Leader to Leader: Taking on the Hispanic Federation in the midst of COVID-19

Frankie Miranda discusses his experience leading the Latino organization as the pandemic struck, and how it has emerged from the global health crisis.

Frankie Miranda

Frankie Miranda Hispanic Federation

The COVID pandemic has presented massive challenges for almost every nonprofit organization in New York. Even the most experienced leaders have struggled to keep pace with the growing needs of service recipients, the shifting guidance about how to protect staff and the constantly changing political and funding landscape.

If COVID has been difficult for long-time executives, imagine how hard it would be to start running an organization in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime global health crisis.

Frankie Miranda was confronted with exactly this test when he took the helm at the Hispanic Federation, a Latino nonprofit membership organization, at the end of 2019, just months before the pandemic hit New York.

Greg Berman recently talked to Miranda about how he coped and how the Hispanic Federation is working to strengthen grassroots organizations working with vulnerable Latino populations.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Greg Berman: You became the president of the Hispanic Federation not long before the pandemic hit. Did anything in your background prepare you for that kind of baptism by fire? 

Frankie Miranda: My first job after I finished my graduate school in 1998 was at the Hispanic Federation. I went on to a few other jobs, but I came back in 2006 and have been here ever since.

In 2017, when Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico, I was charged with helping to roll out the response of the Hispanic Federation on the island. The response was fueled by the anger and frustration that the diaspora and many people in the United States felt when the federal government and the Trump administration decided that they were not going to respond to the American citizens that happened to live in Puerto Rico in the same way that they would to American citizens affected by natural disasters in other parts of the United States. As a Puerto Rican born and raised in Puerto Rico, I was looking for ways to help the island. That was my main task: to try to find those groups that were providing first-responder services to remote communities all around the island.

After I accepted the offer to become the president of the Hispanic Federation, the first day with my new management team was the earthquake in Puerto Rico: January 6th of 2020. We had to start working immediately to reactivate the network of care that we had created after Hurricane Irma and Maria. 

So as an organization, we had some muscle memory and some experience with responding to emergencies.

Berman: That seems like good preparation, but I would imagine that COVID was a different level entirely.

Miranda: We pretty quickly realized that New York was going to be the epicenter of the pandemic. We didn't need government reports to know where people were getting sick or dying. We knew this immediately from our agencies, which never closed their doors. Those organizations that were on

the front lines, that are underfunded and under-resourced, were being asked to do more. We immediately went to work and a few weeks later, we were already providing emergency grants to small businesses and organizations that were dealing with members of our community. When people were just scratching their heads and saying, "Who's doing something on COVID?" the federation already was working on it.

Berman: How did it feel to be in your shoes during those months?

Miranda: There were certainly moments when I wondered how we were going to move forward. And the only way that we could do it was just to not think about it. We needed to just spring into action. We couldn't wait six months to react. We needed to react in real time. Sometimes you have to be bold and sometimes you have to be a little bit daring. 

We started with a very generous matching grant from the Miranda family (no relation). Luis Miranda, the founding president of the Hispanic Federation, and [his son, actor and playwright] Lin-Manuel Miranda, matched the federation with $250,000. That has since grown into more than $20 million in emergency grants to organizations, not only in New York, but also across 41 states. 

Berman: Does it still feel like you are in crisis mode as an organization?

Miranda: We are still in a state of emergency in this country. I feel that there is now this urge to go back to pre-pandemic times. COVID and the racial reckoning that happened with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many, many others forced everybody to look at the disparities that we have been talking about for decades. The curtain was pulled back on economic disparities, educational disparities, health disparities and so much more.

We cannot go back to pre-pandemic times. We need to strive for a fair and equitable recovery, and that includes taking care of the communities that were disproportionately affected by this pandemic. I feel a real sense of urgency because even if tomorrow we have no more COVID, we would still be dealing with families that have lost a parent and a breadwinner. We would still have children that are facing a lifetime of emotional, physical, and educational challenges.

So, we need to continue having a laser focus on the question of what exactly is an equitable recovery. It is not enough to simply put out grandiose statements or press releases about multi-million dollar commitments to dismantling structural racism.

Berman: The Hispanic Federation is an organization with a national reach and hundreds of members. I've always thought that those kinds of organizations are among the hardest to run. How have you managed to hold the member organizations together through these challenging times?

Miranda: In general, we don't expand into areas or regions where we are not needed or where the Latinx sector is already well taken care of. We only go to areas where our expertise is needed. 

I think that we are staying true to our original DNA. When we were created in 1990 with a handful of organizations, it was all about making sure that we were responding to the need of those organizations. Today, when I'm having a conversation with one of our organizations, I want to hear about their challenges. As a capacity builder and technical assistance provider and grant-maker, I can’t take a cookie-cutter approach. Whether it is Latinx communities in urban areas like Washington Heights or farm workers in upstate New York or the poultry or meatpacking workers in the South or the undocumented community … we are just very aware and tuned in to the needs of the sector. We want to hear from our communities and figure out the way that we can best support the community. And that is what the federation continues to do.

Berman: I noticed that you used the term “Latinx.” On your website, you use “Latinx,” “Hispanic,” and “Latino” interchangeably. There is a lot of culture war energy around vocabulary these days. Do you have a point of view, either personally or institutionally, on which terminology is preferable?

Miranda: We use the term that is best suited for the audience that we are trying to reach. If you are talking to people older than me, most likely they will respond well to the term “Hispanic.” For many people in my generation, they felt that “Hispanic” was a term that had been forced on us. The whole concept of “Latino” was a reaction against “Hispanic.” And then members of our community that identify as female, they said, well, we also want to be recognized. So, it became Latino and Latina. 

I'm the first gay president of the Hispanic Federation. And as a member of the LGBTQ community, I see a new generation emerging that doesn’t want to be defined by the gender binary. So, now you have “Latinx.”

In general, we use these terms interchangeably to reflect the great diversity in our community. We understand that different sectors of our community have a preference for one or the other. We don't want to exclude anybody.

Berman: You were at the White House recently to discuss Build Back Better with President Biden. What was that like? 

Miranda: We had been having constant virtual conversations with this new administration even before the administration was in place in the White House, but when COVID protocols allowed us to meet in person for the first time, it was really powerful. Many of my colleagues in leadership roles said that they had not been invited to the White House for more than four years. It said a lot about this new administration and the attention that they want to pay to our community. It was incredibly powerful to be able to have this access directly to the president and to the vice president. We also have a strong connection with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has been a great friend to us.

It has been an incredible sea change. When we talk specifically about our work in Puerto Rico, the past administration purposely blocked funding that was approved by Congress to go to Puerto Rico. Only now are many of these funds getting to the island. 

It is still an enormous challenge because Congress is not functioning the way it needs to these days. If a bigger bill like Build Back Better is not possible, we're urging the president to consider executive orders to at least meet some of the immediate needs in our community.

Berman: You wrote in The Hill not long ago that the Latino community is not a monolith but that traditional campaigns often treat the community that way. What did you mean?

Miranda: I was writing specifically about how to increase voter turnout. First of all, I think that in order to do effective community mobilization, you need to do long-term investments. You are not going to be successful if, a couple of weeks before an election, you simply flood the airways with some Spanish language ads. You need to invest in the community. You need to demonstrate your presence in the community. All politics are local. For example, depending upon who you are talking to, when you use the formal “you” or the colloquial “you” in Spanish, you're going to have a different reaction. Those nuances are important when you are approaching our community. 

You cannot just do one message that will be blanketed for everybody in our community in the East Coast, West Coast, or wherever and hope that it will stick. It is always about fine tuning to the needs that each community has. There are organizations that are on the ground working with each one of these communities and that can provide the best information on how to reach them. In general, our community wants to be heard and wants to be addressed the way that they want. 

Berman: You wrote an op-ed in the Daily News that focused on the lack of meaningful representation of Latinos at the highest level of city government despite the fact that the Latino population is about 30% of the New York City populace at this point. What's going on? What's your analysis of why we don't have better representation in citywide positions from the Latino community?

Miranda: I think that we are at a transition point in this conversation, in which we need to continue raising our voices about the importance of our community. I think that there is a lot of enthusiasm about diversity when it comes to representation. We think that there is an incredible amount of talent. We are going to continue investing in this new class that is coming into the City Council and the Senate and the state Assembly to ensure that they have the support that they need to eventually get into those citywide positions.

Berman: The Hispanic Federation recently released a blueprint for New York's Latino community that highlighted the importance of strengthening Latino nonprofits and, in particular, increasing the New York City Nonprofit Stabilization Fund. Why is that so important?

Miranda: It is a direct reaction to the COVID pandemic. These organizations, who have been doing incredible work in the community, many of them were left out of the emergency funding that the city provided. These organizations suddenly were providing food assistance and other essential services. They need support to increase their capacity, whether it be investments in their infrastructure or feasibility plans or improving their financial systems.

At the Hispanic Federation, we have invested millions of dollars of our funding to support these organizations. We believe that the City of New York has the responsibility not only to match us, but to go even further, because, in times of need, you have to have strong nonprofit organizations. If the city invests in their capacity, we will be better prepared for the next crisis. We're not advocating just for the Hispanic community. This funding also goes to African American and Asian American/Pacific Islander serving organizations. It is about investing in organizations that are providing communities of color with essential services. 

Berman: What's the best advice about leadership you've ever received?

Miranda: I think that the best advice is that, in times of need, you just need to spring to action and others will follow. I think that second guessing is what sometimes prevents us from being impactful in the community. There's always going to be someone that is going to say, “this is going to be difficult” or “this is not going to happen” or “you don't have the money.” In times of need, you just need to show leadership. I think that is something that I have learned from all of the previous presidents of the Hispanic Federation.

The other great advice that I got from one of our previous presidents that I still use today is not to be an 80-20. Too many people do 80% of the work amazingly and then that last 20% of the work falls between the cracks. 

My background is in the arts. Back in the 90s, my acting teacher used to say, "What is the final image?" She always wanted us to think about what was the final image that the audience was going to take from the theater. We need to ensure that, for our organizations, that final image is always about making the community move to a better place.