Two Humphrey School Alumni Take Lead Roles in COVID-19 Response in Twin Cities

June 18, 2020
Head shots of alumni Acooa Ellis and Tim Marx
Humphrey School alumni Acooa Ellis and Tim Marx are leading efforts in the Twin Cities to respond to the coronavirus pandemic through the organizations they lead: Greater Twin Cities United Way and Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. 

Alumni of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs across Minnesota and the nation are responding to the coronavirus pandemic in a variety of ways, through individual volunteering and through their daily work.

Two alumni are playing high-profile roles in the Twin Cities metropolitan area to serve people who need assistance. 

Acooa Ellis (MPP '07) is senior vice president of community impact at Greater Twin Cities United Way. The organization's mission is to galvanize the community to create pathways toward prosperity and equity for all. The organization supports the nine-county metro region through volunteer engagement, grant making, fundraising, advocacy, and operation of a 24/7 resource helpline. 

Tim Marx (MA/JD '83) is president and CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The mission of his organization is to prevent poverty, meet the basic needs of clients in times of crisis, and create pathways out of poverty. Catholic Charities operates 29 different programs at more than 18 locations throughout the region.

We asked Ellis and Marx to share what their organizations are doing to lead in this difficult time, and what steps are needed long term.  

How is your organization addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in the Twin Cities?

Acooa Ellis (AE): The United Way’s response to COVID-19 has focused on bringing our full complement of strengths and resources to bear in support of the region. We immediately started a response and recovery fund, and have provided funds to 107 different organizations in less than two months. We have fielded thousands of requests from across the state for resource information through our 211 resource helpline, which provides confidential service referrals 24/7/365.

We have used that information to inform policy makers at all levels of government on issues such as rental assistance and ongoing support for the nonprofit sector. We’re also offering virtual webinars to our community partners on timely and relevant topics, such as financial modeling and fundraising.

Tim Marx (TM): The COVID-19 pandemic had an immediate impact on our work in serving our most vulnerable neighbors. Catholic Charities currently operates four homeless shelters throughout the Twin Cities as well as two daytime service centers. Creating social isolation in such facilities is a challenge. We know that our clients experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, so we have employed a variety of new strategies to help keep our clients, staff, and volunteers safe. 

What are the greatest needs you see in the community during this time?

AE: I am most concerned about sustainable access to a safe place to call home. It is really hard to stay safe or social distance if you don’t have a roof over your head or you’re living doubled or tripled up in a home. Housing and food are far and above the most commonly identified needs for people calling our 211 helpline.

TM: Even before the COVID pandemic, we were facing an acute lack of affordable housing in Minnesota, and homelessness was at record levels. Just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, our shelters were well over capacity, and we were serving more meals at our St. Paul campus than we had ever served before. We anticipate that COVID-19 will exacerbate poverty and housing insecurity, and that there will be increased need for basic support as the economy is further strained and additional people lose employment.

Another critical challenge: we know there are dramatic racial disparities in homelessness and access to opportunity.  We’re also seeing now that COVID-19 is having devastating and disproportionate impacts on communities of color. We want to be an active part of the solution, building a community where everyone—regardless of background or circumstance—has the chance to thrive and reach their full potential.

How will our communities need to adapt once the immediate concern over COVID-19 has passed?

AE: We need to fight the urge to return to "normal." Normal has meant predictably inequitable access to countless opportunities, which have produced this state's disparities in life outcomes—disparities replicated and exacerbated by COVID-19. Instead, we should be mindful to take an earnest inventory of both what has been learned and examine long-held assumptions proven wrong in this crisis, and work to intentionally apply those learnings to how we move forward. 

TM: I recently heard someone say that we are experiencing 10 years of change in 10 weeks.  The disruption caused by this pandemic has caused us to look at things in new ways, quickly adapting to meet needs—sometimes in ways we had never thought possible before. I have also heard Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan say that “we have to go back to better.” As we move Minnesotans experiencing homelessness out of shelter and into hotels and other safe locations, it is imperative that they don’t return to shelter but instead into permanent housing. We cannot live with thousands of children and families experiencing homelessness as we did prior to COVID-19. Partnerships will be critical. We are already engaging with our partners in new ways. I think we will see this across sectors.

What is the role of public policy schools like the Humphrey School in addressing future challenges?

AE: The Humphrey School has the honor and responsibility to prepare its students to objectively see the world as it is, leverage research and data to amplify real life experiences, and/or challenge assumptions. The School also has a role in fostering learning environments where students gain relevant technical skills, including the art of bridging the divides that often exist among disparate stakeholder groups, in order to transform this world into what it could be.

TM: Public policy schools like the Humphrey School play a critical role in educating future leaders on how to adapt to change, and how they can help build social structures and public policies that uphold the dignity of all people. Looking at other tectonic challenges throughout history—such as the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression—we’ve seen that those in need often get short shrift. This time, can we ensure they have a seat at the table? Can we change the trajectory of that curve so that those most in need have access to opportunity and a voice in our future?  Public policy schools are also uniquely positioned to foster leaders who can view problems in a holistic way, looking at how policies affect the economy and society and the overall health of our community. This holistic problem-solving approach will be critical as we move forward during this historic time.

What insights from your time at the Humphrey School have been helpful to you in leading your organization, particularly during this challenging situation?

AE: My very first class at Humphrey was policy analysis with Dr. Samuel Myers Jr. I find myself constantly checking to make sure we have clearly outlined the problem we're trying to solve, and that our understanding of the problem is informed by those closest to it. I love data; the ability to extrapolate meaning and make it plain to a broad audience is also an important skill I honed at the Humphrey School. I [also] remember learning a lot about framing information and options in a way that appeals to a broad audience from Professor Melissa Stone. I lean on all of these lessons an awful lot.

TM: During my 40-year public affairs career, I have been motivated by Hubert Humphrey’s description of our collective moral test, looking at how we "treat those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped." I have the good fortune of helping lead Catholic Charities, which serves those most in need regardless of faith, background or circumstance. I see our teams living out that moral test every day. We know we can’t serve our way out of poverty, so we also focus on advocacy and engagement, knowing that we as a community can make lasting change and address our most urgent challenges by addressing policy and structural issues. Our vision is to build a community with poverty for no one and opportunity for everyone.