Conversation With Acooa Ellis on Education

The pandemic has forced a majority of students around the state to learn from home, at least through January. Classroom and hybrid models decreased in December because of the rising spread of the coronavirus, with holiday gatherings likely to increase that spread.

Yet the difficulties of learning from home, especially for families with multiple students, is not the single focus of concern for policy makers and non-profits focused on meeting educational needs. There are intersecting pressure points stressing Minnesota families.

“The number one reason people call our 211 helpline is to seek housing assistance, including how to cover rent and mortgage payments,” says Acooa Ellis, Senior Vice President — Community Impact, for Greater Twin Cities United Way. “There are people calling new to seeking food support, learning how to plug in to the emergency food system. For children to thrive academically, they need a safe and stable home with access to nutritious food.”

Ellis says it was great to see communities pitch in, especially after the May uprisings, but continual food donations are required. “The need is not going away.”

Financial donations to non-profits also has been “super appreciated,” she continues. “It has been affirming, reassuring, incredibly generous, at a time when everyone’s life is in flux.”

In addition to an ongoing commitment to giving, Ellis hopes to see “curiosity about what is happening that necessitates the response — to be part of those conversations with neighbors.”

Holding the Tension

“2020 shined a bright light on a number of longstanding issues that we’ve largely overlooked as a community. This time, it was a lot harder to look away or find a distraction, due to social distancing,” Ellis says. “More people are coming to realize how deeply embedded systemic exclusion from opportunity is in our society and how interrelated the impacts of that exclusion are.”

Funding equal to the needs is non-existent. “We would have better luck finding a needle in a haystack than identifying a family need with sufficient funding,” Ellis says. Early learning and childcare, career and future readiness, child and adult mental health care, and emergency assistance all require more support.

Ellis has 20 years of community-based work, starting with legislative aide work to St. Paul City Council member Melvin Carter, who is now the St. Paul mayor. She handled government relations for Target and social justice advocacy for Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis prior to stepping into her work with United Way in grant-making, systems change, public policy, and supervising the agency’s 211 resource helpline. She recently co-chaired MinneMinds, a group of statewide organizations and leaders that prioritized education investment for the most vulnerable learners.

In her role with United Way, in this current time, Ellis says, “I find myself holding the tensions of multiple perspectives at once — the impatience of people who have worked tirelessly to advance change, the new awareness of people in positions of authority and privilege, those who want to quickly affix a band-aid to make reality less hard to swallow and, most important to me, the urgency of people desperate to keep their heads above water. I engage with at least one person representing each of those perspectives on a daily basis and the common theme among them is a sense of overwhelm and uncertain efficacy.”

The Housing Issues

The Department of Human Services has been “incredibly responsive,” Ellis says, in helping non-profits respond with adjustments to COVID restrictions, such as allowing waivers to enable more tele-health operations, reevaluation of the ratios of children to childcare providers, putting more structural help in place based on the insights of people at the grassroots level.

There has been progress made at city levels in helping protect people from street living, but when the moratorium on evictions is lifted, “there is a good amount of uncertainty about what 2021 will look like. When peacetime emergency restrictions are lifted, the change in unemployment benefits will likely coincide with instability in housing safeguards.”

The population mostly deeply impacted, as always, are Black women with children. Women in general are most negatively impacted in the workplace, nationally and locally, by the confluence of pandemic and childcare issues. “This is also the population most impacted by evictions,” Ellis says. “It’s a red flag for me, very much top of mind — the impact of compounding societal challenges on education outcomes for kids who are already behind in access to opportunities.”

According to the governor’s housing task force recommendations of 2018, the state needs to create 30,000 affordable housing units each year until 2030 in order to meet the demand.

Without stable housing, Ellis says, we do not deliver education that children need in order to thrive, now and into the future.

Education in Community

Today’s education goals are not simply about delivering distance learning until schools can reopen. “Public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul were great at getting the technical hardware to students, providing laptops. But if you have multiple children in a home, with parents working remotely, how is the access to high-speed internet? How are career readiness programs delivered? What after-school, non-classroom options are there — an area that has seen less philanthropic and public sector investment in recent years?”

This is the time, she says, to take “the opportunity to think about how we deliver all aspects of education differently. It is about innovation. When you sit at the nexus of different stakeholder groups, you see how they might not be working together effectively. This time is about relationship building, funding, working together on clear objectives.”

In November, United Way invested over $300,000 in a pilot program of family empowerment grants in two of the hardest hit neighborhoods — North End of St. Paul, and Phillips in south Minneapolis.

Based on 211 helpline data, a partnership with the governor’s Children Cabinet, and listening to parents as well as community leaders, United Way invested in eight community-based organizations to strengthen relationships between schools and students in the two targeted neighborhoods. Operating grants were given for educational support, mental health services, coaching and training, navigating financial uncertainty, accessing technical assistance, healing and wellness.

Finding Hope

“What keeps me motivated on harder days is the knowledge that people show up each day willing to do their best, and are counting on me to do mine,” says Ellis. “It’s been so inspiring to sit at tables of influence with leaders willing to use their power to make the most of this moment, and roll up their sleeves to do the hard, uncomfortable work of systems change. The generosity of this community, particularly over the last year, is encouraging. All of these things, along with my faith, give me hope that we can achieve a better normal on the other side of this point in history.”

Through pivoting and creativity, for example, some internship opportunities were salvaged last summer, despite the pandemic, such as enabling students to see how manufacturers create PPE devices.

Although Ellis remains worried that learning loss exacerbates existing opportunity gaps for students of color and low-income families, she adds, “Every generation has a defining moment that dictates its approach to the future. Perhaps the next generation will have a different approach in the workplace — considering what new things are possible, not simply doing things the way they have always been done.”

To support people who need housing assistance, Greater Twin Cities United Way announced a new 211 Hope Starts Here Fund. 

Donations will fund United Way’s 211 Resource Helpline which is staffed by resource specialists 24 hours a day who provide callers guidance, information and referrals to statewide housing-related resources such as emergency shelter; rent, mortgage and utilities assistance; legal support and more. 

Every dollar donated to the 211 Hope Starts Here Fund will provide housing information and resources through United Way’s 211 Resource Helpline. Those interested can donate at or by texting HOPE211 to 51555.

Related Resources

2018 Minnesota Housing Task Force report 

Details about the programs served by the recent United Way grants

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