In Puerto Rico, Grassroots Networks Gain Ground in Hurricane Maria’s Wake

Photo by Esteban Benites on Unsplash

Nearly four years ago, Hurricane Maria crashed into Puerto Rico. The Category-4 storm had devastating effects, killing an estimated 3,000 people and knocking out power throughout. Some communities would remain without power for nearly a year. The crisis of the hurricane came on top of other crises, notably the declaration of bankruptcy by the Puerto Rican government a few months before.

As NPQ’s Cyndi Suarez noted, after Maria, there was a clear call to action. “Puerto Rico’s nonprofit sector,” she wrote, “must think practically about what it can set up for itself that helps it be more collectively than what it is as individual organizations.” Suarez added that nonprofits—if they joined with co-ops, community organizers, and others—had an opportunity to rebuild a “robust local democracy that can change Puerto Rico from the bottom up.”

The efforts of the Hispanic Federation in Puerto Rico should be considered within this context. What began as a relief effort organized by New York City’s large Puerto Rican community of over 700,000 people has turned to building nonprofit infrastructure. To understand their approach, NPQ spoke with the organization’s president, Frankie Miranda, and Charlotte Gossett Navarro, who has led the organization’s Puerto Rico office since its establishment in January 2018.

What is the Hispanic Federation?

The Federation began in New York City as an effort to encourage city Latinx-serving nonprofits to coordinate their activities and engage in joint advocacy. In 1989 and 1990, over 300 nonprofits in New York came together to form the new umbrella group. Luis Miranda, father of now-famous playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, served then as Mayor Ed Koch’s “special advisor on Hispanic Affairs” and helped launch the group.

As Frankie Miranda, the group’s current president, relates, “There was a concern that New York City was a federated town.” Unfederated Latinx groups often felt that they ended up on the short end of the stick when it came to the distribution of public and philanthropic resources. The model that developed, Miranda explains, “was to provide capacity building, technical assistance, and grants to Latinx-serving organizations.”

The Federation organizes chapters on a membership model. To be a member organization in the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, for example, a nonprofit must have a Latinx executive, a board that is majority Latinx, a clientele that is majority Latinx, three years of operations, and a budget of $150,000 or more. Over the years, the organization expanded; today it operates in 26 states and Puerto Rico.

Miranda emphasizes that the organization’s growth is tied to filling gaps where umbrella organizations do not already exist. “We are very intentional with our organization. If there are other organizations, we don’t go there. We need to make sure we are needed and invited. For example, we opened offices in central Florida in Orlando. We did not open offices in south Florida. Our understanding is the Latinx sector in south Florida is well taken care of and strong.” 

Getting Started in Puerto Rico

When Hurricane Maria was roaring through Puerto Rico, Gossett Navarro was working as a senior manager in the advocacy department of the New York Immigration Coalition, one of the Federation’s many member organizations. Of Puerto Rican descent herself, she felt compelled to come to the island in October to volunteer for disaster recovery.

Family was a leading motivator. “I had family here in Puerto Rico. I wanted to see how they were doing,” she explains. But Gossett Navarro was quickly tapped by Hispanic Federation leadership to see if she would be willing to relocate to oversee support activities in Puerto Rico. Gossett Navarro agreed and wrapped up affairs at her previous job in November, joined the Federation’s staff in December, and returned to Puerto Rico in January.

At first, not surprisingly, the focus was on relief. But the broader effort, notes Miranda, “was to demonstrate that a nonprofit sector existed in Puerto Rico and in many cases was very sophisticated.… This is really important. Many people did not know how to help…many were not 501c3s…. We were working with these organizations and finding ways to certify that they were legit. We were on the ground. Going town by town.”

Miranda notes that one strategic Federation goal is to put Puerto Rico on the philanthropic map. Puerto Rico’s colonial status as a territory (officially designated as a commonwealth) not only disadvantages it politically—Puerto Ricans have no voting representatives in Congress—but also philanthropically. “Puerto Rico has existed in philanthropic limbo,” Miranda notes. “Philanthropy in the US did not recognize Puerto Rico as domestic. And international philanthropy said that Puerto Rico is not international, it’s part of the US.”

Since Maria, the Federation has raised $40 million for Puerto Rico. The organization has also partnered with other groups, including Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico, Fundación Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, and Filantropía Puerto Rico. The $40 million came from both large donors and over 200,000 small donors, many of whom are Puerto Ricans living on the US mainland. Shepherding these resources, Gossett Navarro observes, is “a major responsibility.”

In addition to emergency relief work, the Federation has supported community-led initiatives in renewable energy, housing, and agriculture. For example, in agriculture, the Federation has backed more than 1,000 coffee growers, who are on track to plant two million seedlings in the ground by year’s end. With respect to renewable energy, the group has supported solar panel installations at 22 community health clinics.

In the first year, Gossett Navarro recalls that much of her work consisted of “listening to what groups said was needed and trying to get resources to them.” The goal, she adds, was to avoid preconceived notions and “really listen and work with partners and trust what groups here were saying was wanted and needed in terms of how and where we should be using the funds that had been so generously provided.”

In its work, the organization faces many challenges. Even though she is of Puerto Rican descent, Gossett Navarro recognizes that “Hispanic Federation was coming from New York City, and I was coming from New York City.” One key strategy for building local community trust has been to hire locally. All six staff members hired to date are from Puerto Rico. The long-term vision is for the Puerto Rico office to be a permanent chapter with its own membership structure. “We have been intentional in making sure our team are folks who know Puerto Rico intimately and are working for a recovery for what is their home, their community,” Gossett Navarro emphasizes.

Mapping the Terrain

When the Federation asked community groups what was needed, one key message was the importance of urgency. Gossett Navarro notes that people in Puerto Rico decried “the sort of paralysis of analysis that can happen as people try to find the silver bullet of what the answer is.” Part of the work too was to recognize that the structure of community-based organizations in Puerto Rico was very different than New York City.

As Gossett Navarro explains, “We have the 501c3s that are our traditional US recognized nonprofits. We had a large number that were not recognized in the US but are only registered here in Puerto Rico. And then we have more grassroots community associations or community-led groups that either intentionally had chosen not to incorporate or perhaps hadn’t the capacity or the need. We had to decide really early on how we were going to work with each of those. We decided to fund all three levels and all three of those groups pretty equally in the process.” Grassroots groups that were not registered had to identify fiscal sponsors, with the Federation itself sometimes serving in that role.

A test of the network being built came in January 2020, when a series of earthquakes shook southwestern Puerto Rico, destroying more than 8,000 homes. By this time, two years in, the Federation had developed ties with 130 organizations. Gossett Navarro notes that these relationships enabled the organization to set up a distribution center with community partners within a week after the earthquakes began.

Gossett Navarro elaborates: “We trusted [our partners] to know where the need was; they trusted us to have the supplies they needed. We did that for close to three weeks before the government, before FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] was up and running and the emergency designation officially declared. The only reason we were able to do it is that we remain in our model incredibly flexible and nimble and because we have this network of trusted organizations, who we know the value of their work.”

Building for the Long Haul

“A big part of our theory of change includes advocacy,” Gossett Navarro notes. Housing offers one example of the approach employed. All told, about $3 million was dedicated toward housing, roughly 7.5 percent of the $40 million raised. “The first thought was we’re just going to repair homes,” she notes. But clearly $3 million can only repair so many hurricane-damaged homes. Instead, the group divided the funds into three pots. One, she noted was “still repairing homes, because there is an immediate need: people have blue tarps; they still do today.” But the other two parts focused on legal support and advocacy. The legal support provides “community-based lawyering” that can free up far more than $3 million in FEMA funds.

The advocacy funds helped to stand up a new coalition of 25 Puerto Rican community groups, known as Movimiento por una Vivienda Digna (Decent Housing Coalition). As Gossett Navarro points out, $3 million in grants for housing can make a modest impact, but government allocates billions. Community groups, she says, need to be at the table to ensure that the policies created to invest those billions are both just and equitable. The housing coalition, she adds, provides “one of the few spaces where they gather to determine together and have that united voice to amplify the goal of fair housing in Puerto Rico.” Gossett Navarro adds that a similar approach involving a combination of direct nonprofit support linked to policy and advocacy is utilized in other priority areas, such as renewable energy.

Miranda elaborates on this theme. The $40 million that the Federation has provided may sound like a lot, and “for many of these organizations, that was life-saving support that we have been able to provide and has had an incredible impact.” Nonetheless, Miranda acknowledges these resources pale in comparison with the federal funds. It’s important to make sure community-based organizations are “the ones that are at the table when decision making is done,” Miranda says. Otherwise, he adds, “it will be the usual suspects taking advantage of the grants or spreading the false narrative that Puerto Rico has money that they have not used.”

The challenges, notes Gossett Navarro, remain daunting. “Puerto Rico was not just recovering from Hurricane Maria. We were—we are—amid a debt crisis that had resulted in mass austerity and cuts and outflow of people…and then Hurricane Maria. And then the disaster that followed Hurricane Maria that was human made in the lack of response, in the delays of response. And then, unfortunately, in the last three years, earthquakes and the pandemic.” A question, she concedes, arises: “What’s the point in continuing to work here?” The answer, she says, is “the hope that remains through all of that.”

In Puerto Rico, Gossett Navarro observes, after Maria, you saw “mutual aid, the way that communities and community-based organizations became first responders and leaders in envisioning a recovery and kind of took this voice that had been ignored and silenced for so long—and have used this sort of attention that was suddenly put on Puerto Rico from around the world. They used that platform to begin presenting these incredible ideas that they had…. There is opportunity to lead in areas like renewable energy. There is opportunity here for that, and to do it in a way that creates more equity instead of more inequity. That’s what we heard. That’s what we witnessed. That’s why we continue to do this work here.”

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