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OPINION

Lessons from Puerto Rico’s Hurricane María disaster relief grantmaking

Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico demonstrated that effective solutions for communities most often come from the people who live in them.

A sign reads "4645" near empty pairs of shoes outside the Capitol building during a protest of the government's underreporting of the death toll from Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on June 1, 2018.
A sign reads "4645" near empty pairs of shoes outside the Capitol building during a protest of the government's underreporting of the death toll from Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on June 1, 2018.Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg

Three years may not seem like a long time, but for millions of people in Puerto Rico, it’s been an eternity in purgatory. In September 2017, Hurricane María ravaged the island, causing over 3,000 deaths, damaging 95 percent of cell towers, destroying the electrical grid, and leaving thousands of residents without power for months — in some cases, nearly a year. Crops, roadways, bridges, and homes were flattened, leaving many homeless and unable to find basic needs like water and food, in a land where mismanagement, economic collapse, and draconian austerity measures had already left marginalized and low-income communities across the island vulnerable and under-resourced.

The economic story went largely unnoticed on the mainland, but María’s devastation in Puerto Rico could not be ignored. Just days after the hurricane, in an overcrowded community space in Boston’s Villa Victoria, hundreds of Puerto Ricans and their allies launched a community-led effort to help the island. Unbeknownst to us, a similar effort was being mounted by members of the Latino Legacy Fund at the Boston Foundation to raise funds to provide aid and relief to Puerto Rico.

Within a week, these community leaders and grass-roots groups, with the support of Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston, Governor Charlie Baker, and state Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, created Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico (MUPR) at the Boston Foundation. The Fund formally launched just eight days after the storm. Fueled by media and social media accounts on the ground and the federal government’s failed response, fund-raising efforts quickly gained traction with large and small donors. MUPR blew past the Fund’s initial goal of raising $1 million and surpassed $4 million in a few months, with the bulk of donations coming from Massachusetts residents, businesses, and foundations. In the months after the hurricane, those donations have helped Puerto Rico recover and helped those displaced find safe and stable homes in Massachusetts. This year, the MUPR fund spent itself down with a final round of grants to organizations in Puerto Rico working on large, scalable projects to make the island more resilient to both natural and economic disasters.

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As Puerto Rico and the rest of the world face monumental challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic and its disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities, the lessons of MUPR are invaluable.

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MUPR demonstrated that effective solutions for communities most often come from the people who live in them. MUPR immediately created an advisory committee, comprising Puerto Rican leaders in Massachusetts who knew both the nonprofit and philanthropic sector on the island and the agencies best equipped to serve Puerto Ricans displaced here. While much of the funding raised nationally in the immediate aftermath of Maria went to large, often off-island based groups, MUPR demonstrated the power of finding and supporting trusted community-rooted groups led by strong, respected leaders with deep relationships with community members who were far better positioned to deploy assistance rapidly and effectively. This intentionality was applied to the first set of grants as well as the last round this year. The approach not only worked, it also captured the ethos of the fund — money raised in dozens of local community efforts in Massachusetts, then shared with dozens of community-based partners in Puerto Rico.

MUPR also reminded us of the power of supporting risk-taking, lifting up a new generation of community leaders, and embracing creative solutions in unprecedented times. MUPR, with the help of partners on the island, sought out leaders and organizations in places that much of philanthropy ignored. Building strong partnerships between philanthropy and leaders of color must exist if we are ever going to empower all communities to generate innovations that can make our them truly resilient and sustainable.

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And we were reminded yet again that achieving equity will involve solutions beyond dollars. If we truly want to effect change, philanthropists must embrace public policy strategies that address issues of equity and racism. Puerto Rico struggles, like the rest of the United States, with anti-Black racism, embedded in the state and society, and experienced by Black Puerto Ricans who are living in poverty, socially marginalized, and lacking access to quality education, health care, and employment. Until we begin to see the real impact of racism on systems that reach well beyond any single issue, no recovery will truly be complete.

Three years after Hurricane María ravaged Puerto Rico, there is still work to be done. But as we face the devastation caused by COVID-19 and racism in our society, we know that Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico, the generosity it inspired, and the lessons it taught us, can be powerful elements of our strategy to create an inclusive and equitable recovery in communities of color and inspire investments in local leaders working in those communities.

Aixa Beauchamp and Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, along with Juan Carlos Morales, served as cochairs of Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico.

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