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Our Businesses in the Time of COVID – Still Fearless, BFI Pivots Programming

Boy lying on picnic table writing in a notebook

The fearlessness has not stopped. But, says Erica Mullen, executive director of The Bureau of Fearless Ideas, a big dose of it has been necessary lately. It continues to fuel the work of the nonprofit learning organization whose home base is 85th and Greenwood Avenue: empowering youth to write and tell their stories.

The trio of challenges that hit our community this spring—pandemic, racial protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd, and the closure of schools and businesses—have each been fearlessly tackled in a unique BFI way.

When the pandemic hit and BFI had to close its doors, kids could no longer come to the writing center for after-school homework help and camaraderie. BFI’s second location at Yesler Terrace also had to close. School closures meant that BFI’s regular field trips, where classes come out for writing workshops, also ended.

Enter “Communi-TEA.” BFI convened hour-long online sessions a few days a week to keep in touch with students and generate the creative spark that ignites hundreds of eager kids using BFI’s programs. The gathering was focused on “writing, creativity, learning skills, mindfulness.” The children’s librarian from the Greenwood SPL branch joined the Tea three times to give book recommendations for younger children.

But more than activities, it was a chance to “just be there for students,” she explains. “Our programs team put a lot of their heart into supporting our people and those students.” The gatherings made space for kids to talk about how hard it was to adjust to the pandemic restrictions.

BFI scaled back to a smaller staff of six, including Mullen, restructuring to be more efficient and readjusting to focus on programs. With 90 percent of the budget coming from philanthropy, Mullen worried the economic collapse would be disastrous. Their annual fundraiser shifted to online and donors stepped up with solid support. “Right now we’re doing OK, but we’re concerned about the long-term giving,” she says. Working with financial advisors at Verity Credit Union they got a federal PPP loan, which “was amazingly helpful,” she says, as it was clear that their community needed BFI to step up.

The Black Lives Matter movement and protests have triggered “fearless conversations around equity and inclusion,” she says. In the after-school programs, a majority of the kids are students of color, and over 75 percent speak a different home language other than English, a statistic BFI only recently learned by gathering demographic information on their constituencies. Field trips and in-schools programs look a bit different, but BFI prioritizes working with Title 1 schools, which are ones with higher poverty rates, students of color, and immigrant and refugee populations.

As a mostly white-led organization serving a largely BIPOC constituency, BFI is grappling with how to be anti-racist. Some older students let BFI leadership know “how they want us to show up,” Mullen says. “We are in the early stages of creating some social justice goals and actions.”

One early action was to create a “Black Student Union” for BFI’s older students to take a larger leadership role, and also to mentor younger students. Many of BFI’s students are one of only a few students of color in their predominantly white classrooms.

BFI also will generate outreach for more adult volunteers from communities of color so that the tutoring and mentoring team can reflect the diversity of the students.

And they are figuring out ways they can reopen safely. At Yesler Terrace, the space allows for three groups of three students at any given time. At Greenwood, the expansive central room had large tables that were not very flexible. A capital-focused grant allowed BFI to get some new furniture that will be more flexible.

This summer, a collaboration with the Greenwood branch of the Seattle Public Library will have students making recordings reading books by Black authors and geared toward a Black audience. The library will train students how to be engaging when reading aloud. BFI will film the students doing the readings, and the library will air the videos.

Summer programs will keep kids generating creativity through writing and storytelling. The “Fearless Summer” Series offers both digital workshops via Zoom, and analog at-home Creative Adventure Kits through the mail.

For the fall, BFI is looking at ways to take their creative writing workshops to schools, since it’s unlikely that field trips will resume. If school days are shorter, BFI’s “after-school” programs may be held earlier too.

“We’re excited to get back physically into the community,” Mullen says, and when BFI reopens its doors, it will no longer be a space-themed portal. Formerly, you’d enter the center through the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company, which offered “rocket parking on the roof” and space-themed books, cheeky gifts and educational items.

But partnering with Sanctuary Art Center, which trains youth experiencing housing instability in art and offers them work experience, BFI will open “Greenwood Pencil Box: Outfitters of Creative Adventures.” It will be an interactive art experience where you can make your own t-shirt or participate in games and activities. And spend some money to support the organizations.

The fun store will mirror the heart that has always been beating at BFI, which pumps out self-expression and builds strength. That focus, says Mullen, delivers coping skills. “The work we did up until kids couldn’t physically be with us,” she says, “helped them get through a very tough time, using creativity and storytelling.”

A POEM FOR COVID

by Raniah, Grade 6

I feel alone, but with someone.

I feel like letting the icy air greet me with kisses.

I feel at home, but somewhere completely different.

I feel I know what’s going on, but I’m multitasking;

feeling completely clueless.

Numbers, feelings, worries, hopes

fill my thought box to the brim.

I hope all is well.

I hope my thought box gets emptied.

I hope I can find where I am,

And I hope that, alone, I can find a friend.

I hope that we can all hope.

This poem was generated at a Bureau of Fearless Ideas “Communi-TEA” online youth gathering.