Op-Ed "Trusted Advisors—You Rely on Them and Lower Income Families Need Them Now"

March 9th, 2021|

by Cynthia Rivera Weissblum 
CEO, The Edwin Gould Foundation Accelerator 

The pandemic has shown us many things, but the biggest might be this:
we need others.

We need advice from those who know more. We need the advice of others who think differently; we need access to experts, especially during hard times. Who do you turn to? Who do your loved ones turn to for advice? How many times has the power of your network guided and connected you – to a doctor, a lawyer, a job, or advice that you needed quickly? How many times has your network saved you time or money? Where would you be without your trusted network? 

Cynthia Rivera Weissblum

Now, imagine yourself without a network during these times of deep struggle. 

If this pandemic had struck when my parents, Rolando and Norma, were raising their family on 135th Street and Broadway, they would have desperately needed a network of advisors—trusted wise counsel—to advise on how to endure the unimaginable.  With three children under the age of twelve – and one with chronic heart disease caused by rheumatic fever – my father worked as a short-order cook at three restaurants, and my mother worked in the garment district; they would have certainly lost their jobs and ultimately their pathway to the middle class. Striving for opportunity would have turned into struggling to survive. It would have been truly devastating.

What I know would have been true for my family – and what is true, today, for many low-income families – is that they are desperately asking, “Where do I turn? Who can I trust? How will we pick up the pieces?” How could they make such important decisions with such imperfect information?

All my professional life, I have worked with organizations that provide a safety net for low-income families, specifically around education. Families rely on these highly-credible organizations to provide services, guidance, and access to resources—the things affluent families provide their children with the resources and networks at their disposal. These organizations are providing students and families with practical and timely guidance to help them reimagine a path forward. 

Shirley Acevedo Buontempo is the leader of one organization, Latino U College Access (LUCA), that is guiding the way for first-generation to college, low-income youth. Throughout Westchester County, New York – where there are significant economic, racial, and educational disparities – LUCA is supporting Latino families by helping them navigate the rippling consequences of this pandemic. 

Arriving in the Bronx from Puerto Rico at ten years old, Shirley knows firsthand the struggle to rise in a system where you do not speak the language and do not possess the financial and social capital that opens doors. Driven by her own lived experience and commitment to serving the Latino community, she founded LUCA in 2012. The organization’s staff and volunteers advise families and students on how to make the best higher education decisions as they face unemployment, increasing student debt, tremendous learning loss, COVID-19 on campuses, and disproportionately affected family members.  

Over the past year, LUCA staff – 88% first-generation Latina college graduates themselves – have been advising students on Zoom and over the phone as never before. One of those students, Elisa (not her real name), has faced a maze of decisions with startling short and long-term consequences. It began when Elisa’s university closed, just as she was about to secure the internship she needed to meet the requirements of her pre-med major. After originally being told she could stay in her dorm, in late March, she had to vacate campus immediately. Finding herself with no money and no way home, Elisa turned to her LUCA familia. Knowing that she was not the only student in this predicament, the organization launched a Scholar Support Fund and used the money raised to pay for her moving expenses including the storage of her belongings.  

Once home, Elisa moved back in with her grandparents. She felt lucky to find a job in a grocery store, although she worried that it could lead to her grandparents becoming infected. It was a risky situation, but she had no choice and continued working. As the months wore on, more bad news; her grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, she had to work more hours, and there was certainly no money for college. She explained to the LUCA team “my grandparents have done everything for me. How could I leave them now?” A decision was made — Elisa was not going back to college – she would stay home, work, and help her grandfather manage his cancer treatments.  

Regular meetings between Shirley and Elisa allowed for advocacy and action to kick in. The LUCA team assured her that the best way to support her grandparents long-term is by continuing her education. They worked with Elisa to petition her college for increased financial aid, provided her with a computer, and paid for her transportation back to college. Her grandfather is now doing well with treatment, too.   

During our time together, Shirley captured how LUCA serves families; she said, “there are a million little decisions that each student and family must make, and LUCA’s staff and volunteers understand what families have been through and what they are facing right now. We are right there alongside families, thinking ahead and planning a strategy for each student that will allow for the best outcome.” Bottom line – LUCA’s students and families do have a place to turn. 

There exists a strong and respected network of nonprofit organizations, like LUCA, that directly serves low-income families. They come in many forms. Some organizations are providing rigorous academic instruction addressing the crippling learning loss facing children. Other organizations are helping students and families recalibrate under the most arduous conditions–overwhelming financial burdens; schools opening some of the time, all the time, or none of the time; high school graduates whose post-secondary plans are stalled; students back home where there is little room to work, study, or sleep; college graduates with no prospects for work and multiple siblings indoors for months. 

The strongest of these organizations possess the technology that allows for high-quality virtual advising, enabling them to distribute emergency relief quickly and help families navigate the bureaucracy of applying for available programs. But the most important organizations are those whose staff have deep and trusting relationships. That is where families turn. Why? Because when you are in crisis, you seek out wise, informed counsel.

As funders, we seek to support organizations that have the most meaningful impact. That is why I am an ardent advocate of providing long-term support to organizations that serve families deeply.  I urge others to do the same—support them and stay with them. Take a moment right now to reflect on the power of your network and your alliances. Can you imagine yourself without your trusted advisors? It is a somber thought to have nowhere to turn for the advice you need to guide your family. 

For my parents, Norma and Rolando, while they did not face a pandemic, they did struggle mightily. They found their wise trusted network in the church and the parish of the 1960s, at the community health center that saved my sister’s life, and in the kindness of my father’s employers. Please join me and so many others who support organizations that provide struggling families with wise advice and a trusted network. 



About Cynthia Rivera Weissblum: Cynthia is CEO of the Edwin Gould Foundation and is the architect of the EGF Accelerator, a residential and remote incubator for nonprofits focused on educational inequity. Previously, Cynthia was President of Results Collaborative, advising on donor strategy.  She served as CEO of Sponsors for Educational Opportunity and during her tenure earned the N.Y. Community Trust Nonprofit Excellence Award. She was the director of New York State’s Mentoring Program. She honed her skills and developed perspective in student development and educational equity at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the University at Albany, and Rutgers University. Cynthia recently was the commencement speaker at Mercy College and is a lecturer at New York University’s Steinhardt School. 

Cynthia earned a BA, MS, and post-graduate certification in counseling psychology from the University at Albany. She serves on the board of Guttman Community College, Hispanics in Philanthropy, Rockefeller Institute of Government, and uAspire. She has informed legislation and strategies to address obstacles preventing low-income students from thriving. Cynthia is an advocate and entrepreneur building organizations that advance positive outcomes for underserved youth. 

About Latino U College Access: Founded in 2012, Latino U College Access (LUCA) transforms lives by making college dreams a reality for first-generation Latino youth. It is one of the only college access and success organizations whose mission is specifically focused on serving the Latino community – the nation's youngest and fastest-growing demographic. LUCA guides students through individualized coaching and culturally relevant programs as they navigate higher education to enroll in schools that meet their unique financial and academic needs, enabling them to graduate on-time and career-ready with little to no debt. To learn more or to make a donation in support of LUCA’s mission, please visit www.latinou.org