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Corona Virus Opens a Pandora’s Box of Scams

If Willie Sutton were alive, he wouldn’t be robbing banks, more likely he’d be a scam artist, siphoning off a portion of the almost $70 million that Indiana consumers alone have reportedly lost to fraud even before the COVID-19 pandemic opened up a pandora’s box of new scam opportunities.

“At the Federal Trade Commission, we always say the fraudsters follow the headlines,” explained Todd Kossow, Director of the Midwest Region of the FTC. “They take advantage of the major news stories of the day and find new ways to access consumer’s personal financial information. The corona virus pandemic has been no exception to that.”

Kossow’s remarks were delivered at an on-line convening for ethnic media primarily covering Indianapolis and nearby regions. In addition to FTC staff, presenters included representatives from state and local agencies responsible for consumer protection, as well as from non-profits like the AARP, the Better Business Bureau, and others on the frontlines of battling scams and deceptive marketing practices.

“Scammers are like vampires who bleed their victims not just of money but of hope and self-respect,” said conference moderator Sandy Close, director of Ethnic Media Services. Close urged media participants “to shine a light on these activities through your media coverage and your community service.”

Susan Bolin, from the Better Business Bureau, concurred with the need for increased media coverage and involvement. While acknowledging active media participation in Fort Wayne and Evansville, “we still need more help. Just imagine the impact that we can have if every media outlet partnered with us.” Ultimately, Bollin said she wants to make Indianapolis a scam-free zone.

The goal is a daunting one.

Scams that have proliferated since the pandemic include large up-front money payments to companies claiming they can assist homeowners to renegotiate mortgage payments they missed because of COVID linked job layoffs; or scams that promise small businesses an inside track to securing federal paycheck protection funds to retain employees.

“So what are the main types of COVID-19 related scams that we’re seeing?” Kossow asked. “Scammers who are pitching so-called treatments and cures for COVID-19 without any proof that they work. The FTC has sent warning letters to nearly 250 companies making such claims.”

Presenters cited several “red flags” typically associated with scams: run out and buy a gift card to make a payment; a money wire transfer is required; an upfront payment is necessary before a prize can be claimed; authentication of your bank account number or verification of your Social Security number as mandatory in order to speed or complete the application or funding process.

Several speakers said that humiliation over being scammed often discourages victims from reporting what happened. There’s also a sense that trying to recover the money is a hopeless task. This is particularly true with gift card transactions. At least with payments made on credit cards, victims have a bank record to point to in filing a fraud claim. Moreover, victims have a self-interest in reporting scams, Andrew Johnson, Chief of Staff of the FTC’s Division of Consumer Affairs, emphasized

“Since July, 2018, In just a two-year period, the FTC mailed $23.6 million to almost 140,000 people in the state of Indiana, which is pretty remarkable,” Johnson said. “Generally, when the FTC settles or wins a case, and we get money that we can return back to consumers, one of the main ways we determine who to send money to, is we look back at our database of who reported to us.”

One net result of the pandemic’s advent is a decrease in face-to-face counseling that would encourage reporting to the FTC.

Cheryl Koch-Martinez, who works at Indiana Legal Services, said her organization assists low-income residents in understanding their financial options and advising them on consumer fraud cases. Given the imperative for social-distancing, “face-to-face communication is just not there,” she said. Telephone and e-mail are inefficient substitutes for the sensitive conversations that need to occur.

Reverend David Green, Senior Pastor, Purpose of Life Ministry, shared the experience of a maintenance engineer at his church. Originally from El Salvador,

he immigrated to the United States 20 years ago and obtained citizenship. He sent $1,000 to purchase a trailer in Kentucky and then sought to make arrangements with the sellers to personally pick it up. “They said, ‘no,’” Green reported. “They said they needed to deliver it and that if he would go to PayPal and send $600 for the insurance on the delivery of the trailer, that when the trailer got delivered, he would get the $600 back.”

In this case, Reverend Green encouraged his church’s employee to file a report with the FTC and the Better Business Bureau after the seller would answer phone calls but promptly hang up.

Several speakers highlighted the debilitating effects of scams that prey on people’s loneliness. While romance scams come readily to mind, scammers also have used a victim to become unwitting money mules, someone who moves money to a third-party. The use of third parties makes the origin and movement of financial transactions more difficult for authorities to trace.

Such was the case Assistant U.S. Attorney MaryAnn Mindrum described of an elderly woman who was told she’d won the lottery and had to pay fees before she could secure her winnings. She did not win the lottery, lost a substantial amount in so-called fees, “but,” Mindrum explained, “she talked to the scammer for two years!” Mindrum said her office stepped in to end the relationship, extradited the scammer to the U.S. and successfully prosecuted him. The woman was not charged.


We’re Living The Undercount Say Texas Advocates

Fiercely committed to a complete count of Texas residents for Census 2020, advocates across ethnic groups are re-thinking tactics and strategies of how to increase self-response rates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We all know that we are in a really difficult time right now with COVID-19,” acknowledged Katie Martin Lightfoot, community engagement coordinator for the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin. “Many of the resources that working folks and families across our state are relying on now to survive are determined by census data.”

In a virtual forum hosted by Ethnic Media Services for media and census advocates, speakers underscored the struggle between bringing the urgency of the census message home to people while still keeping a distance. “Our main challenge in getting everyone to fill out the census is that we’re missing that human touch,” conceded Paulina Lopez, a Census Bureau senior partnership specialist responsible for the state’s 35 southernmost, heavily Latino counties.  “We’re not giving up,” she said emphatically.

“No more door knocking?” questioned Nestor Lopez, an economic development analyst at the Hidalgo County Judge’s office. As an alternative, “we installed loudspeakers on our cars,” he said. Lopez helps oversee census outreach in the largely rural communities along the border, a region where cell phones have limited reception and Internet access ranges from unreliable to non-existent. Filling out the census on-line is rarely an option, Lopez noted.

Tenacity and ingenuity may still triumph over current circumstances, if these and other strategies listed by speakers prevail. If they do not, the alternative is grim. “If a baby is born and is not counted,” said Dr. Sylvia Acosta, CEO of the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region, “we will not have resources for that baby until they’re 10 and how are communities going to survive that?”

Paulina Lopez, also a member of Acosta’s YWCA board, described one successful outreach initiative.  With a $1,000 reward in the balance, a contest was launched to see which of two competing schools could turn in the most completed census forms from their respective school’s parents. “With this initiative we were able to complete 130 questionnaires,” Lopez said, stressing that the goal is not just outreach but measurable participation and results.

Ray Shackelford, National President of the Young Professionals of the National Urban League which targets hard-to-count urban neighborhoods, described efforts to harness  the mass appeal of Instagram-live events. Hosted by d-jays with countrywide followings, this digital platform has propelled successful National Urban League registration campaigns and is a template the League plans to use to educate younger African Americans about the census. Shackelford said the hope is that the younger cohort will influence peers and elders.

The Texan African American community continues to expand with the addition of African and Caribbean immigrants and intermarriages. If there is any advantage within this universe of prospective census respondents, it is general familiarity with English, an asset not shared by the Asian American community.

“There’s about 1.7 million Asian Americans living here in Texas,” said Nabila Mansoor, census director of the Empowering Communities Initiative, “and we have been under counted for decades.” Not only do Asian Americans live in Hard to Count census tracts, she reported, but the language barrier compounds the difficulty of garnering high census response rates. Her messaging emphasizes the link between accurate census data and funding for health care.   “Some 163,000 Asian Americans have no access to health care in Texas,” she noted.

Even before the pandemic, the odds were high against an accurate count. Dr. Lila Valencia, Senior Demographer for the Texas Demographic Center in Houston, noted that Texas is second only to Alaska in size and second only to California in total population

As of late May, the Texas self-response rate was just under the national average of 55 percent, but it is the hard to count tracts, urban as well as rural, that keep advocates up at night. In the 2010 census, a quarter of a million Texas residents were uncounted. A mere one percent undercount in 2020 could cause Texas to lose $300 million per year until 2030.

Though non-Hispanic whites are still the state’s largest ethnic group, Valencia noted that close to 90 percent of the new population added since 2010 has come from non-White ethnic groups – with Latinx presence accounting for over half of that number, and Asian Americans representing the fastest growing group.

Nina Perales, Vice President of Litigation for MALDEF based in San Antonio, has worked to reform the state’s redistricting process for two decades. Even if an accurate count is achieved, she warns, there’s the danger that it won’t translate into political representation.

Every 10 years, each state’s congressional and other districts are redrawn by its respective state legislature after receiving the newly collected census information. “In every cycle of redistricting, Texas has been found by the courts or the Justice Department to have discriminated against Latino voters,” Perales explained.

Even under the best of circumstances, the timeline for the Texas legislature to handle redistricting is brief. This year because of the pandemic, census data will not be released until April 2021, affording the Texas legislature only a month to redraw lines unless it convenes a special session for that purpose.

For Perales, a bigger concern is the Trump administration’s effort to collect citizenship data through the census and ultimately have the citizenship population be the sole demographic criteria used to draw up congressional districts. Citizenship only representation is already a stated goal of the Texas Republican Party platform. Should that occur, simply being a resident of Texas, rather than a citizen, would have no representational weight.

Panelists concurred that loss of political representation would not bode well. They view getting an accurate count as tantamount to laying the groundwork for a better quality of life.

Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of LUPE (La Union del Pueblo Entero) for over 20 years, described what failure to raise the response rate would mean for the colonias (unincorporated communities) of the Rio Grande: “Our schools are going to continue to be underfunded, our roads will continue to deteriorate, public funding for health care will dry up. An undercount will take congressional and state legislative seats from or area.”

“We live the consequences of an undercount,” Valdez-Cox said, summarizing the sentiment of conference speakers. “The census staff suspended its work because of concerns about the virus. We didn’t close down. We just started working from our homes.”

Photo Credit: Photopin



Can a City Rise to the Census Count Without Funding?

Houston may already be the third most populous city in the United States, elbowing aside broad-shouldered Chicago and trailing New York and Los Angeles as first and second, respectively. We won’t know until the 2020 census is concluded.

“In most parts of the country, there has been little or very modest growth, but not in Texas,” said Dr. Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston speaking to a convening of census advocates and experts co-hosted by Houston in Action, the Leadership Conference Education Fund and Ethnic Media Services. “By far, we’ve added more people, according to the [Census Bureau’s] Community Survey, than any other state.”

Texas may have gained as many as 4 million people since 2010, Murray said.

The convening represented the first formal briefing about the 2020 census for and with news outlets representing a broad spectrum of audiences from Hispanic, African American, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean to Nepalese, Asian Indian, and African diaspora communities.

Echoing the sense of pride in Houston’s growth, many speakers called the census an opportunity for the city’s increasingly diverse communities to stand up and be counted. A large percentage of the state’s growth stemmed from Latino births and immigration, but its fastest growing demographic is the Asian American community, according to Nabila Mansour of the Empowering Communities Initiative.

“We’ve had about 128% growth from the year 2000,” Mansour reported. “Asian Americans in Texas, we’re about 1.5 million, and 27% of Asian Americans live in Harris County or Fort Bend.” Houston is the county seat of Harris County, Richmond, Fort Bend’s County’s seat, is less than 40 miles away.

Mansour said her organization’s staff spend a lot of time going into East and South Asian communities to educate them about the importance of the census, especially since residents who arrived in the United States after 2010 may have had no experience with a census in their country of origin.

Numbers matter. The aggregate per person count is used to calculate the annual federal dollar allotments Texas counties and cities will receive to fund many state and local programs, from Medicaid to hospital and school construction and road building. One estimate is that Houston alone would lose $3.78 billion in federal funding between now and the 2030 census if the city’s population is undercounted by 10%.

Within the 254 Texas counties, 25% of Texans live in Hard to Count (HTC) communities or neighborhoods, regions or populations with historically low response rates during previous censuses, said Katie Lightfoot of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “Kids under five, immigrants, people of color, families that move frequently, non-English speaking communities, low-income households, people in rural areas, renters, complex households – the list goes on and on,” Lightfoot said of HTC tract characteristics.

HTC communities are fairly ubiquitous in Texas. For example, the Vietnamese who rely on fishing or other economic activities linked to coastlines, often reside in rural areas more difficult for census-takers to canvas, noted Jannette Diep of Boat People SOS, and they are less likely to have access to computers or the Internet to avail themselves of the Census Bureau’s highly touted online census survey.

The number of HTC communities in Harris County is eye-opening. “Harris County has the highest number of Hard to Count people in the state of Texas,” Lightfoot explained. “That’s over one million people in Harris County who are hard to count.”

Changes in funding programs is just one result of an undercount. Population also determines reapportionment. If the census captures the state’s growth, experts project, Texas could add another two or three congressional seats to its delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives, Murray noted, and likely one more seat in the state legislature as well. And, there is redistricting, redrawing the boundaries of congressional districts so the numerical representation in each is roughly proportionate.

Panelists cited cross-cutting issues they think make this census particularly challenging and that could depress the response rate. Foremost, they said, has been negative reactions to the Department of Commerce Secretary’s attempt to include a census question on citizenship. Despite the 2019 judicial ruling that prohibited that action, participants across the ethnic groups they represented said “the damage has been done.”

A.J. Durani, of Emgage-USA, said President Trump’s remarks on his first presidential campaign trail and his subsequent actions since in office, particularly the Muslim travel ban, have had a chilling effect on his organization’s membership.

“These actions,” Durani stated, “have resulted in fear, apprehension, and trepidation among the Muslim community for any initiative of the current government, especially those whereby information or data are collected on individuals, that is, by the census.”

Durani said Emgage-USA, a multi-state organization, with chapters or a presence in California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia, seeks to promote civic education and engagement. He noted that although approximately a quarter of the Muslims in the greater Houston area are non-immigrant African Americans, the majority are immigrants from Asia, including Bangladesh and Indonesia, the Middle East, North Africa, and other countries in Africa with predominantly Muslim populations, like Somalia and Sudan.

Throughout the convening, trust — or rather mistrust — was a pervasive theme and one not solely relegated to immigrant communities. Ray Shackleford, representing the Houston chapter of the National Urban League, and national president of the Urban League’s Young Professionals, said mistrust of government is prevalent within the city’s African American community as well.
“I think there is general mistrust when you’re talking about the government, and it’s a challenge because it’s something that’s well founded when you look at the history of government’s interaction with black people and, honestly, its communities of color overall.”

The speakers at the Census briefing in Houston. From left to right: Angelica Razo (Mi Familia Vota), Ebony Fleming (BakerRipley), Elizabeth Bille (NALEO), A.J. Durrani (Emgage USA), Nabila Mansoor (Empowering Communities Initiative), and Ray Shackelford (Houston Urban League). Photo credits: Anthony Advincula, Ethnic Media Services.

Shackleford, who has worked with Houston’s homeless population, outlined a scenario of a renter who has two people on the lease but shelters six in the apartment. “You don’t want to put that down on the census if you think it’s going to get into the hands of the landlord and they’re going to try to evict you.”

The lack of state funding to support census outreach was another issue raised at the convening. Shackleford said he recently attended a Houston meeting of professionals of Caribbean descent where he polled attendees informally on how much money they thought the Lone Star State had committed to outreach. Because of Texas pride, “they threw out big numbers,” Shackleford said, but were dumbfounded to learn the answer is zero.

In 2019, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wrote to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott requesting funds for census outreach. Past Texas governors invested in census public education, but Abbott has declined to do so. With less federal revenue committed to the 2020 census than many longtime census observers deem necessary for a truly successful count, Turner, as have some other big city Texas mayors, is spending city revenue to raise the visibility of the census.

One compelling narrative that overrides distrust, speakers agreed, is the high stakes for kids if they are undercounted. Approximately 105,000 Texas children were not counted in the last census, said Elizabeth Bille, Texas State Director for NALEO, “and 75,000 of those are Latinos. So you can imagine what is at stake for our community and all communities of color.”

Bille spoke of her concerns, not only as an advocate, but as a mother, knowing and watching young children being deprived of health or educational resources that could be readily available were the census count accurate and communities received the appropriate funding. She also echoed Emgage-USA’s A.J. Durani in advocating for robust cooperation between census advocates and the ethnic media as trusted messengers.

Angelica Razo, State Director for Mia Familia Vota, said everyone already knows why people are fearful but “we need to empower them and tell them why need to fill out the census.” Razo agreed that ethnic media as trusted messengers are vital to educating communities but said there is another imperative needing emphasis. “Put some ownership on community members, they too are trusted messengers.”

Hyunja Norman, director of the Korean Voters Association, brought to the meeting promotional material she had developed and financed in order to reach Korean Americans. She struck an emotional chord with attendees about what is driving her engagement with her community around the census. “I am participating in the census because I am part of this great nation. We are part of this nation. We contribute to this nation. Make your community exist in this country.”

Ebony Fleming, of the children’s service organization BakerRipley, summed up the shared sense of pride of place through the census: “In the space you’re in, you matter.

Khalil Abdullah is Contributing Editor for Ethnic Media Services. He joined New America Media as its first Director in the Washington D.C. He has also served as the Lead Facilitator and Editor of the Beat Within, Washington D.C. edition, and Managing Editor of the Washington Afro-American Newspaper.

Featured image can be found here and this piece was originally published here.


Stakeholders Find Common Ground In 2020 Census

PHOENIX, AZ. — In the conference room of the Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center, a chair sat empty at a recent convening of community media and stakeholders to promote Arizona’s 2020 census.

Lizbeth Luna, regional director for NALEO’s Arizona census initiative, abruptly cancelled as a speaker, learning her father had been detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). The intersection of immigration and the census was one of several topics at the convening, but the empty chair spoke to the tenuous netherworld of immigrant status in the United States.

In June, the Supreme Court barred Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross from adding a question on citizenship to the Census 2020 form. The ruling was applauded by Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s Secretary of State, who supports a permanent ban on such an initiative. After the question’s dismissal, advocates continue to fear diminished participation in the census, particularly from the Latino community. Worries are the current administration will not respect the confidentiality of personal information, despite laws and fines discouraging the sharing of individual census responses among federal agencies.

At the convening, co-hosted by Ethnic Media Services, OneArizona, the Arizona Community Foundation and the Leadership Conference Education Fund, EMS executive director, Sandy Close encouraged attendees to collaborate in their messaging and outreach on Census 2020. Citing the decrease of traditional community media as one motivation, Close said the driving impetus for collaboration should be concern about the potential loss of census data-based funding for federal programs that contribute to children’s well-being. Children are the most likely to be undercounted and highly vulnerable to funding reductions.

“We, as media, need you, as community organizations, to extend your communication outreach, especially to populations that don’t have media outlets,” Close said. “Today’s meeting is an effort to forge a consensus across ethnic groups, community organizations, state and local government groups and other stakeholders. Do it for the kids.”

Jim Chang, state demographer, Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity, provided an overview of the state’s racial demographics. He projects that the decreasing and aging white population, currently comprising 54%, and the increasing, younger Latino one, now at 32%, would reach relative numerical parity by 2050 at 45% and 40% respectively. The balance of the population, with no cohort above 5%, is comprised of Asians, blacks, Native Americans and others.

“A lot of people I talk to believe that, right now, the births to Hispanic mothers are higher than the births to non-Hispanic whites,” Chang said, “but that was true only one year, 2007.” Since then, white, non-Hispanic women have led their Latina counterparts with no anticipated change through 2050. Importantly, Chang has seen estimates of Arizona’s 2010 census undercount of children at 4%, 7% and as high as 10%. “Every method has its flaws,” Chang said, but overall, compared to other states, Arizona did fairly well in its total population 2010 census assessment.

Alec Thomson, representing the Arizona governor’s office, acknowledged hard-to-count communities within the state where undercount percentages have been higher than even those for children.  In recent censuses, kids younger than 5 have been omitted more than anyone else nationwide.

Thomson said Arizona spent no money for 2010 census outreach due to fiscal caution after 2008’s recession.  But a key motivation to encourage 2020 census participation is a calculation that for Arizona, annually, “a 1% undercount is a direct loss of $62 million to the state.”

For 2020, Thomson said, “Governor Ducey has made achieving a complete count a priority and was able to secure existing state resources to support the efforts of the Arizona Complete Count Committee and the AZ Census 2020 effort.”

Arizona thus far has about $1.5 million allocated for paid media advertising to promote census participation, Thomson said, and, in an email to Ethnic Media Services, wrote: “we are hoping to grow that number, through existing state dollars or support from the philanthropic community.

“Arizona’s philanthropic community has contributed to our efforts, supporting initiatives that raise awareness among traditionally undercounted communities.”

Whitney Walker, director of communications and public policy for Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition, (PAFCO), spoke to the need for more state level advocacy to bolster the housing trust fund and domestic violence shelters, among other initiatives that ameliorate “the cycle of poverty vulnerable Arizona families are facing.”

To her point, the annual Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Book on the status of American children living in poverty ranks Arizona at only 43rd in overall wellbeing for children.

In Arizona, immigration is a highly contested issue. Walker said the political climate can interfere with the dissemination of clear and concise information. She didn’t dispute the assessment of Arizona’s 2010 census efforts, but noted that there was “a 30% undercount for Maricopa County, which now has a population of over four million people.”

Janice Palmer of the Helios Education Foundation, which focuses on Latino students’ academic success, underscored Walker’s observations: “Maricopa County had the second largest undercount of Latino children.” Using 7% as the projected undercount,  she estimated, in that county alone, 27,000 Latino children were omitted from census 2010 data.

The Native American and Alaskan Native populations pose unique challenges to the census, according to Mark Trahant, editor of Indian Country Today.

“The primary problem for us is that it comes down to self-identification, and when you’re dealing with tribal communities, you’re talking about citizenship and a more complex way of looking at identity,” Trahant explained. He added that ICT has been reporting for three years that the 2020 census has been in trouble, partly due to underfunding. In Alaska, he noted, two field tests were cancelled to save funds and, overall, a dearth of linguists available to translate census instructions and information into local languages.

For Trahant, paramount is how to transform Native American presence into political representation. Even with the recent election of Native Americans to Congress, he calculates they constitute less than three-quarters of one percent of that body, assuming Native Americans represent 2% of the population, which is itself “probably an undercount.”

To achieve accuracy, the Census Bureau will have to contend with Native Americans’ lack of broadband access and the difficulty of determining addresses in remote communities. Additionally, Trahant said tribal identification will be “a demographer’s nightmare” because many Native Americans have multiple tribal identifications in their family trees. How will resources be fairly allocated, he mused?

D.L. White, reporting for The Arizona Informant, also raised the issue of accountability, asking state Rep. Diego Rodriguez – the convening’s final speaker — how an undercount could negatively affect funding for minority groups and refugee communities. Rodriguez responded that allocating funds is a result of horse trading at the heart of the budgeting process.

“We all agree that the budget represents your values,” Rodriguez said, but “we have to make sure our numbers are counted so that we get adequate representation.”

Acknowledging representatives from Somali, Congolese and other emerging refugee groups at the briefing, as well as from Native American, black and Latino populations, Tameka Spence of Arizona Community For Change emphasized that the first step is addressing the trauma many have experienced. “In trying to help folks understand why the census is important, we’re asking them to confront that trauma and we need to acknowledge that it’s there, it’s real.”

Though the empty chair attested to the Luna family’s immediate trauma, the Indial School Visitor Center venue exuded optimism. Once the site of a federally run school to socially re-engineer Native American students, Center director Rosalie Talahonva – herself an alumna — recalled how students were drawn from different tribes often deeply at odds with each other as well as the U.S. government. Whether antagonisms were ancient or personal, new or imagined, the students persevered, forging consensus and cooperation among themselves — an inspiration for Arizona’s mosaic of stakeholders striving to achieve an accurate census count.

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This article is published with permission from the Author and can be found here.

In a Dec. 30 story by Ethnic Media Services, “Arizona’s diverse stakeholders find common ground in 2020 census – do it for the kids,” the name of Alec Thomson, a representative of Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s office, was misspelled. Additionally, Thomson said, the governor did not make a budget request for funding census public education initiatives, but has secured funding to support paid media advertising and complete count efforts and is hopeful of further contributions toward this effort from the philanthropic community.