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Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s New Paradigm for Community Philanthropy

February 18, 2016

Fairfield_county_cf_for_PhilanTopicHistorically, community foundations have worked to create change by making grants to local nonprofits, advocacy groups, and other organizations.

But a new breed of funders is showing how, by serving in a different role, community foundations can foster change that is more comprehensive, more responsive to residents' needs, and, hopefully, more enduring. This new role involves reaching into the very roots of the community and engaging and empowering the people who call it home.

That's the approach Fairfield County's Community Foundation (FCCF), based in southwestern Connecticut, is taking with its PT Partners initiative. Our goal is nothing less than to create a national model for engaging and training public housing residents to lead change in their neighborhoods.

Jointly funded by the Citi Foundation, the Low Income Investment Fund, and FCCF, PT Partners is housed at PT Barnum Apartments, a 360-unit public housing development in Bridgeport situated next to a notorious brownfield and, incongruously, not far from a yacht club. Long known for unacceptable levels of crime and poverty, PT Barnum is home to more than eleven hundred children and adults. The goal of the initiative is to make the complex a safer, healthier, and overall better place for its residents — or, as we like to say, to transform it into a community of equity and opportunity. And as part of that process, we are working to turn PT Barnum residents into majority stakeholders of the effort and hold them responsible for driving change; after all, they're the experts on the needs and hopes of their community.

But in order to have a chance to succeed, PT Barnum residents first needed two things: to understand their own power — and to learn how to use it.

With a Partners in Progress grant from the Citi Foundation and the Low Income Investment Fund, FCCF provided civic engagement training to about a dozen PT residents, all women and most of them single mothers. Our partner in this effort was the Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition, which conducted a three-part "Civic Engagement 101" that included coaching on how to create an advocacy statement and how to use that statement to get the attention of elected officials, what to do at a meeting with elected officials, and how to give testimony at a public hearing.

I can tell you as someone who sat in on those sessions that it was amazing to see how the women there found their voices — and are using them. For example, with support from FCCF, residents are working to rid their community of the brownfield next door and replace it with a state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse. If the greenhouse project is approved, it will eliminate a toxic blight and bring fresh produce and good jobs to the community, both of which it currently lacks.

Newly empowered residents also are learning how to work as a team and are expanding their network of advocates, bringing in more women from the community who previously were inclined to sit on the fence. One important issue for the group is education. In response to their requests, the Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition was awarded a grant by the Bridgeport Board of Education to provide social and emotional wellness training for parents and school faculty members, as well as support through Partners in Progress and the Citi Foundation to extend the civic engagement trainings to include a "train the trainer" workshop for residents.

In addition, residents have been organizing to inform the creation of a new magnet academy that will serve PT Barnum's elementary and middle school children. At the old neighborhood school, there was little parental involvement. Since the Parent Education Organizing initiative was launched last summer, however, the number of parents engaged in planning for the new school has doubled. Thanks to the support and direction of those parents, the Geraldine Claytor Magnet Academy will be focused on student-driven learning and a science/technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) curriculum — and be a critical asset to the community.

Until recently, PT residents distrusted the inadequate civic infrastructure designed to serve them. Now many have the confidence and tools they need to demand and create change. The way we see it at FCCF, this is just the beginning of a community transformation led by the community itself. In the past, too many well-intentioned efforts to create change were done to communities, instead of for and by them. If change is truly to benefit local communities, change initiatives must be accountable to the people who call those communities home.

Kate_kelly_for_PhilanTopicThis is a new paradigm for our foundation — and for community foundations more generally — and it has required us to think and work differently. But under this paradigm, Fairfield County's Community Foundation is on its way to becoming more than a grantmaker; we are becoming a partner in and a catalyst for community-led change.

I urge other community foundations hoping to create equity and opportunity in their communities to contact us to learn more.

Kate Kelly, MSW, is project director of PT Partners, an initiative housed at Fairfield County's Community Foundation in Connecticut.

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