Creating the COVID-19 Community Response Fund

By Dalouge Smith, CEO of The Lewis Prize for Music

The Lewis Prize for Music, a philanthropic foundation established in the United States in 2018, is guided by the mission of partnering with leaders who create positive change by investing in young people through music. We were only two months past announcing our inaugural awards when the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders took effect. At the time, we were finalizing our internal evaluation and identifying lessons learned. We were excited to nearly double the time frame of our process by opening the 2021 Accelerator Award letter of interest in late spring.

This was still our plan even as we saw the immediate impact COVID-19 was having on all aspects of daily life. So that the new application could be informed by the altered landscape, we sought to understand the effect the pandemic was having on the Creative Youth Development (CYD) field. By the last week of March, we had engaged in conversations with awardees and had received over 50 responses to a simple survey in which we asked organizations to share how they were adapting as a result of the shutdown.

We learned that organizations were retooling their music programs for virtual delivery while also attending to the academic, health, and material needs of young people and their families. Many were pursuing technology solutions to assist young people with staying connected to virtual-school. Others were shifting their transportation and meal capacity toward food delivery. The most responsive were in daily or weekly contact with their students’ families and were launching fundraising efforts to provide direct cash support for students’ family members who were suddenly without work.

All the reasons The Lewis Prize focuses on the CYD music field were standing out. In the best of times, these organizations uniquely attend to young people’s creative and material well-being. By combining artistic training with access to mentorship, meals, transportation, mental health services, and even housing, CYD organizations are practiced at providing a multifaceted foundation for young people.

We realized that, as a result of COVID-19, CYD’s holistic approach can be more widely seen and appreciated. The social service aspects of CYD work have been ongoing in community-based arts education initiatives for generations, but they have often been overlooked by funders and the news media, or viewed as secondary to the artistic activities. The deep inequalities exacerbated by COVID-19 and efforts to contain it confirm the necessity of the social services side of CYD work.

This spring, therefore, we created the COVID-19 Community Response Fund to give immediate support to organizations that are adaptively and responsively sustaining the well-being of young people, and to shine a spotlight on the essential nature of CYD’s multi-dimensional work. These organizations offer platforms for self-expression that are all the more necessary in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the protest movement rightfully calling for the elimination of systemic racism.

We received 626 applications during the three-week application period. Twenty-two external readers with past connections to The Lewis Prize narrowed the pool to 99 semifinalists. To align with our belief that young people must be leadership partners in the programs that serve them, we included ten readers between the ages of 18 and 25. Lewis Prize staff then read all semifinalist applications and conducted additional due diligence.

On June 16, ten weeks after first conceiving of this fund, we announced 32 general operating grants of $25,000 to $50,000. Our Board of Directors approved all 32 finalists recommended for grants, including three El Sistema-inspired organizations. Two-thirds of our grants went to organizations led by people of color.

We’ve been very affirmed in our decision to create this fund by what the grantees have been doing and plan to do next. Shifting music learning, creation, and performance programs to virtual platforms has rapidly become standard across most music learning programs. What differentiates our grantees from many other music education organizations were these choices: putting young people at the decision-making table alongside adults; embodying equity practices that live throughout their program and governance structures; and retooling resources to provide academic, material, and social support to young people and their families. These are leadership choices that do not depend on musical idiom or budget size. Our new grantees teach all musical genres, and one-third of them have annual budgets of less than $100,000.

There are extraordinary people across the United States and across the world who are devoting their lives to building up young people and their communities through music. Now more than ever, Creative Youth Development arts organizations are showing us all that they deserve immediate and long-term support. With this process only a few weeks behind us, we will open our 2021 awards application in July. We encourage others to seek out and contribute to the programs in their communities that combine arts learning with all forms of belonging and safety for their youth participants.

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