By Elliott Bochstein, RCAC staff writer
Hawaii-based advocacy journalist Libby Leonard was leaning into her new career as a freelancer until the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly derailed her career, her finances, and seemingly her entire life. Rural Community Assistance Corporation’s (RCAC) Re-Emerging Loan Fund (RELieF) program ensured that she overcame the crisis and could continue writing powerful, community-centered stories for a global audience.
Libby Leonard had barely gotten her feet wet before swan-diving into freelance journalism’s stormy waters. Then the pandemic struck, thrusting her and an untold number of freelancers – many already hovering at the brink of ruin – toward an abyss of financial malaise and anxiety.
A multimedia writer who cut her teeth in theater productions and pilot television projects back home in New York, Leonard had just found her new groove as a travel writer. After marking her career rebirth with a debut in no less than National Geographic, she was en route to a promising future. It soon became apparent, however, that the COVID-19 pandemic had fundamentally disrupted society and caused a collapse of global tourism, effectively eliminating the demand for travel articles. Suddenly, “there was no use for travel, no use for travel writers and every business I was trying to profile was shutting down. Magazines were shutting down,” she explained.
Journalists like Leonard were already navigating a gauntlet of industry-wide challenges: the consolidation of mass media ownership, diminished ad revenues, downsized newsrooms and local newspapers’ domino-like collapse. The pandemic and ensuing recession accelerated the decline as new waves of cutbacks and mass layoffs roiled the industry. At least 2,000 frontline journalists and media employees around the world died because of the coronavirus, according to the Geneva-based Press Emblem Campaign (GEC), while countless others contracted the disease. Even the most experienced reporters struggled to maintain their mental well-being amid the crisis. Meanwhile, self-employed media workers with few resources at their disposal – small business owners, freelance writers, contract journalists – were forced to withstand a new professional famine.
Leonard had seemingly approached her lowest point when her mental health started to fray due to the cascade of pandemic-related stressors. She reflected on what a manicurist told her during a first-ever visit to the nail salon years ago: “Give up the control. You’ll be more Zen.” She later wrote:
“… now the world was falling apart, my living situation suddenly uncertain, my health uncertain, and unsure what would become of my job. I found myself hovering over my computer for hours trying to control things and people I couldn’t control, why are people still going to big events? Why aren’t people wearing masks? My body and my mind, again tight like a fist, then I caught myself.”
The writer knew that while she couldn’t close the floodgates of crisis unleashed by the coronavirus, she could rely on herself – but patience and inner calm would be critical amid the pandemic’s swirling uncertainties.
As the health emergency raged across the U.S. – and especially in New York City – Leonard had the opportunity through a friend to relocate to scenic North Kohala on Hawaii’s Big Island. She found new footing as an investigative journalist-advocate, shining a light into what she describes as the “dark rabbit holes” of systemic injustice – and shining examples of resilience – extant across the island chain. Her guiding maxim was a quote from the late Alex Haley, the author of “Roots”: “Find the good and praise it.”
Leonard set to work from her new home base and believed that she was finally rounding a corner in the strange circumstances that had become the new normal. Her portfolio swelled with hard-hitting reports on corruption in the water sector, over-tourism, rural grassroots organizing and sustainable agriculture. She disregarded the notion that journalism is a strictly one-way relationship that precludes the prospect of deep engagement and dialogue with communities.
“There are people who say that as a journalist, you shouldn’t get involved too much, ethically speaking – if ever,” she said. “But we’re in a world that can’t afford people not helping.”
Yet it wasn’t long before Leonard’s government COVID-19 aid was exhausted, forcing her again to confront the stark economic precarity of a writer’s life. She sub-leased her New York City apartment and provided online consulting services to supplement her diminished income. However, hardships mounted as her federal COVID-19 aid ended and a Small Business Administration (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan failed to process when funds were exhausted. “I felt like I was making a difference,” Leonard said. “Am I going to have to move back to the mainland when I want to keep creating stories I care about?”
During an anxious night “feverishly Googling” a way to stave off a worsening situation, Leonard happened upon the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) Re-Emerging Loan Fund (RELieF). RCAC established the fund for small businesses and entrepreneurs that need low-interest loans to help them adapt to the pandemic’s prolonged economic hardships, while also providing small business coaching expertise to borrowers, which allows them to achieve greater stability for the future. The coaching includes a strategic business evaluation tailored to the borrowers’ specific situations to allow them to re-emerge into their marketplaces following pandemic-induced disruptions.
Leonard was initially reluctant to take out a loan and pay it back with interest, even at low rates. On the other hand, she knew that if she were to keep telling stories from Hawaii, there was no alternative to accepting the $6,500 RELieF loan.
“I told myself that this will give me time to make sure I can start to build the foundation of getting other kinds of jobs that have to do with writing, advocacy and other things like that,” she said. “It would give me more of a foundation to sustain myself better.”
While Leonard searched for other job opportunities and devised new pitches, she began attending one-on-one business coaching sessions with RCAC Economic Development Specialist Aaron Reimler. For Reimler, an expert at providing personalized, in-depth technical assistance to small business owners and entrepreneurs, the writer’s situation was far from unusual.
“There are many reasons people approach entrepreneurship, whether related to lifestyle, wanting a certain amount of flexibility, or chasing a passion and seizing a market opportunity,” he said. “Most entrepreneurs are great at the specific thing they do and what they’re passionate about. Libby is great at what she does, but she just needed a little support on some of those backend things like organizing and tracking her finances. When it comes to accounting and bookkeeping, the most challenging part is finding a way to stay engaged with the details enough to organize them and stay on top of them”
Reimler tailored a simple system using Excel spreadsheets to track expenses and handle basic accounting reports along with folders containing paper revenue records on one side and costs on the opposite side. Leonard could rely on these basic methods to reconcile her accounts at month’s end and easily access her records when filing annual taxes.
“It’s low tech, and it’s easy, but it still allows you to see where you’re at throughout the year and when you need to file taxes,” he said. “We focus on a philosophy of creating something simple, effective, accurate and will make it easy for her to stay on top of these things.”
Leonard believes that the loan’s “divine timing” and Reimler’s attentive technical assistance were instrumental in helping her through a tough patch that lasted several months. It ultimately enabled her to secure other work, such as a well-compensated content writing job for an AI-based talent recruitment platform, where she still works part-time.
In an industry littered with tales of resignation and retreat, Leonard can now count herself as not only a survivor, but a success with a growing number of bylines on her resume. Her work benefited the communities she covered throughout the crisis; a feature article she wrote for YES! Magazine about the education-focused agriculture nonprofit Kahua Pa’a Mua helped open the door to a $70,000 grant to fund its youth program for a year. A farmer whose sustainable organic and Korean natural farming methods were featured in that same article is now receiving free mulch for life thanks to the exposure, and he plans to kick off a composting business on one of his farms.
“In New York, I spent my time hanging out with friends, and I didn’t get involved in much of anything besides my navel-gazing for writing,” she said. “It’s been a healthy process. It’s benefited those communities, but it’s also been good for me to feel useful.”
A welcome but wholly unexpected development capped Leonard’s pandemic saga in March, when RCAC’s Loan Fund department contacted her with news that the loan had been fully forgiven to allow her the opportunity to rebuild and ensure her business’s success as COVID-19’s impact lingers. The email included a reminder that if there is anything else RCAC could do to offer further assistance, she should not hesitate to reach out. Holding back tears, she replied: “Thank you for believing in me and my work. Thank you to all who helped me organize myself better, particularly Aaron, who took a lot of time to help me and continuously reached out to check in.”
“To get the help that I needed and receive it through kind people who cared about my progress, who cared about checking in – and wanted me to succeed – made all the difference,” Leonard said. “I feel like I wouldn’t have gotten that experience elsewhere. Thank you, RCAC – for everything that you’ve done.”
RELieF program partners include:
Bank of America
California Bank & Trust
MUFG Union Bank
Morgan Stanley Bank
Oregon Community Foundation
Pacific Western Bank
Santa Fe Community Foundation
Wells Fargo Bank
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