Grants & Scholarships

Fighting for jobs and justice

We are working with our grantee partners on efforts in economic security, education, and health that are aimed at eliminating inequality and racial disparities. Here is one grantee's story.

Fuerza Laboral had big plans. They were poised to strengthen and expand their work to educate and organize workers to challenge social injustice and to control their economic futures. They had launched two worker co-ops: the Healthy Planet Cleaning Co-op and a printing co-op. These efforts were doing well and additional co-ops were planned, along with other programs to support Fuerza’s membership which is comprised largely of very low income, often undocumented, and primarily Latino workers. Fuerza had received third-year funding through the Foundation’s Strategic Grants program to support its co-op program, known formally as the POWER Co-operative Business Incubation Program. But 2020 had other plans, and with the onset of COVID-19, the nonprofit workers’ rights organization had to dramatically re-imagine their year.

“Many of our members lost their jobs or had their hours cut. There were a lot of concerns. People with jobs had to choose —work to earn money for their families and be exposed to the virus or not work and not have money for food and rent."

- Heiny Maldonado, Fuerza’s executive director

“We had to respond to immediate needs of families, to help them get access to food. It definitely took a toll on our work. The conversations we had with families were so painful to hear," continues Raul Figueroa, community organizer.

Adjusting to this painful new reality on the fly, Fuerza applied for, and received, support through the Foundation-administered COVID-19 Response Fund. This enabled Fuerza to distribute cash assistance for the immediate needs of 200 of the most vulnerable families in Central Falls. A later grant from the Rhode Island Nonprofit Support Fund (a joint program of the Foundation and the Rhode Island Executive Office of Commerce leveraging CARES Act dollars) allowed Fuerza to further support its workers’ essential needs.

Raul Figueroa and Heiny Maldonado
Raul Figueroa and Heiny Maldonado

Despite these difficult times, Raul points out that they were able to adapt to take advantage of one positive: because of COVID, there was an increased demand for cleaning services. As a result, their cleaning co-op saw its business grow significantly: hours quadrupled, and additional workers were hired.

The organization, like so many others, converted its in-person training and education to online classes available in both English and Spanish. This too revealed unexpected benefits and costs. Raul explains, “This made it easier for some people to attend classes, but people who did not have access to computers were not able to do it.”

Despite the disruption, Fuerza is moving forward with its goal to establish three additional co-ops: one focusing on catering, another on construction, and the third providing childcare.

Another unusual element of 2020 was the push for communities to complete the census in the midst of the pandemic. With the support of a grant from the Foundation’s Rhode Island Census 2020 Fund, Fuerza helped in some of Central Falls’ “hard to count” census tracts.

“We already have trust with the community and know people in the hard to reach areas. We went knocking on doors. People are more likely to open the door if they see a familiar face.”

- Raul Figueroa, community organizer

And indeed Fuerza’s staff and members, starting with Heiny and Raul, have become familiar faces throughout Central Falls. That is the result of 15 years of hard work bettering the lives of the workers they serve. But not one of those years has been anything like 2020. And we’re all hoping none of the next 15 are either.