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To Create Change in America, Think Local

January 17, 2014

(Kenneth H. Zimmerman is director of U.S. programs for the Open Society Foundations. This post was first published on Open Society's Voices blog.)

Headshot_Ken_ZimmermanWe live in an age defined by profound change: New technology has revolutionized how we communicate and get our work done. The Great Recession has left many of us searching for jobs or struggling to gain skills that make us employable in the "new" economy. Shifting demographics offer promise and challenges as our neighborhoods transition. Federal and state funding cuts have left services previously taken for granted on shaky ground.

These changes have particularly affected the U.S. nonprofit sector, especially that portion focused on promoting equitable development, effective and transparent government, and smart and fair criminal justice policies. As anyone who works with these groups knows, nonprofits have been devastated by reductions in public and philanthropic funding.

At a time of rapid change in both the public and private sectors -- some of it driven by federal budget realities and some by how organizations are evolving to meet the demands of new technology and public expectations -- the cuts have limited nonprofits' ability to shape policy, provide services, and engage in collaborative partnerships.

The Open Places Initiative grows out of the realization that the ability of communities to respond to these challenges requires increased civic capacity, especially for efforts that attempt to further the inclusion and participation of those with low incomes, people of color, and other marginalized communities in civic, economic, and political life. By investing in nonprofit collaborations -- and supporting nonprofit groups in their partnerships with government, business, and local communities -- Open Society aims to expand nonprofits' potential to pursue effective responses to the demographic, economic, and technological changes that are re-shaping the country.

As part of this new initiative, we have awarded nonprofit collaborations in Buffalo, San Diego, and Puerto Rico $1.9 million each over two years.

Our commitment to these collaborations is long-term. Indeed, we plan to continue funding each site for at least three years -- and potentially for as many as ten. What's more, each Open Places site is taking the lead in determining the issues it will address and the form of collaboration it will pursue.

Here are a few examples:

  • In San Diego County, a region whose economy is driven to a considerable degree by the military, the collaboration will focus on the region's most vulnerable residents, especially immigrants and people who were formerly incarcerated. Efforts to that end will include improving access to middle-income jobs, making critical social services and training benefits available to low-income populations, and engaging the social service sector in galvanizing local residents to take action.
  • In Buffalo, a city suffering the aftermath of manufacturing job loss and ongoing segregation, team members will pursue a high-road economic development strategy designed to create quality jobs in marginalized communities; work with parents and schools to introduce restorative justice approaches that increase student engagement and significantly reduce the numbers of young people caught up in the juvenile justice system; and use the arts to introduce diverse voices and different modes of expression into the social justice conversation.
  • On an island facing extreme poverty, high unemployment, and an urgent need to strengthen the civil sector, the Puerto Rico team will work to increase government transparency, create new models to facilitate access to legal representation in civil cases, and launch initiatives to create income supports and encourage savings for low-income residents. Over the long term, team members see support for efforts to improve democratic practice and promote the full economic inclusion of vulnerable communities as a key part of their brief.

The Open Society Foundations have long had an interest in addressing issues of equality, justice, and democratic practice at the local level and understand that local communities have the deepest knowledge of and experience with the barriers to progress in their own regions. To that end, it founded OSI-Baltimore as a sort of social justice laboratory in the late 1990s and has invested in other place-based initiatives such as the Young Men's Initiative in New York City and efforts to increase government transparency in New Orleans.

The Open Places Initiative recognizes that strategies designed to empower local communities to advance real and long-term change require increased civic capacity based on authentic community engagement and partnerships that are more than skin deep. Without question, local governments have a key role in driving real progress, but without robust cross-sectoral partnerships, progress will never be sustained.

We are excited about partnering with Buffalo, San Diego, and Puerto Rico in their efforts to promote opportunity for all residents and look forward to reporting on their progress in the years to come.

If you have any thoughts or comments about the Open Places Initiative, we'd love to hear them.

-- Kenneth Zimmerman

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