stocking our supermarkets and delivering food to our houses.”

“Now, it’s our turn to make sure that the folks who kept us afloat are now brought up to the surface and that we don’t just build a floor for them,” she said.

One way to do so is by ensuring that Latinos have equitable access to job opportunities. LCF believes that California’s economy simply wasn’t working for Latinos prior to the pandemic, since it wasn’t inclusive. Latinos, for example, account for 92% of the state’s agricultural workforce, but continue to be drastically underrepresented in the high-paying tech industry. According to data published by Google, for instance, Latinos make up a paltry 2.9% of the tech giant’s workers.

These disparities need to change, said Martinez Garcel. “We just don’t want to go back to the same stats that led to the fact that so many people were jobless or struggling or showing up to their jobs because that was the only choice that they had, even if their lives were in danger,” she said.

An equal share

Another major goal for the Latino Power Fund is to ensure an equitable distribution of public and private resources for COVID recovery. California is set to receive $26 billion through the American Rescue Plan signed by President Joe Biden. Gov. Newsom has also signed the $267 billion state budget for 2021–2022, which includes resources set aside for immigrant families, job opportunities, and workers entering new sectors, which LCF advocated for.

While these are significant advances, LCF wants to make certain that the money goes to the communities and families who need it most. Philanthropic resources, after all, pale in comparison to public allocations on the scale of the American Rescue Plan.

“I mean, $50 million is just a drop in the bucket,” said Martinez Garcel. “What we really want to see happen is that an equitable distribution of the $267 billion budget that’s [being] put forward right now actually ends up in Latino communities and places like the Central Valley, Central Coast, Orange County, Inland Empire, where Latinos make up a majority of of the population, [and] that we begin to see those resources actually achieving the outcome that they’re intended to do.”

Martinez Garcel referred to a group that went door-to-door to ensure Latinos were aware of opportunities to get vaccinated. “Those are the community groups that we need to see funded, and funded to the place where they can get a state contract or a federal contract to ensure that Latino families actually have access to these resources that are being made available,” she said. “If we go back and revert to using the same institutions to distribute those resources, we will see nothing changed.”

LCF’s hope is that the Latino Power Fund—and others—can give these nonprofits the core backing they need to hire more staff and meet the criteria for state and federal contracts to distribute resources.

Representation in government

Although Latinos make up a significant portion of California’s population, they continue to be underrepresented at all levels of government, especially at the highest level. Tackling that problem is another aim of the Latino Power Fund.

While Sen. Alex Padilla’s appointment as the first U.S. Latino senator from California was a major step forward, LCF believes that representation needs to go much further. “Our electorate needs to be reflective of our demographics,” said Martinez Garcel. “It’s time for us to really organize our community so that those who want to run for office, city council, water board, school boards, are ready to do that.”

Although LCF has yet to select the recipients for the Latino Power Fund, existing grantee partners have expressed enthusiasm for the power-building work LCF is doing. 99Rootz, for example, is a youth organizing project at Power California that uses art, culture and organizing to civically engage young people in the Central Valley. It was also part of LCF’s nonprofit accelerator program. 99Rootz’s program director, Crisantema Gallardo, now serves on LCF’s board.

“At Power California, we believe that we can make California stronger if everyone has an equal say in the decisions that impact our daily lives,” said Gallardo. “We know that right now, the voices that are missing from our systems of governance are young people of color and their families, many of which are immigrants and refugees.”

Through the Latino Power Fund, LCF will work to increase civic leadership and political participation. Its hope is that this will lead to 80% of Latinos in California turning out to vote in 2024, and that more Latinos will be elected to public office.

Beyond that, LCF hopes that the fund encourages greater investment from other funders.

“I hope more foundations consider not just using their grantmaking dollars, but their endowment dollars to invest in Latinos, because we know that as Latinos go, so does the State of California,” said Martinez Garcel. “When we aggregate the number of billions of dollars that are held by private foundations, it almost equals the amount of money that will be put forth by the public sector.”

Martinez Garcel added, “There is no excuse any more for us to say, hey, we’re just willing to live with these inequities in one of the wealthiest states in the world… enough with that.”