The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on mental and behavioral health, putting a harsh spotlight on the challenges chronically experienced by high-potential communities. We sat down virtually with Damon Jiggetts, the executive director of Peter Paul Development Center and a public servant and community leader of over 25 years, to talk about lessons learned, how striving individuals and families are coping, and the ways Peter Paul is working with those same individuals and families to address community needs, during the pandemic and moving forward.
Damon, you have more than 25 years of experience working in nonprofit settings with children and families. What has been one of the biggest lessons you have learned from the community over the course of your career?
We all have value, and we all want to contribute. Everyone has something to offer. Often, in philanthropy, we think it’s our responsibility to “do for” others. But the sooner we can get to a place where we’re empowering those we serve, to really own the work and own their response to situations, the better we all are for it. That’s what creates the real impact that we all want.
I think back to one specific example from my time with the Boys and Girls Club: we would have annual Thanksgiving dinners, and volunteers from outside the community would graciously contribute. But we never asked for help from the families we were feeding. Well, one year our guest speaker had a family emergency and couldn’t show up. We were rushing to figure out how to fill the empty space, when one of our parents stood up and took the mic. She spoke movingly about the Boys and Girls Club, and what it meant to her and her kids. An hour later, the microphone was still being passed around the room. Those families filled the space so beautifully. It was a lesson for me, and the next year we had the parents dictate the plan for the evening.
Too many times, those of us in this sector get in the way of people trying to contribute. And that’s where we miss the mark. Because we have the opportunity every day to really lean in and invite others to share their worth, share their value and share what they have to contribute.
Looking back to when the pandemic began, just over a year ago, what do you remember about the community’s reaction? How are individuals and families coping?
The pandemic has demonstrated, yet again, how resilient our families are, how community oriented they are and how supportive they are of one another. What we’ve been reminded of at Peter Paul is that “family” and supports extend far beyond the four walls of our homes.
The truth is that the pandemic has been a crisis for all communities, but the challenges it has exacerbated — employment, housing, safety — are the same ones high-potential communities have been facing for decades.
We know the pandemic has caused mental and behavioral health challenges across the board. How have those challenges intersected with the work Peter Paul does?
The pandemic has profoundly disrupted our way of life and routines. What we’ve seen in the behavioral health space is that lack of structure often breeds negative outcomes. For instance, we’ve seen those with addictions really suffer. At Peter Paul, we try to provide programming that creates structure for our individuals and families, especially during times like these.
More generally, when it comes to the mental wellbeing of our families, our parents and kids, staying in constant communication has been very helpful. Creating those opportunities for connection, and creating space for decompression, has been invaluable.
How has Peter Paul pivoted to continue to address community needs, and provide that structure and connection, during the pandemic?
We pivoted pretty quickly. Again, often the most impactful thing we can do is facilitate connections and conversations. So, when the pandemic hit in March of 2020, we shut down very shortly thereafter and pivoted to more of a virtual service model. Our family and community engagement team is led by Kim Young, and they did a phenomenal job of setting up virtual hangouts. Some of these are for organic conversations between groups that share an identity, like caregivers. Some of the hangouts bring in a subject matter expert from the community.
We’ve also been having virtual dinners and discussions, facilitated by one of our Peter Paul’s students who graduated and is now in culinary school at Reynolds Community College. He prepares a menu for our families, and the team at Peter Paul goes out and purchases all of the supplies and ingredients the families will need to make the meal. One night a week, they all log on and Chef Keonne shows them how to prepare the meal. They’re logging in from their own kitchens, but they can look right out into the screen and see their peers and other parents doing the same. They’re having wonderful conversations around things that are relevant to them as a group.
What advice might you give other organizations in the community who are working to create support and structure during this time?
Again, it’s remembering that we don’t have all of the answers. It’s about listening first and then being responsive. We’ve created an onsite facilitated learning center for students. And we are not yet at full capacity. We still have space. And I think that speaks volumes. Our value systems tell us that education should be the priority, but in the midst of everything that’s going on in our society and in our communities, that’s not necessarily the priority for our family members.
We thought the learning center would be the best thing since sliced bread, and it’s certainly helping. But our families have other things they’re dealing with, and we’re having lots of conversations about employment and housing services. It’s just a testament to listening first and then being responsive. People will tell you what they need.
In what ways has Peter Paul had to grow as an organization, and a staff, during the past year?
You know, we talk about employment, housing and education, but there’s a growing undertone of the impact that race has on everything we do. Privilege and inequities are really being highlighted right now. At Peter Paul we now have an advocacy committee composed of board, staff and community members, and it’s because, at the end of the day, what we’re dealing with is social injustice. We are not the experts on it, but I am proud of our staff’s willingness to set the stage for these uncomfortable conversations. I am proud of our board’s growing acceptance of the role we play in that regard. We have work to do as a sector when it comes to understanding the underlying dynamics prohibiting us all from reaching our objectives. So, Peter Paul has had to grow and expand in that regard. And I look forward to these hard conversations and the discomfort that comes with them, because that’s the only way we’re going to experience the change that we all deserve and want.
How do you anticipate the Health Equity Action Leadership (HEAL) initiative making an impact? What role will Peter Paul play?
The HEAL initiative is about sparking grassroots action through leadership development in communities of color. So, our goal, in partnership with Richmond Memorial Health Foundation, is to empower individuals from the community to be influencers, and challenge leadership dynamics to be inclusive of those from their communities.
At a very grassroots level we know a lot of individuals in the community who want to assert their voice and contribute to policy and structural change. But there’s not necessarily a curriculum or a guide for how to do that. So, Peter Paul hopes to use HEAL as an opportunity to provide a guide for grassroots leaders who want to advocate for those types of changes. That allows us to venture beyond Peter Paul’s needs and empower and build the capacity of our grassroots leaders across the Richmond region. We want Peter Paul and other organizations to be as intentional as possible about challenging power dynamics and power structures, including our own. HEAL allows us to contribute to that.
What work are you leading, beyond Peter Paul, that makes you feel proud?
Ujima Legacy Fund is a giving circle of African-American men who contribute and then, annually, award our pooled resources to educational institutions and nonprofits that support minority and African-American youth. I co-founded Ujima back in 2012, and it is now the largest African-American male giving circle in the country.
I also recently launched Red Wagon Youth Transportation Services to address the ongoing issue of access to transportation for children in our community. Only about 15% of kids in the city of Richmond are not able to participate in any extracurricular activities due to lack of transportation. Red Wagon Youth Transportation now has buses on the road getting children to facilitated learning centers around the city of Richmond.
Lastly, I recently helped relaunch our city’s Urban League. Richmond’s Urban League was the first local affiliate in the country, and it goes back over a hundred years. But it had been defunct for about a decade or so. On the heels of the incidents in Ferguson, I realized we did not have an entity in the city of Richmond that could effectively convene disparate efforts to really respond to social injustice. And that’s exactly what the Urban League was created to do: promote civic engagement to address social injustices in areas of education, housing, employment, economic development, health, you name it. So, we just voted on our slate of officers for the soon-to-be re-affiliated Urban League of Greater Richmond. More to come on that, but I’m very excited about what we’re building here locally and what that will mean in terms of services for this community going forward.
We are so grateful for Damon, the expertise he shares with RMHF and the work he leads in the Richmond community. Stay tuned for updates on RMHF’s partnership with Peter Paul, and our shared work through the HEAL initiative.
Bio for Damon Jiggetts
Damon Jiggetts is the executive director of Peter Paul, an organization that serves and empowers Richmond’s East End neighborhood through education and community-oriented programs. Damon has worked with the Boys & Girls Club and Communities in Schools (CIS) of Richmond, and he brings deep expertise and experience in behavioral health and what’s needed for families to thrive. Damon was part of RMHF’s first class of Equity + Health Fellows and is currently representing Peter Paul, along with Kim Young, as part of the HEAL (Health Equity Action Leadership) initiative.