Capacity Building Taken to New Heights with Building Skills Partnership

Community organizations do a remarkable job serving Los Angeles County and their services are even more important as we collectively grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. Supporting organizations throughout our region as they grow and transform is a core component of the work of United Way of Greater Los Angeles (UWGLA). This work is often referred to as ‘capacity building.’ 

Investments in capacity building help organizations achieve sustainable growth and serve more people in need. UWGLA sees how an organization can flourish with this kind of support as we stand beside our longtime partner Building Skills Partnership (BSP).

United Way and Building Skills Partnership

Born out of the Justice for Janitors movement, BSP is a nonprofit organization committed to improving the quality of life for low-wage property service workers and their families. BSP provides training to increase workers’ skills, access to education, and opportunities for career and community advancement.

The deeply rooted connection between BSP and UWGLA started at the tail end of 2010 after a recession that left many families apprehensive about their future. 

“When we initially spoke with the United Way, it was about how to create some form of stability. How do we create stability for these families who were at such a loss economically in terms of jobs and finances post-recession?”

Luis Sandoval
BSP’s Executive Director

Over the past decade, BSP expanded to  six major cities across California. Today it represents a unique partnership between over 80 janitorial employers, over 60 commercial building owners, and the broader community. As BSP grew, its relationship with United Way deepened as well. “United Way is more than just a funder—really a partner,” Luis stated.

“Too often we get into this rhythm of being too transactional when you have a funder relationship,” Luis said. “It’s always great when you have a partner like United Way who wants to know who you serve, what their needs are, and what it takes to not only deliver services, but how to be better when you do that.”

In the wake of COVID-19, a UWGLA Pandemic Relief Fund grant helped BSP provide immediate relief to low-income families, including many without access to other benefits. Luis and the BSP staff continue to stay resilient and deliver for the vulnerable population they serve.

Adjusting during the pandemic 

BSP staff saw the warning signs of the pandemic recession back in late February. They quickly shifted focus to rapid response.
“We see the same pattern occurring today that happened back in the recession of 2008,” Luis said. “We spent some time thinking about how we would place BSP in a space of strength. We wanted to make sure we had a good game plan and could be financially sound as well as addressing the concerns and anxieties that a lot of our staff may feel.”

Their rapid response strategy included providing food stipends to families as well as rental assistance through United Way’s Pandemic Relief Fund. BSP also provided information about other resources like connecting workers and their families to health and mental health resources within the community.

“We’re all trying to grapple with what’s going to happen as far as all of their jobs. What is the long term economic impact for these families? Our strategy is providing stability and how do we start pivoting towards what we usually do at the end of this recession,” Luis said.

Anticipating changing workforce needs, BSP created an infectious diseases certification program in partnership with UCLA.

“People go home after their day at an office, and in the morning they return to workplaces that are nice and clean. We often forget that these are workers with real families and real challenges, and it’s been really nice to see them get recognition.” said Luis. “But I hope that post-pandemic we don’t forget how important these frontline workers are in safeguarding our own public health as well as how valuable they are in our society.”

After initial discussions in March, a pilot of the program began in May 2020. BSP trained more than 7,00 workers by the end of 2020.

“We are currently having conversations about how we can take this curriculum and scale it up. We are considering an online platform to reach more workers,” said Luis. “This is an opportunity for us to help make sure that janitors are trained.”

Advancing Digital Equity

BSP drew on their creativity throughout the COVID-19 crisis. They’ve added a lot of information to their online social accounts, they have Zoom classes and use Facebook as a hub for video content.

As they move into a digital space, Luis remarked, “We don’t want to leave workers or families behind.” 

Distance learning presents new challenges as parents and students struggle to navigate language barriers and other jobs. “A lot of our workers have their older children step up and be of help to younger siblings,” Luis said.

“One of the biggest assets these workers have are their high school and college age children. This program reaches out to that group and utilizes them, making sure they are capable of providing assistance to their parents and younger siblings while providing the students stipends.”

BSP is addressing issues of digital equity through programming and adding new staff to help with this, including a Curriculum and Digital Equity Coordinator and a household Digital Navigator.

“Long term, we’re moving into a virtual learning environment. Not for our entire program, but for pieces. We want to make sure we do this right and that we’re worker-centered,” Luis mentioned. “We want to make sure we take into account worker’s experiences and how and where they can access the materials they need.”

Hope for the future

There have been beams of light in these somber moments. Last fall, a woman named Erica emailed the BSP office in search of information on how to save toward buying a home. Luis mentioned, “this family on the road to their American dream really gave our staff hope.”

“Our communities know how to stretch a dollar and make a lot out of very little. And because of that, I see our workers and their families poised to successfully recover because they have the willpower. It’s part of their DNA,” Luis said. “We want to support their goals and their aspirations and we’re simply providing the tools and the access for those tools.”

BSP continues to focus on moving their communities forward by advocating for those essential workers who put their lives on the line to protect public health. Luis remarked, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m very hopeful and optimistic about the direction we are heading.”