Building in the Storm

“I’m holding onto hope even though many things are uncertain and scary.”
-Rapid Response Learning Lab member and SFUSD high school senior

Two weeks after Bay Area public schools closed due to COVID-19, a dozen community members gathered online for the first incarnation of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund’s Rapid Response Learning Lab — a space we created so that community members, across generations, perspectives, and avenues of action, could emerge from emergency by thinking and acting collectively.

The change in everyone’s lives has been dramatic and massive since San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) closed its schools serving 54,000 city youth. Since that day, the state mandated that residents shelter in place. Schools became safety nets for residents suddenly without a paycheck, educators began addressing the task of teaching — and reaching — youth remotely, and these seismic changes continue to reverberate. We now know that schools will remain closed through the end of the school year and the ground continues to shift beneath our feet.

In response, we asked: how might we meet this moment and best serve the youth of the Bay Area?

The Rapid Response Learning Lab

As funders, we have an opportunity and the privilege to serve as a community resource and as facilitators of action. The Rapid Response Learning Lab does both, gathering a group consisting of: two high school seniors; a San Francisco Youth Commissioner; a youth worker; SFUSD administrators; a Board of Education Commissioner; leaders of community-based nonprofits serving youth from birth through age 24; the Director of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF); and funders. This group came together to begin building in the midst of — and because of — the storm caused by the COVID-19.

The Rapid Response Learning Lab invites youth and community voices to the center of the problem-solving this current crisis demands. We need to hear what youth are living through, so we can be led by them and their needs. But the Lab is not only a space to tell our stories and listen to one another. It is a commitment to act from our particular positions in the world, and to act together. Our differences — of age, race, profession, role — are the opportunity to creatively build together and transform inequitable systems that we each experience differently. We are betting that this kind of collective will break through silos and echo-chambers, alter power structures, and grow trusting long-term relationships that seed future action. We are betting on connected individuals acting together for intentional, nuanced, and dynamic systems change.

This moment of massive disruption is an opportunity for our truly diverse community to come together and reimagine how schools can be improved when they reopen.

First Steps: Stories and Reflection

“I have gratitude for people’s willingness to share stories.”
-Learning Lab member and SFUSD administrator

At our first session, Lab members spoke to their new realities:

  • as undocumented folks, knowing they won’t receive federal support;
  • as young people generating income and switching roles with parents who have lost their jobs;
  • as parents distanced from their own children, for everyone’s safety;
  • as educators recognizing their deep loss of connection with students; and
  • as employers furloughing staff that very day.

We asked ourselves how we could best support and serve our most vulnerable. Loud and clear, the Lab called to prioritize mental health awareness and care. They named the need to work together to diminish youth isolation. Whether a district administrator, a young person, or a nonprofit staff, Lab members strongly agreed that it is critical to ensure that youth-facing community-based organizations remain fully funded and empowered to develop and deliver new ways of connecting: we have to keep the real and virtual doors of these organizations open.

What Comes Next:
Commitment to Action

The first Rapid Response Learning Lab session offered members the stillness to reflect on an abrupt and enormous emergency; the second session of April 8th was laser-focused on taking action. What is the new normal that youth will need when schools reopen 5+ months from now? What is needed, now, to serve, connect, and hear youth and families?

For the next two sessions, Lab members committed to support individuals and deconstruct systemic barriers, taking action to:

  • Provide hope and inspiration, especially to young people, with reliable information and via youth-designed and led curriculum, and media for which young people are paid to create
  • Creatively poll youth about their needs, so that youth can tell their stories directly to city departments as those departments re-budget for the coming deficit
  • Coordinate collaborative Wellness Checks for youth
  • Support youth workers and teachers in growing their capacity to support youth’s mental health, especially in order to reopen schools that welcome and uplift youth

Lab members will prototype projects and services in these areas over the next two weeks, to deliver them to SFUSD, DCYF, and other organizations ready to serve San Francisco’s youth in new and unexpected ways.

Our work in San Francisco is just the beginning. Lab members have identified big goals that move beyond this moment of crisis; they want to redefine success in school, beyond standardized tests, and build upon meeting people’s basic needs. As Lab members put it: “The immediate response from the school district and DCYF has been great. Now what?”

Right now, the connections made have already had impact, with city staff asking to join to both hear from and work with youth directly, and SFUSD reporting back to youth their actions on school closures so far. Youth leaders plan to pass that information on to their peers, building more cohesive channels of communication and relationships. DCYF, the largest funder of youth development nonprofits in the city, in response to their grantees, has relaxed reporting requirements and is working with the city to extend grantee contracts for six more months, taking burdens off of nonprofits who are struggling to stay open and serve communities in need. The Learning Lab has made their own call to action: “We need to keep centering youth as much as possible: it is time for us to reimagine what is possible. We know our systems are broken, now is the time for us to redesign them”.


This is the first blog about the creation and purpose of the Learning Lab, in its first iteration as a Rapid Response Learning Lab. We will continue to share future blog updates about the Lab’s progress both in COVID-19 rapid response, and beyond, as we continue to collectively problem-solve for barriers in our education system.

I want to acknowledge and thank all the members of the rapid Response Learning Lab, and the organizations represented, including HOPE SF, San Francisco Peer Resources, Wah Mei School, Education Trust-West, Denman Beacon Center, the San Francisco Youth Commission, San Francisco Unified School District, and the Department of Children, Youth and their Families.

Blog, Education, Grantmaking

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