New Staff Feature: Petaki Cobell, Director of the Right Now Needs Fund

Q:           Where are you originally from?

A:            For the most part, I’m from Seattle – I grew up on Beacon Hill. But I also spent summers and went to elementary school for 3 years in my tribal homelands in Montana.

Q:           Which schools did you attend in Seattle growing up?

A:            I was a part of the Head Start program at Daybreak Star, which is run by United Indians of All Tribes. I also went to Fairmont Park and Kimball Elementary, and then while Seattle Public Schools did busing, I attended Madison Middle School, Meany Middle School, Nathan Hale High School and graduated from Ingraham High School.

Q:           What was your experience at those schools?

A:            I really learned to see the value of having a racial equity based education. Being Native American, Daybreak Star felt very culturally supportive to me. I have distinct memories of having teachers who were from my community, who knew about who I was and who validated that. Elsewhere, my teachers were primarily white. Later I remember one of my Vice Principals, Ms. Griffin, was a person of color. The fact that I can recall that now shows that I was very aware that my teachers did not usually reflect who I was. Because of this I felt very much invisible. That had an effect on my perception of things like whether I was going to going to college or how I should get my career started. My experiences led me to want to make a difference in the public school system.

Q:           Tell us more about your career prior to joining the Alliance.

A:            I worked retail when I was younger, and then I joined AmeriCorps through City Year. I liked how diverse City Year was, and that they had a focus on making sure their corps members reflected the kids they served. That appealed to me. I served as a City Year corps member for two years at B.F. Day Elementary before going on to work on staff in various roles over 12 years. I also work with the Coalition to End Homelessness, focusing on addressing barriers to housing for Native people.

Q:        What brought you to the Alliance?

A:            I joined the team at the Alliance because of the unique opportunity to play a key role in establishing the Right Now Needs Fund, a $2M fund created in partnership with Amazon to remove the most basic barriers to learning for Seattle Public Schools students.  The Right Now Needs Fund serves all Seattle Public Schools, and provides resources to support students and their families in addressing urgent and basic needs, including emergency housing or shelter, food access, clothing, school supplies and medical concerns.

Q:           What’s unique about the Right Now Needs Fund?

A:            The fund is extremely low barrier and flexible. It is designed to meet the immediate and short term basic needs of students and their families, to ensure that students can be successful in school. People think about school as a place where students learn, but schools are also a place where students live. School staff are engaging with students every day, and often learn about challenges that students and their families are facing. The Right Now Needs Fund works closely with the school community to understand and support students, to get them what they need so they can focus on their learning.

Q:           What makes you uniquely qualified to serve in the role?

A:            I come from a background that has experienced much of what this fund is addressing. I’ve experienced homelessness; I’ve experienced a lack of resources, and barriers to accessing resources.  It makes a real difference to have this role filled by someone who understands the students and families this fund aims to support, and who has related experiences. My background and story gives me the foundation to lead this Fund effectively.

Q:           Was the Right Now Needs Fund able to provide support this year during the snowstorms in Seattle?

A:            Yes. This year, many families were feeling the pinch of lost wages and increasing utility bills during the snowstorms. It’s hard to plan for that – snow days aren’t predictable! And this year they went on for a long time. We know that oftentimes what pushes people into homelessness is not being able to cover a small, time-sensitive payment. The Right Now Needs Fund was able to provide food and help with unexpected costs to fill in those gaps for families.

Q:           What’s been your experience so far partnering with Seattle schools?

A:            School communities care deeply about their students and families, and I talk with amazing leaders across the district every day who are making an incredible difference for the families in their school community. At the Alliance, we’re providing additional resources to support and care for those families even more. And we’re working to make sure school staff, students and families are aware of this new resource. Funds like the Right Now Needs Fund are not consistently available to schools to help them support families. From my conversations with school staff and school community members, it sounds like access to these funds is also increasing conversations about what support families need in order for students to be successful in school.

Q:           If a need is urgent, how quickly can the Right Now Needs Fund provide support?

A:            If it’s an urgent matter, we meet the need that same day. Things related to housing/shelter, avoiding eviction, utility shut off, food shortage, or gas to get students to and from school, we can provide support the same day. Otherwise, we work on a weekly cycle. Any requests that we receive by Wednesday, we do our best to pay out that Friday. It’s a quick turnaround, and I hope schools know that if there’s something that needs to be faster, they can communicate with me and we’ll do everything we can to get them what they need as quickly as possible.

Q:           What do you wish more people knew about the Right Now Needs Fund?

A:            Since this is a new fund, I wish everyone in the Seattle Public Schools community knew about this resource! I also wish that all people could see the power of giving agency to families to identify what they need. Growing up needing support, and being a parent needing support, I rarely came across a resource like this. Some of my experiences were disempowering and very time consuming, which made me not want to ask for help. I’m proud of the fact that the Right Now Needs Fund listens to students and families. Families communicate what they need and then we work with school staff to meet that need. Our hope is that the Fund does exactly what its name implies – when there is a challenge that needs to be addressed right now to support the basic needs of students and their families, this Fund can help.