Take Five with Christopher Balthazar of TaskForce Prevention & Community Services
Take Five is an interview series that highlights Polk Bros. Foundation grantee partners who are taking impressive actions to overcome common challenges and who make a difference for Chicagoans most affected by poverty and inequity. We believe these insights are critical for Chicago’s future.
TaskForce Prevention & Community Services is one of Polk Bros. Foundation’s newest grantee partners supporting young people as they build the social connections, personal resilience, and places to turn for concrete assistance in times of need that enable them to reach their full potential. Christopher Balthazar and his team at TaskForce are committed to improving the sexual health and wellbeing of BIPOC LGBTQ+ youth in Chicago by providing a safe space for fellowship, HIV/STI screening and education, and on-site referrals to medical, housing, and other social services.
We’re grateful Chris has agreed to share his insights in this post.
1. The pandemic and the growing movement for racial justice have prompted a period of deep reflection and action about how we all lived before March 2020, how our priorities are changing or need to change, and how we want to move forward from here. What has changed over this time that you most hope will persist into the future?
Chris: Certainly there are many challenges related to some of the changes that we had to make within the organization, but I also think there are a lot of highlights. One of them is that the pandemic really forced us, as an organization, to reflect on how we are serving the community and as a result, we made some programmatic changes.
I actually started with the organization in April of 2020, at the start of the pandemic. The Board said, “Congratulations, you’re the executive director. And oh, by the way, we need to close because we have this pandemic and it’s killing people and we don’t know what to do about it.”
Immediately, I had to figure out – faced with closures – how do I strategically get us to reopen so we can serve our community? TaskForce is known for providing a safe space for our community and now, this safe space – that protects our LGBTQ+ youth from homophobic and transphobic threats and acts of violence they often experience in their neighborhoods and at home – might no longer exist for them. I was also concerned about those who were dealing with housing insecurities – couch surfing – and those who still needed access to HIV and STI testing.
So it was important for us to figure out, “How can we serve our community, but also how do we address the devastating impact of COVID?” We are in the Austin community, a predominantly Black neighborhood. We recognized that our community – just like some other communities of color – was disproportionately impacted by COVID.
What we learned is we have to be nimble as an organization that is serving underserved communities. A lot of our programming and funding is often focused on HIV, but we also talk about the syndemics of HIV because we have to expand beyond that. There’s so much that contributes to vulnerabilities of HIV – lack of housing, unemployment, violence, substance misuse, other STIs you name it. It’s similar when we talk about things like COVID.
We then asked ourselves, “How can we also adjust to address other diseases that can start to devastate our communities?” We started to do that work. We figured out ways, through partnerships, to bring testing, and to bring vaccinations (once they became available to TaskForce) to our community. Being nimble meant educating folks around COVID. And then we did the same thing when it came to monkeypox, working with our partners over at Rush and UI Health to get our community vaccinated against it.
This pandemic has taught us that, if we want to be culturally-responsive, if we want to be effective, we also have to be nimble. Unfortunately, funding isn’t as nimble.
2. What changed for your organization the most since the start of the pandemic, and how has your organization responded to those changes? Are any of these adaptations remaining?
Chris: We did a deeper dive into our values. Empowerment is a part of our values. Addressing the syndemics of HIV is also a part of our organizational values. We ask ourselves, “How do we promote empowerment within our communities? How do we become an empowering organization? What is the process that facilitates the outcomes of empowerment?”
We also had to ask ourselves, “What does it mean to hire from the communities we serve?” That’s one of the things we think is so important to the work that we do. We are very intentional about it. The public health and not-for-profit industry can be very academic. We tend to hire based on education. And while I think that has a place and some of that is important, I also think it’s also important that we provide opportunities. If we are trying to reach vulnerable communities, we also have to give leaders within those communities the opportunity and the platform to have influence within an organization to effectively address these very issues we’re trying to combat.
But hiring from the communities served is not enough. We also need to provide supports so individuals can be successful in their positions. What does that look like, and what does that mean? What is effective professional development? I think, to be honest, there really isn’t a lot out there on what that process looks like. We’re planning on conducting an Empowerment Evaluation initiative to better understand the effectiveness and impact of the supports we offer to both staff and our served communities. We also plan to have our staff and community lead the evaluation process, which I think is really important.
Again, all of this happened as a result of COVID, which led to some serious reflecting and reassessing how we engage in the work. We know this is what we need to do if we want to get to zero. We don’t have all the answers yet. But we’re doing the work to figure it out, because we know this is what our community needs.
*bonus question* How do you create that kind of space to dream and to think big?
Chris: Really, honestly, it’s not me. It’s my team. I have been able to surround myself with very influential people in the communities that we serve. I’m willing to listen and learn from them.
Our team is so willing to be nimble. But I also have to recognize that that’s a big ask for them. Because I’m literally asking them, ”Hey, I know that you’re hired to do HIV testing and you still have those scopes that you have to reach, but I also want you to kind of pause for a second, learn about this new disease well enough so you can educate community about it, and then also coordinate vaccination events so that we can get community out and vaccinated.” That’s very time-consuming. I’m asking them to go a hundred miles per hour. And then once that slows down, then I’m like, “Oh, and by the way, we still need to reach these testing scopes for our HIV grants.” And so I have to be mindful. It means facilitating an environment where my team can say, “Chris, listen, this is a lot.” They feel safe to say that. It teaches me to be very mindful. Because, on top of their work, they have their own stuff going on.
In not-for-profits, the culture is that we put others’ needs before our own. And I think one of the things that my team has taught me, and what I’m also trying to encourage them to do, is to really take time to self-care, even to take a day off. We also do things like, if you need to see a mental health provider, you can do that during work time. It’s an hour, which is not a lot of time out of the full workday.
It’s that kind of flexibility that we have within the organization, in addition to making sure that they feel comfortable and supported and that they love the space that they are in. We do spend a lot of effort on making sure that the culture within the organization among staff is right. It’s also about addressing issues about pay equity, and things like that. I can go on and on and on. It’s paying attention to all of those things. And really it starts with listening.
3. What’s one thing that continues to stand in the way of your organization’s work to create a more equitable and just Chicago, and what can be done about it?
Chris: TaskForce is a small community organization. We’re growing, we’re expanding, we’re offering more services. And there is a process for that. Understandably so, funders look at us and they say, “Well, we can give you a small grant but we really can’t give you the big grants yet because there is some work that you have to do to prove that you can handle the budget.” I get that.
But I also think there is this unspoken, implicit bias when it comes to funding BIPOC-led, grassroots, smaller organizations. There is often the assumption that they’re going to screw up the money. And honestly, I think it’s one of the reasons why we are underfunded and have been so long. It’s because of that bias.
And we see this not just for TaskForce, but more broadly. Even when we look at government grants, for instance, we see that there is a funding inequity across the United States when it comes to Black-led organizations. And so I think implicit bias when it comes to smaller, BIPOC-led organizations is one of the biggest barriers we are dealing with, because it literally impacts what we can offer and how we can offer it.
Again, opportunities like this where we can highlight the work that we’re doing hopefully encourage funders to reflect, “Maybe we need to look within. Maybe we need to do a deeper dive.” I’ve had funders say to us, “We can’t fund you because you guys are not big enough.” Some even place limits on what we can pay our staff. They’ve said, “You can’t actually pay your staff who has a high school diploma $40,000 a year.” And I’m like, “Well, this person has experience.” Funders often place these limits on us as a small organization that really hold us back from what we can do and how we can do it. Honestly, that is one of the biggest barriers.
4. In addition to financial support, what do you need most from the philanthropic community to advance your mission?
Chris: What I really appreciate is when foundations choose to highlight the voices of the work that we’re doing. Honestly I think that that does so much for really reaching folks who have no idea about the work that we’re doing, or what it’s like to do the work that we’re doing and the way that we’re doing it. It gives them a little insight, and I think it changes perspectives. People who listen to or review these are like, “Ok I need to think a little bit differently about what I’m doing.” It promotes reflection.
I also love it when foundations state publicly their values. And when they say things like, “Look, we are interested in funding BIPOC-led organizations, and our goal is to engage them and fund them in the same ways that we fund white-led organizations.” I think that that really speaks volumes, and it speaks to what their values are.
I also think a lot of times, when it comes to grant reports, there’s so much focus on outcomes and not on process. Yes, we can report that we tested 100 people from community, but we think our methods for recruitment are also important for funders to understand. We’d love funders to ask how we actually reach vulnerable people from community. Or for them to say, “Yes, you engaged 100 people in an employment program, but what about the folks who are suffering from housing insecurity? How many of those people were in your employment program?” And so, I feel like this is what a lot of foundations are starting to do, and I think it’s important and we need to do a lot more of it – look at our process as well as our outcomes. Because oftentimes, that’s so much more important than what we actually produce.
5. What has given you the most hope recently?
Chris: I sometimes have to remind myself to look for the highlights because, if not, I too can get burned out and become discouraged and jaded and all of these other things just wouldn’t be good or effective for my team or any of the work that we’re doing. So we don’t just hire from community, but we also ask community about our programs, about our services, how we change, what we should be offering, what we should be offering differently. These interventions are not my ideas. They’re theirs. They own them. I want them to lead them, I want them to inform them, I want them to engage in them. And when I see community actually say, “Hey Chris, listen, this is what you need to be doing. I would like to see TaskForce do this,” those are the things that give me hope.
Because what that says to me is that they have hope. That they haven’t given up. They still believe that there is something that can change. Because I’ve seen times where community was like, “There is nothing you can do that’s gonna change it. This is what it is.” But when I see they are actually thinking about what needs to be offered to facilitate the change that they believe is needed, that’s what really gives me that hope.
Watch this video featuring TaskForce Chicago’s community safer space, which operates on a drop-in basis on weeknights to provide safe harbor for neighborhood youth and young adults to freely express themselves via dance and bolster community connectedness.
Christopher Balthazar (he/him) is Executive Director of TaskForce Prevention & Community Services.