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Madelyn Lazorchak, Communications Writer02/24/2023

When The Unity Council, a NeighborWorks network organization in Oakland, California, organized  a community Día de los Muertos festival last fall, the nonprofit decided to build the theme around honoring essential workers. 
"They're the bravest people I've ever seen," says CEO Chris Iglesias, who counts his staff – who never stopped helping residents during the pandemic – among them. 
"These people were leaving home every single day, risking their lives to keep the economy going," adds Caheri Gutierrez, senior manager of communications and external relations. 
The festival, for what's known in English as Day of the Dead, was a cultural touchstone that broke records with more than 100,000 attendees, making it the second largest Día de los Muertos festival in the state. It was also a time of joy, notes Erin Patch, president of The Unity Council. "This year, it marked coming back and celebrating coming through the pandemic – at least the most difficult part of it. It was a peaceful, joyous gathering, celebrating not just the holiday but the community and its resiliency."
The pandemic hit Fruitvale, Oakland's largest Hispanic neighborhood, hard.  "Actually, for us, there were three pandemics," says Iglesias, who counts among them COVID-19, the unrest that followed the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and ongoing violence in the community caused by COVID and the economic fallout. "It's been a challenging couple of years. But Fruitvale really came together."
The Unity Council joined with 16 other organizations to form Resilient Fruitvale, in addition to the organization's regular above-and-beyond work. "We saw organizations, public and private, come together in a way they hadn't to help the community," Patch says. "I think that will carry on in our work."
Iglesias witnessed incredible acts of humanity, including from his staff. "Helping with food assistanceA child gets a COVID test, set up by The Unity Council. Helping with financial assistance. We've found a way to stay open the whole time and to keep people safe," he says.
That wasn't a given. Violence around the council's Transit Village, near the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station prompted The Unity Council to board up buildings. Then, in March of 2022, they hired armed guards, who are still on staff. "It was the last thing we wanted to do but something we felt we had to do," Iglesias says. "We had to keep the temperature down." 
The festival, with the carefully assembled team working together, was free of incidents. Vendors from local businesses participated, selling out by mid-morning and giving the economy a boost. The Unity Council itself has been giving the community a boost since it formed 55 years ago with the mission of building vibrant communities. 
The whole community
"We continue to be a strong voice for the community," Iglesias shares, adding that when the county didn't seem to be moving quickly enough in the wake of COVID, The Unity Council set up vaccine clinics to help those same frontline workers and first responders they would honor in November. At the festival alone, they provided more than 150 COVID and flu vaccines, along with testing kits. They also provided flu and monkeypox vaccines, says Iglesias. "That was one of the beautiful things about our cultural celebration: We were still taking care of the basics."
A new playground brings together the staff at The Unity CouncilWhile some places have been going through The Great Resignation,  The Unity Council, with a staff of 300, has gone through what Gutierrez calls "The Great Onboarding," adding more people to fill growing community needs. That's meant hiring more staff who spoke Hmong, Iglesias says, and housing is always at the center. The Unity Council also purchased three new buildings through a preservation program.
"The Unity Council's experience is emblematic of what we heard from the NeighborWorks network in 2020 and 2021," says Michael Butchko, NeighborWorks' vice president of business intelligence. "NeighborWorks organizations added over 1,000 new staff members (a 6% increase) during the first nine months of 2020 in response to community needs." With additional staff, the NeighborWorks network went to work, responding to their communities' most basic needs. "NeighborWorks network organizations serving renters provided over 1.3 million services to their tenants and other renters in their communities. Notably, about half a million of those services (497,000) were related to providing food and basic necessities. NeighborWorks network organizations directly assisted nearly 70,000 households with cash resources for rental assistance."
At The Unity Council, priorities also included work on Casa Sueños, or "Dream House," a 100% affordable housing complex that is now in its third phase. The nonprofit also worked with the city, county and transit partners to ensure that the apartment homes would be affordable instead of market rate, as initially planned.
"We're 100% at the center of community," Gutierrez says. That means not only helping with health and support, but also with cultural preservation. With more than 68% of the population being Latino or Hispanic, the community is home to many immigrant families, some of whom fled violence in Central America. "We are able to wrap our arms around our community members, helping them thrive and preserve culture and keeping that culture alive."  
Creating opportunities for those community members is also key. "It's about prioritizing our people, prioritizing indigenous community members so they can plant their roots and expand."
Eva Saavedra is a good example. Saavedra is the co-owner and chef at El Huarache Azteca, which wasThe owner at Huarache El Azteca founded in 2001. "The Unity Council has since then been our advocates, supporters, clients, and allies," she says through an interpreter. "The Unity Council has supported us in all aspects of our business. One current example is the support we received when the pandemic began and we had to shut our doors to dine-in customers." The nonprofit helped her apply for loans, grants and other funding so she could continue doing business in Fruitvale. "They also hired us to provide balanced meals to The Fruitvale Senior Community," Saavedra says. "To say that I am thankful is an understatement. Many businesses like myself have been able to be successful because of the support from The Unity Council." 
'Keeping everything together'
Lessons learned during these past few years? "We already knew this about ourselves, but we learned we're incredibly adaptable as an organization and able to move quickly to meet the needs of the community," Patch says. "Part of that is because the people who work here have been in the community so long or have grown up in our programs – Head Start, workforce development. We have the unique ability to quickly understand the needs of the community and rely on our staff and folks from the community to tell us what we need to know."
Future projects include Juntos Fruitvale/Fruitvale Together, a recreational space that will provide for everything from Zumba to quinceañeras. Fundraising for the space is ongoing. 
"It feels good as we go into 2023," Iglesias says. "We're having a whole different conversation with our partners. As we come out of the pandemic, we have to figure out how to rebuild and get up to speed. We have to get banks and our supporters to double down on investments in these communities. That's my message. We can't forget what happened. Now that people are coming out of their houses, we need to support the people who have been out of their houses all along, keeping everything together." And that means supporting the people who have been supporting Fruitvale all along.


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