Navigating COVID-19: How AIF Alumni Are Adapting to the Crisis (Part II)

In March 2020, COVID-19 disrupted daily life and impacted millions of people across the world. This once in a century pandemic also necessitated the pause of the in-person AIF Clinton Fellowship Program, bringing most of the 19 Fellows home three months prior to completing their full service. However, despite these rapid changes, the Fellows helped lead three workshops to benefit AIF’s COVID-19 relief efforts that discussed how AIF Alumni are adapting to the crisis.

The second of these three talks brought together three AIF Clinton Fellowship Alumni—Esmeralda Herrera, Class of ‘17-’18; Sriya Srikrishnan, Class of ‘12-’13; and Rachel Varghese, Class of ‘15-’16—to share their perspectives on the past few months in a discussion led by 2019-20 Fellow Jane Hammaker.

A screenshot from the second Navigating COVID-19 seminar.
Current Fellow Jane Hammaker leads a discussion with three Alumni from the Fellowship Program: Rachel Varghese, Sriya Srikrishnan, and Esmeralda Herrera.

The discussion began with Sriya looking at the company Dimagi and how it has responded to COVID-19 with technology. Using applications to support frontline workers for sustainable impact, Dimagi has made an impact in the last few global health crises, including the Ebola crisis. Here, Dimagi began building up applications and in the process, took away key learnings regarding the importance of not wasting time to create the perfect product. Rather, due to these learnings, Sriya points out that Dimagi has made adjustments for the COVID-19 pandemic by creating a few template applications that can be customized by its partner organizations. From contract tracing, to port of entry applications, to a community based monitor program, Sriya and Dimagi have supported various governments around the world, such as the Government of Togo. In handing out pro-bono CommCare subscriptions, Sriya points out that Dimagi treats its partners truly as partners rather than clients, and this has led to success in forming strong relationships and successful collaborations in the current crisis. 

The second presentation was given by Esmeralda, who led a conversation about entrepreneurship during COVID-19 in Bihar and the Bronx. During her time as a Fellow, Esmeralda worked with Project Potential in rural Bihar to support local changemakers and entrepreneurship on the ground. Following her time with the Fellowship Program, Esmeralda has worked in the Bronx for Communitas America, where she focuses on social entrepreneurship that represents the Bronx, on the ground. As an ecosystem builder, she has worked to build up local talent in vulnerable communities, such as Bihar and the Bronx. While both areas have strengths, they need resources and don’t always fit the picture of what an entrepreneur looks like. So, Emeralda has worked to redefine entrepreneurship and innovation in a different way, as these entrepreneurs don’t always have venture capital funding or access to resources. However, in the current crisis, when the situation is even harder, these entrepreneurs become the resources, taking out loans to support their employees even when business is shuttered, filming videos to help other entrepreneurs, and even coming together as a community to tackle and solve issues such as closed after-school youth programs in order to make sure their community stays afloat.

The third and final presentation was given by Rachel, who shared stories from her experience volunteering with the Stranded Worker Action Network (SWAN). Through her time with SWAN, Rachel has gained many insights into what it is like to serve as a public health worker trying to understand the lockdown, and how one can help reach out to migrants to provide relief and support to these distressed workers. Rachel received many calls from all over the country from migrants, where she helped ask questions in order to match their needs up with a local organization that could help out or give a cash transfer. During the talk, Rachel shared data and stories from these migrant workers, who were experiencing major issues relating to food distress, lack of ability to purchase basic necessities, and difficulty obtaining support due to the lack of technology and internet access. In the end, Rachel emphasized the importance of standing up and speaking up for these groups who do not always have the ability to do so for themselves or have a proper safety net.

The talk concluded with a joint Q&A session, where the alumni took questions such as: “What was the shift from pre-COVID work to working right in the middle of the pandemic?” “How are founders changing their ideas and companies to cope with COVID-19?” and “How do you see new relief packages in India benefiting impoverished workers and farmers in India?”

Check out the recording here!

The series was organized by Jessie Standifer and Jane Hammaker.

Flyer for the 2nd Navigating COVID-19 Event.

Born and raised in Colorado, Trent is a 4th-year student at the University of Chicago, majoring in Global Studies and Economics. He's interested in international diplomacy, cultural exchange, and understanding how cooperation and friendship between people and countries can lead to benefits in many different ways. During the 2020 Summer, he worked as an intern for the AIF Clinton Fellowship Program through the University of Chicago's Jeff Metcalf Internship Program. Before joining AIF, he interned with a nonprofit organization in Hong Kong to strengthen U.S.-China ties, and with the U.S. Department of the Interior, working on education and health policy for Native Americans. After graduation, he's planning to pursue a career in foreign service.

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