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8 posts from August 2017

[Review] 'Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America'

August 17, 2017

When you're able to do something that sparks your passion and leverages your skill set, it feels pretty good. When you can make a living doing it, it's even better. But getting to that place can be hard; you have to have opportunities to learn a new skill or stretch a new muscle, learn from the experience, and improve. I've been lucky to have had some great mentors, informal and formal, who have guided me through such learning experiences — from a cross country coach who taught me that slow and steady will get you to the finish line (if not always win the race), to entrepreneurial friends who offered marketing tips for my side hustles, to my parents, who stressed to me the importance of writing thank-you notes. Many young people, however, aren't as lucky to have received the kind of coaching that can give them the confidence and skills to tackle new or unexpected challenges. That's where mentoring programs can provide significant value; they provide learning opportunities to young people who may not otherwise have them.

Book_teach_to_work_3dPatty Alper is a seasoned mentor with fifteen years of experience mentoring inner-city high school students. She's "adopted" classrooms through Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), an international nonprofit organization that I first learned about in the Mary Mazzio documentary Ten9Eight. The film showcases the transformational learning that happens when students are given the opportunity to create a business, benefit from a curriculum that allows them to dive into critical skills, and have a supportive adult serve as their mentor during the process. As an NFTE donor and board volunteer, Alper wanted to "allow supporters [of the organization] to go beyond financial giving and share their knowledge as well," so she created an Adopt-a-Class program that recruits professionals to sponsor an entrepreneurship class, work with teachers, and commit to mentoring students for a full academic year. I remember being struck by how many of the kids featured in Ten9Eight went from expressing little hope about their future to confidently tackling and successfully delivering a big on-stage presentation about the businesses they had created. Seeing the obvious pride and sense of accomplishment in these young people, it's easy to overlook the other piece of the story, which, I confess, I had done until I picked up Alper's new book, Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America. But once I started reading, it didn't take long for me to be persuaded that mentoring involves both art and science, and that done well, it can truly unlock the potential of underserved youth.

For many, the act of mentoring is something one just does, based on one's hard-won experience. But in her book, Alper takes a very granular, how-to approach to mentoring, starting with this key bit of advice: one of the best things a mentor can do is to listen and not share everything she has learned over the years with her mentee. (Note: Alper relies on an adult-student framework throughout the book and, unfortunately, does not touch on any other kind of mentor-mentee relationship. As the book is based on a particular model of mentorship, so, too, does this review.)

"The fastest way to turn kids off is to tell them how great you are," Alper writes. Instead, mentors should relate to their mentees as "peers." You do that, she adds, by telling them, "[Y]ou are the boss. You can accept or reject my suggestions because this is your project. What I bring to bear is experience, ideas, and support. We can brainstorm, but the ultimate decisions here are yours."

That's only a start, though. There are lots of other things mentors need to be mindful of — from body language, to support systems, to hopes and dreams — and for each, Alper lays out solid advice designed to help mentors approach the challenge at hand in a manageable way. In a chapter about lesson planning, for example, there's a terrific line-by-line guide that adapts the Harvard Business School-developed case method into a ninety-minute classroom exercise. It's hard to tell accomplished adults they may not be good teachers or thoughtful lesson planners (a truth many of us are happy to acknowledge about others, though not ourselves), and so Alper doesn't try to tell us; she shows us instead with tools that no mentor ought to ignore.

But while her advice is grounded in deep experience and mostly useful, there are elements of it that feel outdated. A very thoughtful section on key components to establishing a one-on-one dialogue ended up falling flat for me, as there was no mention of asking a mentee herself if she had any ground rules she'd like to suggest. Without such reciprocity, the dialogue you hope to have often ends up a one-way street. Another example: the advice in a section about preparing a student for an interview ("[W]omen should wear dress slacks or a knee-length skirt with a blouse and possibly a blazer, or a dress...also wear low heels") and, in a later section, about dressing for presentations ("What is inappropriate? Clothing that is too sexy, too baggy, too dirty, too ripped, too short, or too bare") felt too prescriptive and gendered. Like most of the  examples Alper provides in the book, this one is more appropriate for "traditional" professions and contexts, even though the book purports to be about preparing students to pursue any passion and path. And finally, Alper tries so hard at times to be actionably prescriptive that she loses sight of the human touch that, as she reminds readers elsewhere, is essential to successful mentoring. (Do kids actually say, "How do you do?")  

That raises another question: Beyond the grateful letters from students she cites throughout the book, did Alper consult young people about what works (and what doesn't) when writing it? After all, feedback loops are embedded in the mentorship process for mentees, but I wonder whether the same can be said for mentors, or whether the inevitable power differential in any mentor-mentee relationship makes that difficult. And how might authentic feedback be obtained and heard? While there's a nice suggestion for reflective debriefing at the end of each program (a group meal outside the school setting, with some reflective questions kept handy on an index card), it doesn't seem to provide sufficient space for meaningful critique. And still another question I had is whether the pay-to-mentor model she discusses actually limits the diversity of the mentor pool? While this isn't the only model Alper discusses, it is prominent and many examples in the book seemed to refer to careers in which mentors likely could afford to sponsor a class. Which begs the question: Is there a bias in favor of mentoring among people who are paid well, have lots of social capital, and have the wherewithal to be flexible with their time and choices? And how well does such a pool of mentor candidates reflect students' passions and needs?

Those questions aside, Teach to Work left me with a renewed sense of gratitude for the mentors I've had, and pride in the mentoring I've done. There are lessons in the books that anyone — young or old, accomplished or with as-yet–unrealized potential — will find relevant to them in some way. And perhaps most powerful is the assertion implied by the book's subtitle: that the mentoring young people receive can be a lever to help close America's skills gap and bring increased diversity and talent to the workforce. As Alper's book describes and the aforementioned Ten9Eight brings to life, project-based mentorship can be transformational, and, done at scale, there's no doubt it would be a gamechanger. And, besides, this millennial is into placing big bets on solutions that will make the world a better place.

To volunteer as a mentor — and commit to doing it well – is about wanting to create change and catalyze potential. I would suggest there's an added value proposition: maybe mentoring a young person isn't so much a one-way learning opportunity as it is a way for us all to get smarter. Alper certainly acknowledges how much she has learned and grown from her experiences in the classroom. And as I've seen through any number of youth grantmaking programs, philanthropy as a sector has much to learn from students in terms of how they approach community needs assessments and discussions of impact. What more could we learn and apply to our own careers by pairing up with a young person who is wrestling with difficulties in her life and, with our help, coming up with her own solutions to those challenges?

Jen Bokoff is director of stakeholder engagement at Foundation Center. For more great reviews, visit the Off the Shelf section in PND.

Two New Data Tools for the Open Ag Sector

August 14, 2017

The following post is part of a year-long series here on PhilanTopic that addresses major themes related to the center's work: the use of data to understand and address important issues and challenges; the benefits of foundation transparency for donors, nonprofits/NGOs, and the broader public; the emergence of private philanthropy globally; the role of storytelling in conveying the critical work of philanthropy; and what it means, and looks like, to be an effective, high-functioning foundation, nonprofit, or changemaker in the twenty-first century. As always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback.

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You work at a foundation, government agency, or nonprofit committed to reducing poverty and hunger. Recognizing the importance of agriculture for achieving this goal, you've decided to focus on improving the lives of smallholder farmers, who represent a significant portion of those living on less than $2 a day. You know which regions you want to work in, and now you're trying to determine which value chains you should invest in to create the greatest impact. As part of the Initiative for Open Ag Funding, Foundation Center has two new tools to help you answer that question.

First, an acknowledgment: such a decision requires an analysis of many, many data points. Among the factors to consider are: Which crops are produced by smallholder farmers? Which of those crops have the most potential to increase farmers' income? What does the market for these crops look like? What is the potential for significant productivity gains? Is there the infrastructure needed to get these goods to market? Who else is investing in these particular value chains?

The Initiative for Open Ag Funding focuses on this last question: Who is doing what, where, with whom, and to what effect? And rather than reinvent the wheel, the initiative uses the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) data standard as its starting point. IATI aims to improve the transparency of international development and humanitarian resources and activities and has been widely adopted by bilateral and multilateral donors as well as many other organizations. To date, two of Foundation Center's major contributions have been: 1) filling a gap in IATI data; and 2) developing a tool to enrich that data so it better meets the needs of the agriculture sector.

Shedding Light on Foundation Funding for Agriculture

Foundation Center has been collecting and sharing data on foundations' grantmaking for decades. This data has been used to ground philanthropy research, inform grant prospecting, and foster collaboration. Given our comprehensive data on foundation grants and the fact that few foundations have published their data to IATI, we have opened our data on funding for international agriculture and food security activities. This data represents $4.3 billion worth of grants from nearly 1,900 funders to more than 3,000 organizations around the world. In addition to posting the data on the IATI Registry,* we've also made it accessible through a new and publicly available Open Agriculture Data map.

OpenAg_tools_grino

Making IATI Data More Relevant for Agriculture

At the moment, most data published to IATI is coded with OECD DAC purpose codes or the organization's own subject taxonomy. Early conversations with agricultural practitioners revealed, however, that these categories are not granular enough. In response, we developed an open source agriculture autocoder for the Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) AGROVOC thesaurus. Enter a project title, description, or any other text and, using machine learning, the OpenAgClassifier will return codes for terms such as rice or bananas or goats. (You can learn more about our approach to open source in this blog post by my colleague, Dave Hollander.) As a result, what would have been a time-consuming and probably manual process of identifying who is working in, say, the rice value chain is now much faster and easier.

Foundation Center and the Open Ag Funding team know that data and tools alone won't lead to smarter investments or more collaboration. Our goal is simply to give organizations a better starting point for making decisions about where and how to direct their resources. Given the progress of the open data movement, a lack of data or good tools shouldn't be a major reason why organizations duplicate efforts, why Organization A didn't know to go to Organization B to learn more about their approach, or why an organization really making a difference is invisible to those that have the means to support it. Our hope is that by putting the right data and tools at their disposal, we can make it easier for organizations to focus on the harder things about getting development right.

Headshot_laia-grino(*Note: To avoid duplication of data on the IATI Registry, we have removed funders already publishing to IATI from our IATI data.)

Laia Griñó is director of data discovery at Foundation Center. For more posts in the FC Insight series, click here.

[Review] 'The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class — and What We Can Do About It'

August 10, 2017

In The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class — and What We Can Do About It (Basic Books: 2017), urban studies theorist Richard Florida offers a mea culpa of sort for the back-to-the-city movement he has long championed. In books such as The Rise of the Creative Class, and How It's Transforming Work, Leisure and Everyday Life (Basic Books, 2002) and Cities and the Creative Class (Routledge, 2005), Florida argued that, if cities hoped to thrive in a competitive global economy, they needed to attract and retain talent — "[t]he knowledge workers, techies, and artists and other cultural creatives who [make] up the creative class.:

Book_the_new_urban_crisis (002)If nothing else, Florida's timing was impeccable. By 2000, the ranks of the creative class in the United States had grown to 40 million — a third of the U.S. workforce — and many of its members had left the suburban or rural communities of their childhood and headed to cities such as New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, where they moved into neighborhoods that had been written off by the professional class and city officials. That story was repeated around the globe, as knowledge workers and creatives flocked to already vibrant cities such as London, Paris, and Tokyo; booming Asian metropolises such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Seoul; and sprawling, emerging mega-cities such as Lagos, Mexico City, and Mumbai.

Indeed, today — in a stunning illustration of the power of urban centers to transform societies through what Florida dubs the "3Ts of economic development" (technology, talent, and tolerance) — more than half the population of the globe lives in cities, and the United Nations estimates that by 2050 upwards of 70 percent of the global population will live in urban areas. Little wonder, then, that in recent decades urbanists have proclaimed "the triumph of the city" (the title of an excellent book by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser), or that the future of humanity is urban.

And yet this newfound appreciation for the richness, convenience, and stimulation provided by city living has not been without costs, as gentrification, rising rents, and real estate speculation have squeezed blue-collar and service workers out of neighborhoods and livelihoods, contributed to the re-segregation of public schools, and driven huge increases in wealth and income inequality. It is an economic failure that we should have seen but didn't, and from the Brexit vote in England, to the election of Donald Trump, to the growing popularity of far-right populist parties in Europe, we are living with the consequences of that failure. The New Urban Crisis is Florida's attempt to diagnose where things went wrong — and offer a prescription for how we can recover an urbanism that works for all people, not just elites and the creative class.

If that's too conceptual, allow me an anecdote by way of illustration: As I was finishing Florida's book in Washington Square Park in Manhattan earlier this summer, surrounded on all sides by buildings belonging to New York University (where Florida is a fellow), I could see, firsthand, his 3Ts at work. Across the way, diverse crowds of college students walked to their next class or appointment while sending photos to friends on the latest app; on the corner, a well-heeled couple waited impatiently for their Uber driver; and, a group of foreign tourists were listening to their guide about the history of the square. To the "urban optimist," it was a perfect illustration of "the stunning revival of cities and the power of urbanization to improve the human condition," while for the pessimist, it might suggest just how profoundly "modern cities [are] being carved into gilded and virtually gated areas for conspicuous consumption by the super-rich...."

And that's not the half of it. The juxtaposition of boundless opportunity and desperate poverty found in so many cities has led to mounting alienation and resentment. Indeed, Florida, who counted himself among the optimists "not too long ago," argues that to truly understand this new urban crisis (as opposed to the mid-twentieth-century urban crisis of deindustrialization and white flight), we need to recognize and come to grips with the fact that cities are both "the great engines of innovation, the models of economic and social progress," and "zones of gaping inequality and class division."

Florida identifies five key factors that have combined to create this crisis: 1) the growing economic gap between so-called superstar cities — where a disproportionate share of high-value industries, high-tech startups, and top talent are concentrated — and struggling industrial cities, or what he calls "winner-take-call urbanism"; 2) the steep rise in urban housing costs, which has resulted in the displacement of countless numbers of blue-collar and service workers, not to mention the poor and disadvantaged; 3) a rapid increase in inequality and segregation driven in part by "sorting" — a phenomenon in which creatives and the well-off congregate in neighborhoods formerly favored by the working middle class, creating a patchwork of relatively small areas of privilege surrounded by large tracts of poverty; 4) the growing crisis in the suburbs, where problems typically associated with urban areas — poverty, economic insecurity, crime, and segregation — are growing and becoming entrenched; and 5) the urbanization of the developing world, often without the improvements in standards of living that accompanied an earlier wave of urbanization in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and China.

At the core of these challenges, writes Florida, is an economic divide that shapes our built environment and determines where we live. "Simply put," he adds, "the rich live where they choose, and the poor where they can." This reality creates a host of related problems with both short- and long-term consequences (e.g., "people who live in far-flung suburbs and endure long commutes have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, stress, insomnia, and hypertension and are more likely to commit suicide or die in car crashes").

Florida illustrates each of these challenges using the latest demographic and economic data, much of it pulled from the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, which he leads. In fact, the book is filled with interesting graphs and charts, including one showing the number of houses one could buy in various U.S. cities for the price of a single apartment in Manhattan's chi-chi SoHo neighborhood (Memphis, Tennessee, tops the list with 38!). He also highlights his institute's New Urban Crisis Index, which reveals high levels of combined economic segregation, wage inequality, income inequality, and housing unaffordability not only in superstar cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, but in Chicago, Miami, and Memphis. (While interesting, many of the maps and charts could have benefited from better graphic design, and most of the data cited are for U.S. cities — a weakness in a book that purports to be about global trends.)

But what most readers will be looking for is a solution (or solutions) to this complex crisis of inequality. On that score, the glass is half full (or empty, depending on one's perspective). Florida points to the tension between the kind of "urban density and clustering that innovation and economic progress require" — and a "New Urban Luddism" — as the greatest impediment to the kind of equitable development and opportunity needed to overcome rising inequality. He has little sympathy for these twenty-first-century Luddites, who live in well-off communities and neighborhoods and are quick to say no to projects that may pose inconveniences but whose benefits in terms of the greater public good are indisputable. As he writes at one point, "If we are to...enjoy a widely shared and sustainable prosperity, we must become a more fully and fairly urbanized nation."

With that tension in mind, Florida sets out seven strategies designed to foster a "more productive urbanism for all": 1) make clustering work more efficiently by switching from a property tax to a land value tax; 2) invest in urban infrastructure to support greater density and growth; 3) build more affordable housing; 4) convert low-wage service jobs into living-wage work by raising the minimum wage; 5) address urban and suburban poverty by investing in people and places and providing a universal basic income; 6) shift development policies from nation-building to city-building and mobilize behind a global effort to build more resilient, prosperous cities; and 7) empower cities and communities by devolving political power from states and national governments to cities themselves.

As wide-ranging as these solutions are, the recommendations at the core of Florida’s books are fairly straightforward: governments and the private sector need to make investments in new and upgraded infrastructure and adopt tax and land-use policies that encourage increased density. Around the world, he writes, "strategic investments in basic infrastructure can help connect [poor people] to jobs; leverage their talent and productive capabilities and enable them to become more fully engaged; and, ultimately, turn the vicious cycle of urban isolation and poverty into a virtuous cycle of urban progress." In an American context, that means moving beyond the longstanding practice of encouraging suburban sprawl and expansion into rural areas and, instead, putting a new focus on the country’s neglected urban cores — a re-urbanization movement, if you will — that creates jobs and opportunities for all Americans.

While The New Urban Crisis may not be the twenty-first-century equivalent of Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities or Lewis Mumford's The City in History, it is an interesting and highly readable update of Florida's creative class concept and an excellent introduction, for those not familiar with his earlier work, to how a new generation of knowledge workers and creative class types are shaping our economy, our cities, and, for better or worse, our future. The challenges posed by this development are profound, both in the U.S. and around the world, and The New Urban Crisis is a welcome contribution to the conversation around the best ways to address those challenges.

Michael Weston-Murphy is a writer and consultant based in New York City. For more great reviews, visit the Off the Shelf section in PND.

NMAAHC and the Museum of the Future

August 07, 2017

In my previous post, I shared details of a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, during which I had the opportunity to meet with Rhea L. Combs and Jon S. Goff of the museum’s film and photography program. With the help of Combs and Goff, I also was able to connect with a number of staff in related areas and quickly came to appreciate that another important dimension of NMAAHC — really, the key to its identity — is technology and the way, today, it has been integrated into exhibition design, audience engagement, and the extension of a museum's programs beyond its walls.

Nmaahc_separate-but-not-equalThis includes things like interactive exhibits, touch screens, livestreaming of events, and much more. As I visited  various galleries, for example, I encountered an impressive number of items, many of them digitized; the museum is committed to sharing the majority of its collection with the public rather than keeping it in storage. I was also struck by how all the exhibits I saw were beautifully enhanced by digital technology, including one wall of objects that delighted a group of teens as they took turns touching images and uncovering additional information on everything from baseball memorabilia to pop culture couture.

In Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age (78 pages, PDF), former secretary of the Smithsonian G. Wayne Clough notes that the institution has committed to digitizing millions of objects in its collection and anticipates that the initiative will make the collection more accessible in ways we can hardly imagine.

As Clough explained in a 2013 interview on Smithsonian.com: "In the past, the creative activities were entirely behind the walls of museums and collection centers. The public only got access through labels in exhibitions, which told them what we thought. Now, in this new world…, people are going to be engaged with us in a conversation, not a monologue."

Museums established prior to the digital age have had to rethink their collections and reconfigure space to accommodate these developments, but NMAAH's long lead time has been an advantage in this regard. Although Congress voted to establish the museum in 2003, African- American veterans of the Civil War first proposed the idea for a museum devoted to the African-American experience in 1915. Founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III, whose career as a historian and curator includes several previous Smithsonian positions, arrived in 2005 with a staff of two. (The museum employs nearly two hundred people today.) The museum itself didn't open until 2016, but Bunch and his small staff launched its first program in 2007, embracing technology and partnering with other Smithsonian museums, including the National Museum of American History (which hosted the photography show I wrote about in my previous post), in 2009.  

In a Smithsonian magazine article marking the museum's opening last fall, Bunch elaborated: "Rather than simply plan for a building that would be a decade away, we felt that it was crucial to curate exhibitions, publish books, craft the virtual museum online — in essence, to demonstrate the quality and creativity of our work to potential donors, collectors, members of Congress, and the Smithsonian."

 "Black Culture and History Matter," an article by folklorist Kirsten Mullen in The American Prospect, emphasizes this point: "The NMAAHC is the first major museum to 'open' on the web before its physical structure is even built."

A PND On the Web profile of the museum earlier this year praises its "standout" website; director Bunch credits early support from IBM for the site. (IBM has contributed more than $1 million to the museum.) The PND profile notes that the site allows visitors to access collections and exhibits, and highlights a section for educators, a mobile app, and the Many Lenses initiative, which features staff at several Smithsonian museums discussing personally selected objects in their respective collections.

With thousands of objects, programs, and exhibitions to manage, the museum has done a marvelous job — and should be credited — for the amount of material  already on display and the many points of access to those materials provided to the public. Even so, as I consulted the website for information on the museum's many areas, projects, resources, and exhibitions, I sometimes found it difficult to navigate the volume of information. (To help readers of this article, I've included links throughout.)   

Even before it opened, NMAAHC could take advantage of the Transcription Center, the Smithsonian-wide project mentioned in my previous post. In his 2013 interview, Clough anticipated a future in which a museum would "crowdsource its research," an experiment the Smithsonian had just launched with the center. Fully operational now, the center has mobilized a corps of nearly nine thousand digital volunteers from all over the world who have transcribed more than two thousand projects using their own computers and broadband connections. The volunteer transcriptions are reviewed by center staff and then posted on the Web, where they can be accessed by researchers and the general public.

Laura Coyle, collection manager and head of cataloging and digitization, tells me that since the museum joined the transcription initiative in 2015, thirty-four collections or items in the NMAAHC project have been transcribed. As an example, the James Baldwin collection, with a hundred and twenty-four pages of material, was completed thanks to the efforts of forty-three volunteers.

Another project is focused on indexing and transcribing the archives of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, which was created by the U.S. government after the Civil War to address the problems of the four million formerly enslaved people and hundreds of thousands of impoverished white people living in the South; there are nearly two million letters, reports, contracts, and other documents related to administration of the bureau. Preserved by the National Archives, the materials are now being made accessible to the public. NMAAHC’s "Freedmen’s Bureau Project" includes a partnership with FamilySearch International, which has indexed the material to capture names and dates, allowing people to search for ancestors. With the assistance of the Transcription Center, the museum also is in the process of transcribing bureau documents.

 "So far, we've made available all thirty thousand records of the Assistant Commissioner for North Carolina," Coyle tells me. "And we're continuing to process and prepare the remaining records for transcription and will eventually make available the entire Freedmen's Bureau collection online and through the Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center at the museum."

In addition to the transcription work, NMAAHC has created at least a minimal digital record of all thirty-seven thousand items in its collection — photographs, documents, and artifacts. To date, more than eight thousand images are available online via the Collection Search page. And later this year, the museum will expand access to its film and video collection (which at the moment is only available via YouTube), making it viewable directly through the museum's website.

"Because so much is possible through digitization," says Coyle, "it makes all the other things we do possible: our website, our prints and publications, our exhibits, our mobile access. And we were able to do everything right from the start."

I ask Coyle, who has a degree in art history and worked at the National Gallery of Art and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington prior to joining NMAAHC in 2010, if her education and experience prepared her for the opportunities, and challenges, of the digital age.

"This job did not exist when I was in school," she says. "Museums started using digital tools to manage collections when personal computers became widely available in the nineteen-eighties. With the advent of the Web in the nineties, museums realized they could share their collections and stories digitally, but no one was quite sure how to do this. We just couldn't imagine all the ways digitization would be a part of our lives.  Now, of course, actual and virtual visitors expect museums to offer a variety of digital experiences. But we still don't know what the digital museum will be in the future. NMAAHC was committed to digitization from the start and remains committed to the digital museum concept, wherever that takes us."

Coyle tells me that when she came on board, "It was just me working in this area. Everyone was focused on building the collection and building the building."

Today, her staff of nineteen includes specialists in cataloging, record creation, rights and reproductions, digital assets management, and photography. Rounding out the "Digi Team" are the five media digitization and preservation staff working in the Digitization Media Center. All together, the team produces catalog records and images for internal and public platforms; reformats audio-visual materials; manages digital materials and intellectual property rights related to collections; responds to requests for collection information; and oversees publication projects.

"My team is a service organization within the museum," Coyle says. "We work with the curatorial team and participate in the creation of digital content for various platforms. That's essential for online and traditional exhibitions, collection research, and publications." For instance, of the nearly twenty-five thousand photographs in the museum's collection, a digital archive of more than sixty-three hundred photographs is now accessible through the website.

But keeping up is a challenge. "Digitization is time consuming and costly," says Coyle. "At this point, only 25 percent of the museum's collection is well cataloged, imaged, and online to the public — our definition of fully digitized. And we're continuing to collect, so digitization will always be a little behind. Cataloging is also an ongoing process and we can always add more information. People expect a lot in this area, so we want to meet the demand as much as we can."

Meanwhile, demand is growing. In the first three months of this year, for instance, 319,000 people visited the museum's Collection Search page. "We know that people are searching our collection online" says Coyle. "And we'll be collecting more analytics to learn more about what visitors do once they get there."

The Digi Team also manages the Collection Stories feature on the website, where NMAAHC staff are invited to share their response to an item in the permanent exhibits. Coyle chose the dress worn by Carlotta Walls ("Dress for the Occasion") on the historic day in 1957 when Walls helped integrate an Arkansas high school as one of the "Little Rock Nine." An image of the dress, digitized along with related photographs and documents, appears there and is also available through Collection Search.

"That dress made a mighty impression on me," Coyle tells me, "and I was really honored to meet Carlotta Walls LaNier, who donated the dress to the museum."

Collecting the Collection

One of the defining qualities of NMAAHC is its process for acquiring material. Collecting began a decade ago, and director Bunch has described the task of starting a collection before a museum even opens in various interviews. In a 2016 Washington Business Journal article, he shared some of the details of his own family history, what led him to become a historian, and some of the experiences that helped shape his vision for the museum.

"I thought the best thing we could do," Bunch said in that interview, "was to use African-American culture as a lens to understand what it was to be American. This was not a museum for black people by black people. It was a museum for resilience, for optimism."

He then related a story about the first item received by the museum, the result of a serendipitous meeting with an Ecuadoran man, Juan Garcia, who subsequently donated a canoe seat carved a century ago by his great-grandmother, who lived in a community of escaped slaves — an encounter that impressed upon Bunch the presence and history of Africans throughout the Americas.

"That artifact helped me frame the museum as a global museum, not just an American museum," he told the Business Journal. "That was transformative for me."

But not all items came to the museum that serendipitously. In the 2016 Smithsonian.com article mentioned above, Bunch shared the concerns he felt in those early days.

"Maybe it was the curator in me, but what worried me the most was whether we could find the stuff of history, the artifacts that would tell the story of this community," he said. "Some of the early plans for the museum de-emphasized artifacts, partly out of a belief that there were few to be collected and technology could fill any void. But I already knew that even if you have the very best technology, a tech-driven institution would fail. People come to the Smithsonian museums to revel in the authentic."

Bunch reflected on his experiences, over his career, with "community-driven collecting," including reaching out to African-American families and securing gifts "over a cup of tea." And he spoke eloquently of the urgency he feels to find and preserve these artifacts.

"I believed that all of the twentieth century, most of the nineteenth, maybe even a bit of the eighteenth might still be in trunks, basements, and attics around the country. I also knew that as America changed, family homesteads would be broken up and heirlooms would be at risk. We had to start collecting now, because the community's material culture might [not] exist in ten years."

With support from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the museum created "Save Our African American Treasures," a program designed to appeal directly to communities and surface those forgotten items stashed away in attics and trunks while at the same time educating people on how to preserve family photos, documents, and artifacts. That approach continues, although as the museum's staff has grown to include professional curators, the approach to curation and the collection has shifted.

At the same time, the stories of Naomi Long Madgett, the poet who donated the films of Rev. Jones to CAAMA (see my earlier post), and Carlotta Walls LaNier, who donated her dress, are echoed over and over in the larger collection. While many items in the NMAAHC collection have been purchased, many more have been donated by people whose fervent desire is to see the preservation of their family history.

According to Michèle Gates Moresi, supervisory curator of collections at NMAAHC, the vast majority of the items in the collection have been donated. "I don't have a current count of the total number of people who have donated artifacts to the museum," she said in an email exchange, "but last summer, when we organized a special event for object donors, we had a list of more than sixteen hundred." An estimate of the value of all the artifacts donated does not exist, but the donated material is quite possibly the museum's most valuable asset. In addition, many individuals have stepped up with monetary donations; as of the end of the first quarter, the museum had a hundred and sixty thousand charter members, some who had given substantial amounts, and many more who had donated what they could.

(The generosity of donors is a consistent theme in studies of African-American philanthropy. A recent PND article points out that "African-American households tend to give more of their discretionary income — as much as 25 percent more — to charitable causes than white Americans; that figure increases as African Americans move into the ranks of the wealthy.")

A Great Convener

In Lonnie Bunch's interview with the late Gwen Ifill shortly before the museum opened, the PBS NewsHour co-anchor, in reference to a series of racial incidents around the country, stated, "We are at a crossroads in our country." Bunch agreed with her characterization and expressed his conviction that NMAAHC could play a positive role in moving forward as a society. 

"Our job is to create a space that, through dialogue and exhibitions, can make America better," he added. "We expect this to be one of the most diversely visited places in the U.S. In surveys, 75 percent of white Americans said this is a story they want to know as well. I hope this museum will continue to evolve, continue to change, because it really has to be a place that is the great convener."

Since I attended my first NMAAHC exhibition (the 2009 photography show I mentioned in my earlier post), I've been looking forward to seeing the finished museum. Even at a time when interest and scholarship about the African-American experience has flourished, it has not always been easy to learn about that history and culture. NMAAHC redresses that gap; its film and media programs in particular are reaching audiences on a deep emotional level, and the integration of technology in almost every aspect of its operations has greatly enhanced its impact. The museum's collection and the way it is presented affirm an African-American identity, as was always the intention. But the museum also succeeds brilliantly in advancing the mission crafted by its founders and articulated by Bunch: "To tell the story of America through an African American lens."

Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. Check out her other posts for PhilanTopic here.

Weekend Link Roundup (August 5-6, 2017)

August 06, 2017

Sam-shepard-in-winterOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

African Americans

We begin with this week's startling statistic. According to the Pew Research Center, one out of four black Americans have faced online harassment because of their race or ethnicity.

Arts and Culture

On the James Irvine Foundation blog, Leslie Payne, a senior program at the foundation, asks: What does it mean to participate in the arts today?

Education

On the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog, Jen Wilka, executive director of YouthTruth, reports  on key findings of a survey of more than 55,000 high school students that asked them how prepared they feel for life after high school.

Here on PhilanTopic, Alexis Morin, co-founder and executive director of Students for Education Reform, reports that a survey of first-generation college students conducted by her organization found that the majority of them feel unprepared for college.

And in a post for the Hechinger Report, Nicole Dobo shares key findings from Time to Act 2017: Put Data in the Hands of People, which argues that while the use of data in formulating education policy has evolved for the better, parents and teachers still find it difficult to get access to that data.

Immigration

The last time the federal government tried to slow the legal immigration to the United States by adopting a merit-based system was fifty years ago — and Lyndon Johnson was president. Alana Semuels reports The Atlantic.

Nonprofits

Writing in the MinnPost, Kristi Rendahl, an assistant professor and director of the Nonprofit Leadership Program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, argues that repeal of the so-called Johnson Amendment "would mean de facto campaign finance through religious and charitable organizations, but with none of the rules." 

In the New Hampshire Business Review, Jeff Feingold chats with nonprofit activist Robert Eggers about nonprofit stereotypes and whether nonprofits should be more politically engaged.

Philanthropy

"Philanthropy has come a long way since [Andrew Carnegie] took a childhood experience and turned it into a national legacy," writes Courtney Martin on The Development Set website. But too often, Martin adds, "it feels like we’ve lost our core wisdom about how change actually happens." What does that mean? "It means that the only philanthropy worth engaging in — both ethically and strategically speaking — is the kind that honors the wisdom of relationships and the power of money."

According to Rob Reich,  director of the Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University, charitable foundations are a “donor-directed, perpetual, tax-subsidized exercise of the liberty to give public wealth away.” And what, Reich asks Quartz' Olivia Goldhill, is “the democratically good part about that again?"

New research from the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University finds that philanthropists in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo (Michigan) give generously to improve their respective communities, but that they go about it in vastly different ways. Jane C. Simons reports for MiBiz.com.

In Philanthropy Daily, Martin Morse Wooster, a senior fellow at the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C., suggests that maybe "there is no one best way to give. Sometimes charity is the answer, and sometimes it is philanthropy. Sometimes program-related investments may be the right way to go." The point is, the "mix should vary with each donor and aim."

"America’s foundations spend many millions of dollars every year on investment advice. In return, they get sub-par performance." On the Transparency Talk blog, Nonprofit Chronicles blogger Marc Gunther explains why this may be about to change.

Science/Tech

Because "those who experience hate, marginalization, and discrimination on a daily basis know it when they see it," writes Lucy Bernholz on her Philanthropy 2153 blog, "[m]ainstream nonprofits struggling to understand how and why they must investigate the technology on which depend [their] 'values fit' would do well to turn to such groups for guidance."

Social Innovation

And almost all the way back from a self-imposed social media "break," Nell Edgington checks in with a list of ten great social innovation reads from June and July.

That's it for this week. Got something you'd like to share? Drop us a line at mfn@foundationcenter.org.

Mobilizing Community College Students to Protect Our Democracy

August 04, 2017

News_africanamerican_grads_300x250These are extraordinary times. From education to immigrant rights to health care, it seems we wake up every day to news of fresh assaults on equity, opportunity, and inclusion.

In the education area, proposals floated by the administration slash budgets for public education, including a draconian 50 percent cut for college work-study programs, and the administration and its allies in Congress are engaged in an ongoing effort to dismantle hard-fought rules that protect postsecondary students and their families from predatory lenders and fraudulent for-profit colleges. If passed, mean-spirited healthcare proposals would strip essential coverage from millions of vulnerable people. And a recently enacted ban on refugees fleeing persecution and harm is tearing apart families and communities.

And all this in only seven months. Confronted by this relentless assault on our values, there is a real danger that we will grow numb to the enormous challenges we face, or become overwhelmed by the amount of work needed to repair the damage. But we simply can't afford to give up or give in. Too much is at stake. In this extraordinarily fraught moment, we must embrace new, extraordinary measures to advance the values and priorities we share. We have to think differently — and bigger — about how to make a difference.

For the Rappaport Family Foundation, that means ramping up our commitment to a population whose voice, power, and potential are too often ignored: the twelve million students enrolled at more than twelve hundred community college systems across the country. Over the next fourteen months, we will commit $2 million to efforts aimed at mobilizing and training student leaders as advocates for positive social change, with a focus on community college students.

Why invest in strengthening leadership and advocacy for community college students? Because they represent the future of the country. Today, almost half of undergraduates in the United States are enrolled in community colleges. Compared to students at the nation's four-year colleges and universities, community college students are significantly more diverse. According to the latest tally by the American Association of Community Colleges, close to 50 percent of community college students are non-white; 36 percent are the first in their families to attend college; 17 percent are single parents; and 12 percent have a disability.

By mobilizing students to become active in their communities (and society more broadly), we ensure that government and other institutions are more accountable to everybody — not just the privileged (or loudest) few.

Across the country, we've seen what can happen when community college students are engaged and involved.

  • In North Carolina, where Young People For launched a community college initiative in 2015, students are advocating to expand voting rights and fighting against anti-LGBT and anti-Muslim sentiment.
  • At De Anza College in Northern California, students successfully lobbied the local transit agency to adopt a discounted student bus pass policy — a victory that not only has saved thousands of students money but also has had a positive environmental impact on surrounding communities.
  • In California, thanks to the leadership of the Campaign for College Opportunity, community college students helped win a $60 million investment from the state of California so that millions of students placed in pre-college-level courses can catch up and get on track to achieve their college dreams.

As these examples show, creating opportunities for students to flex their activist muscles delivers immediate dividends. But there's also a longer-term payoff. When students lead and engage in these and other ways, it delivers untold benefits for communities and society — not just today, but for decades to come. At a time when many of us are wondering how we can save our democracy and create a fairer, more inclusive society, we cannot and should not ignore the leadership of community college students.

Now is the time to support and help students develop their leadership skills, raise up their voices, and work together to make a difference. How can you support community college students? 

Catalina_ruiz_healy_for_PhilanTopicFor more information, visit http://rappaportfamilyfoundation.org.

Catalina Ruiz-Healy is vice president of the Rappaport Family Foundation in San Francisco.

We Must Listen to First-Generation College Students' Perspectives on Education

August 02, 2017

First_gen_college_students_490x350For thousands of students in the United States, a college degree represents the realization of the American dream. It's supposed to be a cycle-breaker for low-income families and provide upward economic and social mobility. But even though college entrance rates have risen, some students still struggle, and students who are the first in their families to go to college often are woefully unprepared by the K-12 education they have received.

While there is great research and data out there on how to increase college completion rates and support students, I could find nothing from the primary source — first-generation college students reflecting on their K-12 experiences and how prepared they were, or weren't, for college.

That's why Students for Education Reform conducted a first-of-its-kind national poll (29 pages, PDF) surveying a representative national sample of a thousand first-generation college students. Through this process we learned a ton.

Overall, first-generation students said they felt unprepared for college. More than 56 percent of students who enter a two-year university have to begin by taking remedial courses covering material they should have learned in high school. They burn through financial aid, making no credit-hour progress toward graduation, and end up dropping out without a degree and without the chance to move up. This is the fault of K-12 systems that have never done right by low-income kids who, if they matriculated, would be the first in their family to attend college.

On a related note, 65 percent of the students we surveyed said that students should not have to pay for remedial courses in college. These include students like Cindy Contreras, a first-year student at Normandale Community College, just outside the Twin Cities, who has had to extend her time at Normandale by an extra year to take remedial courses in subjects she excelled in during high school. Cindy testified at the state capitol about her experience with remedial courses and worked with other students in Minnesota to demand that the state be held accountable for sending high school graduates to college unprepared. The students' recommendations for improvement were incorporated into legislation that Governor Mark Dayton recently signed into law.

The first-generation college students surveyed also had several recommendations about what could help them and their peers succeed in college. A majority of students like Cindy said they wanted a more robust life-skills curriculum in high school that would help them succeed in the college application process and job market. Financial literacy (61 percent), job interviewing (56 percent), résumé building (54 percent), and stress management (52 percent) were at the top of the list of skills first-generation college students wished they had.

On top of these coursework-related recommendations, it was clear from our poll that students wanted access to better schools than the ones they were zoned to. Seventy-five percent of survey respondents supported the idea of "school choice," or the ability to choose a school other than the one they were assigned to. Many of them (44 percent) said they would have chosen a different high school had they been allowed to. The top reasons for wanting school choice were that students sought a school environment that was safer (12 percent), was more focused on academics (27 percent), and had better and more caring teachers and staff (23 percent).

Students also provided information about how systematic discipline and safety problems within their school buildings hampered their ability to succeed. One in four students, for example, reported that they did not feel safe in school, and nearly one in three reported they did not find their school to be an emotionally safe or inclusive place. These indicators are often swept under the rug in favor of achievement data, but school environment plays a critical role in student success.

School environment doesn't stop with safety; it also includes how discipline is handled, in the classroom and beyond. Among the public school students who were severely disciplined in high school, a large majority found it difficult to achieve success in college. Most of those who experienced harsh discipline were suspended for non-violent offenses, and more than a third of suspended students received no other intervention — for instance, a warning or alternative discipline measure — prior to their suspension.

Take Brenda Contreras, a rising senior at Sacramento State who attended public schools in Richmond, in the Bay Area. She was suspended in third grade for finger painting and watched as her peers, one by one, dropped out of school over the years following similar demoralizing responses from school administration to non-violent — and often frivolous — classroom offenses. By the time Brenda graduated from high school, she knew more students who had dropped out than received their diploma.

Young people are our future, and the biggest stakeholders when it comes to their own education. We must listen to their perspectives if we are to craft policies that actually help them succeed — especially those who face unique challenges in getting to and through college. Listening to student voices is the critical first step toward creating a better, more inclusive school system.

Alexis_morin_for-_PhilanTopic_250x300Alexis Morin is co-founder and executive director of Students for Education Reform.

Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (July 2017)

August 01, 2017

The most popular posts here on PhilanTopic in July include strong calls to action from sector veterans Gary Bass and Mark Rosenman, Cathy Cha, and Kate Kroeger; new posts by Blackbaud's Annie Rhodes and PEAK Grantmaking's Michelle Greanias; and a couple of "repeaters" (John Hewko's account of how Rotary International manages to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world, Kyoko's Q&A with the Rockefeller Foundation's Claudia Juech). Check 'em out (if you haven't already)!

What have you read/watched/heard lately that got your attention, made you think, or charged you up? Feel free to share in the comments section below. Or drop us a line at mfn@foundationcenter.org.

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  • "My favorite Civil War era monuments are the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments...."

    — David Tenenhaus, professor of history and law, University of Nevada Las Vegas

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