162 posts categorized "Community Improvement/Development"

Building more resilient communities: A Q&A with Nicole Taylor, President and CEO, Silicon Valley Community Foundation

April 17, 2022

Headshot_Nicole_Taylor_SVCFNicole Taylor joined the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), the largest community foundation in the United States, as president and CEO in December 2018. She previously served as vice president of the ASU Foundation, as deputy vice president and dean of students at Arizona State University, and as associate vice provost of student affairs and dean of community engagement as well as managing director of the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University, where she had earned her bachelor’s degree in human biology and master’s in education. She also has served as president and CEO of Thrive Foundation for Youth, the East Bay Community Foundation, and as CEO of College Track.

Since April 2020, Taylor also has served as co-chair of the Silicon Valley Recovery Roundtable, a group of 59 business and community leaders working to chart a path to “a better normal” in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taylor discussed SVCF’s efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, center racial equity in its grantmaking, and help address systemic inequities in the region; her experience as a Black woman in the C-Suite and the challenges women of color continue to face in the sector; and the role of donor-advised funds in democratizing philanthropy and the potential impact of currently proposed reform legislation.

Philanthropy News Digest: Can you share some highlights of how the more than $50 million raised in the early months of the pandemic helped address community needs across the region?

Nicole Taylor: In 2020, SVCF raised more than $65 million for pandemic response. This money went toward seven different funds to ensure that we supported the varied individuals and organizations affected by the pandemic and met their unique needs. Through our COVID-19 Regional Response Fund, we granted more than $20 million to core agency partners across the 10-county Bay Area region, which in turn provided relief—food, housing and financial assistance—to low-income individuals and families. We launched additional funds to support local nonprofits, small businesses, education systems, and childcare providers. Nearly $13 million was granted as part of the Regional Nonprofit Emergency Fund, which supported Santa Clara and San Mateo County nonprofits. Over $3 million was granted from the Small Business Relief Fund, which supported small businesses with employees at risk for lost wages.

As the pandemic continues to affect individuals and families, nonprofits, and small businesses, we will continue to serve these communities with just as much urgency, particularly in our own backyard. In 2021 alone, thanks to our donors, we distributed $777 million in grants to Bay Area organizations, a 48 percent increase compared to 2020 and the most distributed in any region. Our hope is that this community-focused giving will provide necessary support while building more resilient communities....

Read the full Q&A with Nicole Taylor, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Investing in CDFIs to drive equitable economic growth: A commentary by Carolina Martinez

March 25, 2022

Minority_women_owned_business_GettyImages Three ways philanthropies can support community development financial institutions

Over the last two years—as many businesses struggled to stay afloat amid COVID-19 lockdowns, supply chain disruptions, and staffing shortages—community development financial institutions (CDFIs) provided a lifeline to small business owners, especially women and people of color.      CDFIs have a mandate to funnel much-needed responsible capital to small business borrowers in low-income communities, communities of color, and other populations facing structural barriers to credit access, and are well positioned to offer financing to these underserved borrowers as the economy continues to recover.

Investing in CDFIs is a winning strategy for philanthropic funders aiming to drive equitable economic growth and address systemic racial and gender barriers to economic opportunity. Grantmakers can play a key role in these efforts by providing more flexible capital that enables CDFIs to scale their operations to reach more socially and economically disadvantaged entrepreneurs—those whom the mainstream financial system has long failed. Most mainstream banks lend less today to small businesses than they did before the 2008 financial crisis.In fact, according to the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, 8,000 loans are declined by banks on a daily basis. In addition, women, immigrants, and people of color face structural barriers that mean they face even higher hurdles to securing a loan. Adding to the problem are alternative lenders, including predatory lenders, who have stepped in to fill the gap with products that are expensive and damaging to the health of small businesses.

While the pandemic has intensified these trends, it also has shown how CDFIs can make a real difference. The problematic rollout of the early rounds of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) demonstrated the limitations of big banks, which focused on their existing customers (including some large, profitable corporations) and overlooked borrowers in underserved communities. CDFIs, by contrast, deployed their PPP loans the way that Congress intended. The Small Business Administration reports that 78 percent of PPP loans made by CDFIs were under $150,000 and 40 percent were made to borrowers in low- and moderate-income areas, compared with overall program averages of 50 percent and 28 percent....

Read the full commentary by Carolina Martinez, CEO of CAMEO.

(Photo credit: Getty Images)

A unique opportunity for governments and place-based funders: A commentary by Darius Graham

November 05, 2021

Headshot_Darius_Graham_weinberg_fdn_2021_croppedARPA's $350 billion opportunity and what philanthropy can do

In March 2021, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which provides $1.9 trillion in funds across federal, state, and local governments. The funding streams are numerous and most funds flow through existing programs and agencies to bolster health and economic recovery — for example, $28.6 billion for the Small Business Administration's Restaurant Revitalization Fund and $21.6 billion to continue rent relief. While it would be impossible to identify any one source as more important than another, there is a portion of the funding that presents a unique opportunity for governments and place-based funders to ensure that local communities' urgent needs are prioritized — equitably and strategically — in both the immediate and long term.

Included within ARPA is $350 billion in State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) that will be allocated to state, local, territorial, and Tribal governments with no specific predetermined use.

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the SLFRF's goals are to:

  • Support urgent COVID-19 response efforts to continue to decrease spread of the virus and bring the pandemic under control
  • Replace lost revenue for eligible state, local, territorial, and Tribal governments to strengthen support for vital public services and help retain jobs
  • Support immediate economic stabilization for households and businesses
  • Address systemic public health and economic challenges that have contributed to the unequal impact of the pandemic

Notably, these funds offer substantial flexibility for governments to meet local needs and can be used to make investments in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure. These flexible funds, which must be committed by the end of 2024, provide governments with the opportunity to fund immediate needs, fill gaps, and/or make strategic investments....

Read the full commentary by Darius Graham, program director for Baltimore at The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

Health justice and participatory democracy: An interview with Hanh Cao Yu, Chief Learning Officer, California Endowment

October 27, 2021

Headshot_Hanh_Cao_Yu_TCEEven before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the California Endowment (TCE) had been working to move from Building Healthy Communities, its place-based initiative, to an effort that provides more flexible funding to the organizations and communities it works with to build power across California. For example, TCE increased the share of grant dollars awarded in general operating support from 3 percent in 2010 to 20 percent by 2020.The foundation is on track to further increase flexible funding so that communities and grantees have more freedom to determine how best to use those funds.

Hanh Cao Yu is TCE's chief learning officer, in which role she is responsible for learning, evaluation, and impact activities and ensures that local communities, local and state grantees, board members, and staff understand the results and lessons of the foundation's investments.

PND's Matt Sinclair spoke with Yu about the foundation's effort to promote "People Power" and how the pandemic has affected its relationships with grantees.

Philanthropy News Digest: What does "health equity" mean? How is it different from "health justice," and to what extent has the foundation's idea of "health justice" changed in the wake of the pandemic and its impact, especially on communities of color?

Hanh Cao Yu: For us at the California Endowment, health equity has three parts: We want to achieve the highest level of health for all Californians, improve the systems and conditions of health for all groups, and make sure that those who've experienced racism and socioeconomic and historic injustices are helped and supported — because health equity helps advance social justice.

In terms of health justice, which is also a North Star of ours, the focus is on outcomes, whereas health equity is focused on the process of how we got to where we are today. At the heart of equity is the ability to meaningfully participate, to have a voice, to be heard, and to help set the agenda of the priorities for your community.

Even before the pandemic, TCE was working to achieve health equity in a major initiative called Building Healthy Communities, which is about investing in groups that are serving and led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color fighting for health systems reforms and the transformation of our justice system, as well as equitable public education and more inclusive community economic development.

Health justice is also about robust, participatory democracy, and it's good for equitable community health.

Read the full interview with Hanh Cao Yu.

Impact investing in the 'creative economy' to strengthen local economies: A commentary by Deb Parsons

August 10, 2021

Fabric_bolts_arts_creative_GettyImages_oksixImpacting the creative economy with philanthropic funds

What do film and fashion have to do with philanthropy?

For a growing number of impact investors, these industries and others that make up the "creative economy" are a powerful lever to strengthen local economies, build resilient communities, and support an equitable COVID-19 recovery. Increasingly, impact investors are using foundations and donor-advised funds to make investments in a variety of local, national, and even international creative economy enterprises that are driving positive social and environmental change. With its focus on solutions that prioritize people and the planet, impact investing complements traditional grantmaking by leveraging the power of markets to create positive change....

Read the full commentary by Deb Parsons, managing director at ImpactAssets.

(Photo credit: GettyImages)

'Systems change work is intrinsic to creative youth development': A commentary by Daniel R. Lewis

August 09, 2021

Lewis_Prize_for_Music_awardeeSupporting creative youth development as systems change work

In her recent blog post announcing $2.7 billion in commitments to equity-oriented nonprofits across the country, philanthropist MacKenzie Scott writes: "Arts and cultural institutions can strengthen communities by transforming spaces, fostering empathy, reflecting community identity, advancing economic mobility, improving academic outcomes, lowering crime rates, and improving mental health."

[...] As a longtime arts philanthropist, reading Ms. Scott's post, I couldn't help but recognize the work she was describing as systems change — a vision my organization, the Lewis Prize for Music, has set for itself [...] While the pandemic magnified the already apparent need for young people to develop artistic and employable media arts skills, calls for racial justice showed the imperative for adults to provide movement-building support and guidance to young people. The CYD field has simultaneously addressed both of these needs.

Systems change work is intrinsic to CYD, and the holistic approach of CYD is itself systems change....

Read the full commentary by Daniel R. Lewis, founder and chair of the Lewis Prize for Music.

A moment for arts and social change

July 06, 2021

Museum_of_Chinese_in_AmericaMacKenzie Scott's latest $2.74 billion round of grants made big news for the outsized impact one donor can have on the nonprofit sector and for its focus on tackling inequities. Also notable was the number of arts and cultural groups among the grantees — more specifically, organizations created by and for people of color who work every day to put arts and culture at the forefront of social transformation. 

This support indicates a sophisticated understanding of the primacy of cultural expression as a place of engagement with one another and society at large — essential to transformation for the common good.

Scott said the grants to organizations "from culturally rich regions and identity groups that donors often overlook" were aimed at "empowering voices the world needs to hear." As co-chairs of the Mosaic Network & Fund — which funds and promotes arts and cultural groups of color in New York City and is one of the beneficiaries on the list — we couldn't agree more.

These groups have been tireless in their efforts to showcase aesthetic excellence, preserve diverse cultural traditions, and advance social change, despite being resourced at a level vastly incommensurate with their importance. For example, Ballet Hispánico, a fifty-year-old contemporary dance company that performs classical and contemporary works, trains young dancers, and functions as a source of pride and identity for the community from which it arises. The smaller Mama Foundation for the Arts provides a vital training ground for youth gospel singers. Institutions like these are cultural markers that lift up the voices, stories, and experiences of Americans whose contributions are minimized in or excluded altogether from artistic canons.

Then there are groups such as the First People's Fund, which is investing in Native American artists and culture bearers to preserve handed-down traditions while acting as economic anchors for their communities, and the Museum of Chinese in America, which challenges false, harmful stereotypes to more fully tell the stories of Americans of Chinese descent. These groups bring to light overlooked or misunderstood facets of American history and culture. 

Still others have missions that intentionally fuse art and activism and incubate artists within the heart and soul of their communities. The Laundromat Project — whose early art projects were set in neighborhood laundromats — intertwines art making and community building, supporting creative leaders who rally neighbors around common causes such as housing and health and wellness. And Harlem-based Firelight Media develops documentary filmmakers of color and produces films about communities of color, often reaching national audiences.

These groups are ideal conduits for gathering and broadcasting the thoughts and ideas of people whose voices are scarcely heard. Art and culture tell us who we are and help us organize to tackle the urgent issues of our times, such as mass incarceration, immigration, and climate change.

Creating and presenting art is always a labor of love, but Scott's gifts remind us that artists and the groups that nurture them are an important investment. If we are to tell the American story fully and in all its richly textured splendor, their work is vital.

Equally important, it's time for all of us to join Scott in giving long overdue, meaningful recognition and support to African-American, Latinx, Asian-American/Pacific Islander, Arab-American, and Native American arts organizations that are essential to the vibrancy of our society. While we cannot all make gifts as large as Scott's, we must recognize the transformational role each of us can and must play to ensure that the arts embody the voices of all communities.

(Photo credit: Museum of Chinese in America)

Maruine_Knighton_Kerry_McCarthy_Mosaic_NYCT_PhilanTopicMaurine Knighton and Kerry McCarthy are co-chairs of the Mosaic Network & Fund in the New York Community Trust.

 

More Americans may be going back to work, but their jobs are getting worse

April 16, 2021

Essential_worker_Christine_McCann_sffLast April, the coronavirus pandemic brought the longest economic expansion in American history to an abrupt and shocking halt. In just a few short months, the unemployment rate shot up from a fifty-year low of 3.5 percent to nearly 14.7 percent. A year later, many people are breathing a sigh of relief as the rate has ticked back down to 6 percent, with some taking it as a sign that America is on track to full economic recovery.

But while recent headlines may be cause for optimism, they don't tell the whole story. Using the unemployment rate to gauge the health of an economy is like putting your hand on someone's forehead to check whether they have COVID-19. It can tell you whether they're running a fever,  but it doesn't provide enough data to make an accurate diagnosis.

The truth is, the unemployment rate tells us nothing about the quality of jobs, making it an inadequate metric to understand the true health of the labor market. Gallup's 2020 Great Jobs Report, which Omidyar Network supported in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and  Lumina Foundation, found that more than half (52 percent) of those who were laid off during the pandemic — even if they were subsequently re-hired — reported a decline in their overall job quality as measured across eleven dimensions, including pay, benefits, stability, and safety.

First commissioned in 2019, the Great Jobs survey was groundbreaking: unlike simple "job satisfaction" metrics aimed at providing an overall sense of job satisfaction, the intent of the survey was to look under the hood of the labor market and identify trouble spots. A diverse group of more than sixty-six hundred working people were asked to define what a "good" job looks like and then assess how their own jobs stacked up against that standard. The original survey showed that less than half (40 percent) of working people in the United States believed they were employed in a good job, while one in six (16 percent) believed they were stuck in a bad job, with significant disparities by race.

The latest survey gives us a window into how the pandemic has impacted job quality. Those who started 2020 in a low-quality or "bad" job — based on their own assessment — were far more likely to have been laid off (36 percent) than those working a high-quality or "good" job pre-pandemic (23 percent). And low-wage workers with high-quality jobs in 2019 reported experiencing much lower COVID-19  risk and better employer-provided protective measures during the pandemic. The fact is, job quality matters, especially when a crisis hits.

Even before COVID struck, the topline numbers masked how unhealthy the U.S. economy really is. The richest 10 percent of Americans control 77 percent of the country's wealth, while for millions of Americans the rising cost of living has skyrocketed, wages have stagnated, and the wealth inequality gap continues to widen. These are not the hallmarks of a healthy economy.

The findings from The Great Jobs Report underscore the mounting evidence that the pandemic exacerbated structural inequities within the U.S. economy. Indeed, job quality in 2020 actually improved for people who avoided being laid off, with many reporting improvements in their compensation, flexibility with respect to where and when they worked, workplace safety, and  a sense of purpose in their work. By contrast, those who experienced being laid off reported lower scores on every dimension of job quality except safety.

But COVID-19 is just the latest driver of worsening job quality in the U.S., with technological disruption leading the list of other threats. While automation may not lead to the mass destruction of jobs — as feared by some — it could lead to deterioration in job quality in many industries and sectors. Meanwhile, the gig economy has made underemployment an acceptable alternative to unemployment. If someone who is laid off starts driving for Uber, they count as employed  — even though it is a more precarious, unstable, and lower-paid kind of work. This also has the effect of skewing the monthly unemployment numbers lower than they otherwise would be. An upskilling and job-matching program won't address these trends; the problem is with the jobs themselves, not the skills of the people in these jobs.

The alarming state of job quality in America reinforces how critical it is to empower working men and women to bargain for a fairer deal and better quality jobs across the dimensions that matter most.

We can create an economy where everyone has a good job. But if we don't start to pay attention to the quality, and not just the quantity, of jobs, we risk creating an economy where major disruptions driven by pandemics or natural disasters, automation, and climate change could lead to continued deterioration in quality of jobs for those who already find themselves in a precarious position. And if we continue to rely on the unemployment rate to tell us what's going on, we risk becoming dangerously out of touch with what's really happening.

We are heartened by the Biden administration's American Jobs Plan and the emphasis it puts on high-quality jobs. But it's going to take a concerted effort across society to detangle the perception that the unemployment rate is the final word on the health of our economy and working Americans. We urge other philanthropists and foundations, experts and economists, advocates, and activists to join the movement to put quality at the center of how we think about jobs and help us find better ways to measure, understand, and fight for quality jobs.

(Photo credit: Christine McCann, San Francisco Foundation)

Tracy_Williams_Omidyar_philantopicTracy Williams is a director at Omidyar Network, where she leads the social change venture's work to reimagine capitalism, build the power of working people, and shape a new economic paradigm.

Supporting the South's small businesses is supporting an equitable recovery

March 26, 2021

Closed_due_to_coronavirus_sign_GettyImagesLike the rest of the nation, small businesses across the South have faced unprecedented challenges since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of them saw demand drop and had to close their doors as their reserves were depleted. The breadth of the impact has been staggering — from industries like travel, food service and hospitality, to dentists, artists, mechanics, and farmers.

While federal relief efforts have been helpful for some, they have been insufficient or inaccessible for many, especially women, people of color, immigrants, and other underbanked populations. To address the gap, a number of philanthropic programs have been launched in states across the country to help small businesses at the back of the line — or not in the line at all.

The South has long suffered from a lack of philanthropic and institutional investment, a trend that has continued through the pandemic. The region benefits from only 56 cents of giving for every dollar granted in other regions. And for every dollar given to address structural change in the rest of the country, just 30 cents goes toward these issues in the South, despite well documented challenges with economic mobility, particularly in communities of color. This lack of investment could mean a slower, more difficult recovery and a deepening of those structural issues in the region.

Now is the time to change that trajectory, and supporting small businesses, including small-scale farmers and critical community organizations, is a place to start. Small businesses create jobs, drive economic vitality in communities, and have a tremendous impact on the well-being of families: entrepreneurship is second only to home ownership as an effective means of building family wealth. Plus, we know that small businesses tend to provide higher-quality jobs and are active participants in their communities.

Given adequate resources to navigate and rebuild from the pandemic, these resilient, creative, and resourceful entrepreneurs can overcome the immense hardships they are facing; in fact, many are already showing their resolve to do so. For countless small business owners, there has been no other option.

Unfortunately, even pre-pandemic, many of these businesses lacked access to affordable credit. NextStreet estimates that the credit needs of un- or underbanked small businesses exceeds $80 billion — and that was before banks pulled back because of the economic uncertainties created by COVID-19. We saw bank lending decline 16 percent during the Great Recession; given the recent trends of bank consolidation and the loss of many community banks, we expect the pandemic-driven decline to be even steeper in low-income, rural, and already underresourced communities across the country.

Luckily, we know — and have seen throughout COVID — that nonprofit community-based lenders certified as community development financial institutions (CDFIs) take the opposite approach. In times of crisis, they lean in. CDFI lending increased during the Great Recession, with many CDFIs doing five to ten times more lending in 2020 than in previous years to support the immediate needs of the small businesses and community-based organizations operating within their footprint.

That is why we are building and supporting the Southern Opportunity and Resilience (SOAR) Fund alongside thirteen CDFIs across the South. The program was designed to support the needs of local community lenders so they have access to low-cost capital, a technical assistance ecosystem, and a centralized technology platform that helps them find small businesses, including small-scale farmers, and nonprofits who need their help.

The economic recovery from the impact of COVID-19 is going to be long, and support for small businesses will be needed well beyond the administration of vaccines. If we want the post-pandemic recovery to be more equitable than the last one — and be focused on the potential and opportunity in local economies across the South — we need solutions structured to support the scaling of organizations that have been built in and served these communities for decades.

If we want to create asset- and wealth-building opportunities while maintaining the critical cultural fabric of our communities, philanthropists need to come together to support CDFIs and the small businesses they were built to serve.

(Photo credit: GettyImages)

Beth Bafford_Jennifer_Gadberry_philantopic - CopyBeth Bafford is vice president of syndications and strategy at Calvert Impact Capital, which is acting as the arranger for the SOAR Fund. Jennifer Gadberry is vice president of asset management at Heifer Foundation, an investor in the SOAR Fund.

[Review] 'It's A Helluva Town: Joan K. Davidson, the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the Fight for a Better New York'

February 11, 2021

Cover Its a Helluva TownIt's A Helluva Town: Joan K. Davidson, the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the Fight for a Better New York by Roberta Brandes Gratz tells the story of how one person and a small family foundation were able to create outsize impact in the nation's largest city and make it a more vibrant, equitable, and sustainable place to live and work. As cities across the country wrestle with unprecedented challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, Gratz' "case study" on the power, and limits, of philanthropy could not be more timely.

Founded in 1945 by Jacob "Jack" Merrill Kaplan, the J.M. Kaplan Fund today distributes more than $6 million in grants annually and has approximately $140 million in assets, a legacy of the sale of the Welch Grape Juice Company, which Kaplan headed for many years, to a grape growers' cooperative in the 1950s. In 1977, Kaplan's oldest child, Joan Davidson, was named president of the foundation he had created. As Gratz details in the book, Davidson took the responsibility seriously and, with the relatively modest resources of the J.M. Kaplan Fund at her disposal, played an outsized role in transforming New York during the latter half of the twentieth century. 

For Gratz, Davidson and the Kaplan Fund embody an important philanthropic principle: solutions to some of our most urgent social problems do not necessarily have to come with a big price tag.  Indeed, because foundations and philanthropists tend to be risk-averse, moving early and decisively to address a problem can yield impressive results. By way of example, Gratz quotes Aryeh Neier, a co-founder of Human Rights Watch, who credits the Kaplan Fund as  "the first significant funder of Human Rights Watch at $200,000 a year before [the] Ford Foundation came in" and goes on to say "[the fund] was crucial in launching us." To put that in perspective, HRW today has a budget of $75 million, a staff of four hundred and fifty people, and is widely considered to be one of the most effective human rights organizations in the world.

In an entirely different arena and on a smaller scale, the fund awarded a $1,500 grant in 1992 to the Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association in Far Rockaway, Queens, to plant thirty trees and other site-appropriate vegetation as protection against potentially devastating storm surges. Twenty years later, when Superstorm Sandy devastated the Rockaways, the area's bungalows and their residents were largely spared.

One of Davidson's most remarkable accomplishments as leader of the fund was her willingness to support institutions and social movements unafraid to question the paradigms and narratives that others took for granted. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, for instance, the fund supported the efforts to landmark and save the Helen Hayes and Morosco theaters in Manhattan's Theater District from demolition. Legal action seemed to be the only way to save the theaters, and for help Davidson turned to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a young environmental organization and an unlikely ally. Davidson had been a board member of NRDC, however, and understood how it could be useful in this particular fight. Though getting NRDC to take up the cause was a "hard sell," it eventually agreed. Ultimately, the theaters fell to the wrecking ball, but the case was pivotal in defining the strategies employed by the organization as it grew to become a leading player in the environmental advocacy movement — and, as Gratz writes, expanded the boundaries of that work so that "[e]nvironmental issues would never again be limited to the natural; the built and the natural were seen as symbiotic and forever joined." Today, cities and the urban ecosystems that grow up around them are widely regarded as critical components of the "environment," and NRDC has gone on to build an important and impactful urban program focused on putting resilient, sustainable cities at the center of the climate change conversation.

The success of an initiative often is judged by the extent to which it prevents harm. By empowering grassroots activism, philanthropy can play a critical role in stopping projects that pose threats to the environment, communities, and/or the very fabric of society — an idea that has significantly shaped both the historic preservation and environmental movements. As Gratz writes, "Preservation is never about historic buildings alone; it is about urbanism — preserving the whole city — which is simply the sum of its diverse and very interconnected parts." In the 1970s, she adds, "intelligent people had good reason to think that New York was doomed, and that making it more accessible to suburbia (and cars) and easier and safer as a venue for nighttime entertainment (via Lincoln Center) was the way to save it."

One of the linchpins of that vision was Westway, a proposed twelve-lane highway to be built from 42nd Street to Battery Park on land partly reclaimed from the Hudson River. The project, if completed, would have ceded primacy to the automobile in Manhattan — at the expense of mass transit and the ecologically important Hudson River estuary. Thanks to successful litigation supported by Davidson and the Kaplan Fund, however, the project was defeated, and the federal funding that had been allocated to it was used instead to support the city's public transit infrastructure, a critical building block of New York City's comeback in the 1980s and '90s. The book details several such fights against pernicious projects and proposals, some of them more successful than others. But the common thread in all is the emerging power of grassroots activism, which Davidson and the fund were critical in nurturing and sustaining.

More recently, the economic model that propelled New York City to new heights in the opening decades of the twenty-first century has been overturned by COVID-19. Every day during this seemingly endless pandemic, New Yorkers have been challenged to re-conceptualize how they work and live. At the same time, the virus has highlighted the unequal, unjust, and often-racist systems that marginalize communities.  The lesson is clear: now is the time to develop new models and paradigms for cities that give all people who call them home a chance to flourish. It's A Helluva Town reminds us that this isn't the first time New York has found itself at such a crossroads. But, as in the 1970s, headlines like "Is New York City Over?" and "400,000 people flee from the city" obscure the fact that major urban centers like New York are hard to keep down as long as visionaries like Joan Davidson call them home. She, and the people who supported her at the J.M. Kaplan Fund, are proof, as Margaret Meade famously said, "that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Nick Opinsky is a senior development officer for institutional giving at American Jewish World Service.

5 Questions for...Lisa Mensah, President and CEO, Opportunity Finance Network

January 15, 2021

After serving for two years as under secretary of agriculture for rural development in the Obama administration, Lisa Mensah joined Opportunity Finance Networka leading network of community development financial institutions, as president and CEO in March 2017. In November, with a $100 million investment from Twitter, OFN announced the launch of the Finance Justice Fund, a socially responsible investment fund aimed at raising $1 billion in grant capital to address racial injustice and persistent poverty in the United States. 

PND asked Mensah about the initial response to the fund, the impact of COVID-19 on the efforts of community development financial institutions, and the persistent lack of investment in rural communities.

Lisa_Mensah_squarePhilanthropy News Digest: What kind of response to the Finance Justice Fund have you gotten from corporate and philanthropic investors since the fund's launch in November? And are you on track to meet your fundraising goal?

Lisa Mensah: It's been wonderful to see the strong interest from both corporations and philanthropies in the work we're doing to finance justice. OFN is in discussion with potential new Finance Justice Fund investors; some of them are new to the CDFI industry and some are longtime partners. All understand that now is the moment to invest in Black and minority communities — the nationwide call for economic justice is louder and stronger than ever. We have a path to meeting our $1 billion goal and expect to announce new investment partners in the first quarter of 2021.  

PND: What was the genesis of the fund? Was it in the works before COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency and nationwide racial justice protests erupted after the killing of George Floyd last spring, or was it created in response to those twin crises? 

LM: Justice takes money, and CDFIs exist to finance justice. Our field started as a small grassroots movement to counter discrimination in banking and investing — the earliest CDFIs were created to provide financial services and support to people that banks wouldn't or couldn't serve. We've grown into a $222 billion industry that works to address longstanding disinvestment, the racial wealth gap, and persistent poverty by investing in people and communities left behind by mainstream finance. So the roots of the fund are really in our industry's history and unique role as community lenders. 

For years, OFN has been advocating for more public- and private-sector investment in communities underserved by mainstream finance. Since I joined OFN in 2017, we've been listening to our CDFIs and exploring new programs that would help the industry go bigger and bring new partners to our work. Then 2020 happened. 

The overlap of a pandemic-related economic crisis that disproportionally hurt low-income and minority communities and widespread calls for social justice put CDFIs front and center as a way to address both. The forces of 2020 — and interest from new corporate partners like Twitter — accelerated our plans. 

The Finance Justice Fund is just one result. In March 2020, OFN also welcomed Google as a partner: With OFN as the intermediary, the company is investing $170 million from its corporate treasury and $10 million from its philanthropic arm into CDFIs to help minority and women-owned small businesses. This mix of debt and grant capital is the type of investment we need to scale. 

PND: How has COVID-19 impacted OFN's and member CDFIs' programs and priorities? Are there lessons learned that might be applicable to the broader nonprofit sector?   

LM: The communities CDFIs serve are the communities that have been hurt most by the economic and health impacts of the pandemic, and so they have been very busy. 

From the very beginning of the crisis, OFN — the organization of thirty-five staff members and the network of more than three hundred CDFIs — understood the threat facing our communities and borrowers. In response, our member CDFIs have established new ways of providing services and support to borrowers. They have been proactive about easing the economic disruption for America's smallest, most vulnerable businesses, nonprofits, and homeowners, making loan accommodations, and standing up new loan programs. Many CDFIs have also helped small businesses adjust their business models to meet the new realities of stay-at-home mandates and changes in customer behavior. Our response from the beginning was focused on survival and recovery for our communities. 

One lesson for our industry and the broader nonprofit sector is that recovery from a major crisis demands partnerships, and that when those partnerships are strong we can move America forward. The last ten months have seen new partnerships with philanthropy, impact investors, corporations, and government. Never again should the CDFI field think of itself as insignificant. We must see ourselves as essential partners to the big work of having an economy that works for all. 

PND: The phrases "racial injustice" and "communities with high rates of poverty and disinvestment" are more often associated with urban, rather than rural, areas. What's behind that disconnect, and what are the implications — for rural communities in general, and for BIPOC residents of those communities in particular? 

LM: The truth is that racial injustice and high rates of poverty and disinvestment exist in both urban and rural areas. Persistent poverty in America — extreme poverty rates of more than 20 percent for more than thirty years — exists in more than ten thousand census tracts, roughly 14 percent of all U.S. neighborhoods. It has a strong hold in many rural communities: 19 percent of areas characterized by persistent poverty are rural, and millions of rural people live in persistent poverty. We also don't hear much about the racial diversity that exists in rural America. We don't think of Native communities or Black communities or Latino communities when we think about rural America, but these are vibrant and important populations in rural America.

I've focused on rural development for much of my professional life. One of the key questions is how to alleviate and begin to reverse the economic distress that has been driven by the systemic loss or contraction of major sectors of the economy such as agriculture, forestry, mining, and manufacturing. The community developer's challenge is to find ways to create wealth and livelihoods by reinvigorating local economies and connecting to larger urban/regional markets. CDFIs do this but also retain a racial equity lens and are willing to make loans to the communities and people who have too often been ignored. This is true in both rural and urban areas. 

And, of course, rural and minority communities live under the double-edged sword of poverty and racism — they've suffered the most historically and suffer the most from crises like COVID-19, climate change, and economic upheaval. 

PND: Your career has spanned the private, public, and social sectors, and you've led collaborative efforts across all three sectors. What has been your North Star in your work over the years? And what are your hopes for the incoming Biden administration with respect to policies that support racial and economic justice?   

LM: Economic justice has been my North Star — for me, that means fighting for financial capital to reach all people and communities. Financial capital is the fuel that drives economic opportunity, and I'm on a lifelong journey to help make sure that the allocation of capital is inclusive. 

I have many hopes for the Biden administration. It is exciting to see the administration embrace a goal of advancing racial equity and then to define this goal as spurring investment in small business opportunities, investing in homeownership and access to affordable housing for Black, Brown, and Native families, and ensuring that racial equity is considered in federal procurement and federal investments in infrastructure, clean energy, and agriculture. These are all policies to which CDFIs have much to contribute.  

CDFIs understand that government policies helped create the racial wealth gap and government policies must help end it. In the last week of 2020, Congress passed a historic government investment in CDFIs as part of the most recent COVID relief bill: $12 billion for CDFIs and minority depository institutions (MDIs). This is a giant step forward for our industry and the communities we serve. But injustice is persistent and tenacious, and we won't undo it with one bold step.

So, I'm considering that federal investment as a down payment, and I hope we can build on it in the months and years to come.  

— Kyoko Uchida

5 Questions for...Amoretta Morris, Director, National Community Strategies, The Annie E. Casey Foundation

December 10, 2020

Amoretta Morris joined The Annie E. Casey Foundation in 2013 as a senior associate responsible for overseeing the Family-Centered Community Change initiative. In 2016, she was named director of the foundation's national community strategies, in which role she leads its efforts to help local partners and community stakeholders strengthen their neighborhoods.

Morris's portfolio includes Evidence2Success, which supports partnerships aimed at engaging elected officials, public agencies, and community members in efforts to improve child well-being; community safety and trauma-response initiatives in several cities, including Atlanta; and nationwide efforts to create and preserve affordable housing.

Before joining the foundation, she served as director of student attendance for the District of Columbia Public Schools, where she oversaw activities ranging from chronic absence interventions and dropout prevention initiatives to services for homeless students. Before that, she was a youth and education policy advisor in the Executive Office of the Mayor and the founding director and lead organizer for the Justice 4 DC Youth! Coalition, an advocacy group that works to mobilize youth and adults in support of juvenile justice reform.

PND spoke with Morris about how philanthropy can help advance community health and safety during a pandemic.

Headshot_amoretta_morris_aecfPhilanthropy News Digest: How does family-centered community change differ from other types of change strategies, especially with respect to community health and safety?

Amoretta Morris: Unlike other efforts that focus on one specific element, such as education or health, the Family-Centered Community Change initiative took a multipronged approach to improving family well-being in three key areas: family economic stability; parent engagement and leadership; and early child care and education. The initiative was built around the belief that both parents and children will have significantly better outcomes if communities are able to strengthen and combine these services instead of relying on a single intervention.

PND: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the foundation's efforts to promote access to education, affordable housing, and employment opportunities? What have you and your colleagues done to adapt existing projects and/or strategies to address the immediate and/or longer-term impacts of the pandemic?

AM: The pandemic has created — and in many cases, exacerbated — educational, employment, and social pressures for young people and families. Knowing this, the foundation reallocated some of our funding, repurposed existing resources, amended grant agreements, and increased general operating support to our grantees so that they had flexibility to address the challenges their communities are facing.

In response, our partners adapted their strategies in creative ways to support kids and families. These efforts have included things like connecting people to health care; helping families access food and other critical resources; providing financial assistance to help keep families in their homes, as well as housing individuals experiencing homelessness and advocating to halt evictions and protect renters; working to prevent violence and support those affected by it; supporting immigrant families, including those who do not qualify for state or federal benefits; and helping students secure computers and the reliable Internet access they need for distance learning.

We know that communities are battling multiple pandemics simultaneously — COVID-19, economic distress, racial injustice, and gun violence — and that most of them, including COVID-19, will not immediately disappear, even with a vaccine. So, we remain focused on our commitment to young people and their families and the structural change needed to help all kids thrive.

PND: In 2012, the Family-Centered Community Change initiative implemented a new approach to community partnerships called strategic co-investing. The approach calls for the awarding of flexible grant funding, "nesting" an issue within an existing community change effort, and a rethinking of the funder-grantee relationship in which the funder serves as more of a strategic thought partner to its grantees rather than as the "buyer" of certain outcomes and deliverables. What are some of the lessons you've learned from the initiative — both for funders and for community partners?

AM: The strategic co-investor role with Family-Centered Community Change was a new way of working for the foundation — one that enabled us to examine the ways we engage with grantees, residents, and other local funders. Among many lessons, FCCC emphasized the importance of both systemic solutions that address structural barriers and targeted interventions with families and their children. Local leaders cannot "service" their way out of poverty — we need comprehensive policy solutions that create more equitable pathways to opportunity, coupled with services and resources that help children and their families achieve stability and thrive.

The strategic co-investor role also confirmed for us the catalytic effect national funding can have. Investment from a national foundation is often seen as a vote of confidence and can help partners secure additional funding from federal and state government, local funders, or other national philanthropies. And I believe that for our community partners, the work highlighted the critical importance of listening to the families they serve, respecting their knowledge and expertise, and leveraging them as partners.

PND: Your program at the foundation is focused on driving community change by providing a holistic suite of services to families. What are some of the things philanthropy can do to better support community members in designing and implementing their own strategies for improving community health and safety? What about gun violence, which is the leading cause of death for young Black males between the ages of 15 and 24 and has been on the rise since the early days of the pandemic in many parts of the country?

AM: At the Casey Foundation, we want all young people to have the power and resources needed to thrive in communities that are strong and safe. The foundation advances strategies to ensure that youth and families of color have what they need to flourish — safe neighborhoods, affordable housing, and access to resources that promote children's well-being and positive development. To realize that vision, we, as funders, must be willing to build and share power with communities. Providing tools, resources, and trainings is part of the solution. We must also commit to more authentically engaging with and building the capacity of youth and their families to meaningfully contribute their experience and knowledge in the problem-solving process.

With regard to gun violence, we focus on community safety and violence prevention as part of our national community strategies. That work is rooted in the understanding that violence is a health crisis that must be solved through comprehensive, community-led interventions. For example, in Atlanta, one of our "hometowns," we're partnering with grassroots organizations to equip city residents with the tools and skills they need to be peacemakers and provide pathways out of violence. Our nonprofit partner CHRIS 180 is leading the charge by implementing Cure Violence, a public-health approach to address shootings; it treats shootings like an epidemic that must be stopped before spreading. Under that model, credible messengers — people with strong community ties — act to intervene when violence or retaliation is likely to occur, while community-based organizations that run the programs partner with various local actors like hospital staff, nonprofits, and other organizations to prevent additional violence.

We also invest in national networks focused on promoting solutions in which violence is treated as an urgent public health matter. The Health Alliance for Violence Intervention, for example, supports hospital-based intervention programs where healthcare staff and community organizations provide bedside counseling to patients who have experienced violent injuries with the aim of steering them away from retaliation. And national advocacy partners like the Community Justice Reform Coalition and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute have launched campaigns that promote community intervention strategies and demand accountability from elected officials for ending gun violence in their communities.

But we're not alone in this work. We also invest in these efforts alongside our peers as members of the Fund for a Safer Future, a funder collaborative that supports policy, research, and community-based interventions aimed at preventing gun violence.

PND: You've led a nonprofit coalition that advocates for juvenile justice reform, a municipal government's efforts to support underserved and homeless students, and now a national foundation's strategy to center community change in families. Based on your experience in different sectors, what is the one thing we can do to improve child well-being and flourishing, for all children?

AM: The throughline is equity. No matter where the starting place is, your approach should center the voices and experience of those most directly affected by the issue you are trying to solve. In juvenile justice reform, it was organizing alongside formerly incarcerated youth and their families. In DC Public Schools, it meant listening to homeless students, parents, and the school counselors who were making herculean efforts to support those students and parents. And in philanthropy, it is all about deeply listening to grantees, walking neighborhoods, and having community residents take the lead. When you start with the people closest to the pain of the problem, they will lead you to the solution.

Kyoko Uchida

Why regulatory modernization is essential to a nimble human services system

October 30, 2020

Food_bank_central_eastern_north_carolina_philantopicOver the last eight months, we've all watched as existing health inequities were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. We also learned that social determinants of health — conditions in the environments in which people are born, live, learn, work, and play — put people of color and low-income Americans at greater risk of infection than others, and that those communities are more likely to be negatively impacted by the economic fallout of the pandemic. The supports that normally help families meet such challenges are delivered through the collaborative efforts of America’s health and human services infrastructure, including public-sector agencies, philanthropic entities, and community-based organizations.

COVID-19 has turned everything we know about how to deliver these critical services on its head. The way people apply for help, the ways in which the human services workforce carries out essential duties, and even how clients engage in program activities are being redesigned and -imagined. As a result, public agencies and their community partners have had to accelerate the modernization of their business processes to preserve and expand access to the services that undergird an effective health and human services ecosystem.

Even as we carry out this work, however, organizations on the ground must operationalize these changes within a local, state, and federal regulatory framework that is in desperate need of remodeling. Congress and federal agencies have taken emergency actions since the pandemic hit to give more flexibility to service providers. One such agency, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, relaxed its payment rules so that medical practitioners can be reimbursed for the purchase of remote communications technology. While the change is temporary, it underscores the long-term need to simplify rules and regulations in ways that enable organizations to prioritize outcomes over process. There are similar opportunities across the health and human services sector.

In 2018, the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and the American Public Human Services Association released the National Imperative Report: Joining Forces to Strengthen Human Services in America, which identified overlapping, conflicting, and outdated regulations as one of the major barriers to successful service delivery. The report recommended that regulators at all levels of government commit to a fundamental review and reform of human services CBO regulation. The pandemic underscores that need.

One example of needed regulatory modernization is the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Unlike block grant programs, SNAP, the largest nutrition program in the country, operates within a highly regulated framework, with detailed rules that dictate how various agencies can administer their respective programs. As the pandemic has revealed, such a framework is particularly challenging for service providers to adapt to during a crisis. From March through June, states submitted more than five hundred and sixty waiver requests across seventy-nine different waiver categories related to SNAP. Approval or denial of these waivers repeatedly came just days before, or even after, states were required to implement changes and often required further guidance, clarification, or re-issuance at a later date. The constant state of uncertainty created inefficiencies and sub-optimal outcomes in service delivery at a time when providers should have been empowered to take decisive action to maintain critical services.

The pandemic also reinforces the need to review and modernize regulations to better reflect what is currently working. Rapid scaling of remote benefit processing functions suggests that agencies can reduce their reliance on onerous interviews in the application process and still maintain the integrity of their programs. Similarly, policies that support expansion of online purchasing options can have a major impact in reducing barriers to food access for individuals and communities. There's also a need to evaluate current and proposed SNAP regulations that restrict the strategies states can use to support households facing barriers to employment and to better align the program with other systems to create pathways that lead to greater economic mobility.

The child welfare system, which often relies on in-person visits and interventions, is another system that has been significantly impacted by COVID-19. Early on in the pandemic, it became apparent that the system could not continue to operate normally and that changes were needed to protect the health, safety, and well-being of children, staff, and families. The U.S. Children's Bureau was extremely responsive to these challenges, issuing modifications to allow monthly caseworker visits by video conference and later providing funding flexibility under existing federal law for the purchase of cell phones and equipment for birth parents and foster kids. This kind of flexibility with respect to technology has allowed those in the system to better meet the needs of the children and families they serve and to maximize the efficiency with which interventions are delivered. Given the ever-increasing role of technology in society, these changes should be made permanent.

The pandemic has underscored the need for a more flexible, nimble regulatory environment that enables state and local agencies and CBOs to creatively engage in experimentation and innovation, embrace technology, and improve outcomes for individuals and families in their communities.

The time is ripe for more permanent regulatory modernization in the health and human services space. We urge federal, state, and local policy makers to embrace such a paradigm shift, building on lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and providing the kind of regulatory flexibility that fosters innovation and, ultimately, leads to better outcomes for all.

Headshot_ilana_levinson_matt_lyons_philantopicIlana Levinson is a senior director for government relations for the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. Matt Lyons is the director of Policy and Research with the American Public Human Services Association.

Why playgrounds matter in rural America: insights for rural donors and funders

October 01, 2020

Kaboom_salamanca-3The neighborhood playground is a critical asset that helps make communities resilient places where kids can thrive and residents can connect. But in many rural communities across the country, factors like physical distance, countywide recreation policies, and the lack of a local tax base can limit children's ability to access these spaces and the benefits they generate for health and well-being. This fact gains even more urgency when considering the deep disparities in rural childhood health outcomes.

Through decades of work partnering with rural communities, KABOOM! has come to understand that location is critically important in shaping the opportunities and barriers that kids and communities experience.

Addressing health outcomes with playspace equity

"Playspace equity" means every child has access to playspaces that deliver critical outcomes for child health, development, learning, and social and emotional well-being — regardless of factors such as race, ethnicity, or family income. KABOOM!, a national nonprofit, is working to achieve that vision.

For more than 23 years, KABOOM! has worked with communities to transform 17,000 playspaces, engage more than 1.5 million community members, and expand access to playspaces for 11 million kids. The community is at the heart of the process, with residents and kids engaged throughout the design, construction, and maintenance phases to ensure that the final playspace reflects their unique needs and expectations. According to a survey, 94 percent percent of KABOOM!-led respondents believe their playground project helped strengthen relationships among neighborhood residents and among community partners.

The approach also inspires optimism, as community members work toward a collective goal that will benefit future generations. KABOOM!’s engagement process focuses on the existing assets in each community has and supports a greater vision for what it would like to see for its kids.

Playspaces: supporting broader strategies to support rural communities

Last year, KABOOM! teamed up with the Colorado Health Foundation and the community of Trinidad, Colorado, to complete a project at the Las Animas Fairgrounds. Trinidad is a small rural community with just over eight thousand residents, 20 percent of whom experience poverty at some point during the year. Throughout the engagement process, local partners cited high rates of obesity and the mental health impacts of social isolation and increased time using technology as top concerns.

Together with the community, KABOOM! helped build an Adventure Course for teens that serves more than a thousand kids annually. The Adventure Course also provides a community gathering space, which is critically important in a location where public space is limited or hard to access. Afterschool programs and home school students use the space frequently, and the local fire department can be spotted on the course during training exercises.

In Bastrop County, Texas, KABOOM! worked with a local nonprofit, Bastrop County Cares, to build a playspace in Stoney Point. The support from multiple agencies and resident leadership ensured the project would be part of a greater effort to develop county spaces for families in the region. With the help of funding from the St. David's Foundation, KABOOM! was able to support the community and build on the existing coalitions that had been established. The community reports a measurable difference in play activities, with more than 90 percent of respondents to a survey of build volunteers affirming that the amount of time kids spend playing has increased.

In western New York, KABOOM! partnered with the Rural Revitalization Corporation, the City of Salamanca, and the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation. Salamanca has a population of just over five thousand residents, with a little more than 20 percent experiencing poverty. The city sits on top of the Tribal lands of the Seneca Nation and, due to lack of funding and a smaller tax base, has found it difficult to secure support for capital projects like park infrastructure. But KABOOM! was able to help the community build a state-of-the-art Adventure Course that now provides more than nine hundred and fifty children with a safe place to play. Six months after the build was complete, playground participation had increased by 20 percent.

A KABOOM!/funder partnership is well positioned to respond to a number of challenges faced by funders looking to engage with rural communities:

  1. The KABOOM! model generates a cohort of volunteers — many of whom have had no contact with the funder in the past. A successful KABOOM! build can be a springboard for other community-led community development projects.
  2. The local site sponsor, whether a church, community based-nonprofit or a rural Housing Authority (for example), often expands the funder's network of interested and eligible grantees and responds directly to the frequently heard funder’s lament, "There is no one to fund."
  3. The model is scalable and creates a level of interest in surrounding communities.
  4. The funder is the administrative intermediary with KABOOM! and can mitigate the challenges faced by rural communities in accessing outside resources.

In our conversations with rural communities, residents often express frustration that national programs don't have anything for them: most best practice models are built on urban density. The KABOOM! partnership provides an opportunity for a very active rural engagement that is scaled to communities' needs and culture — all in the context of a community-led design and build process. It's an example of how funders and donors can bring resources to rural places that are more than the sum of the parts and a reminder that the best rural philanthropy supports a sustainable community ownership structure.

(Photo credit: KABOOM!)

Allen_smart_lysa_ratliff_PhilanTopicAllen Smart is the founder of PhilanthropywoRx and Lysa Ratliff is acting CEO and vice president, partnership development at KABOOM!. This post originally appeared on the Giving Compass website.

 

To help communities survive crises, trust and invest in their leadership

September 08, 2020

Kresge_fresh_lo_initiative_2Amid multiple ongoing crises, foundations are struggling with how best to support the nonprofit sector — in particular, community-based organizations working to address a raging pandemic, police violence, and systemic racism.

Led by people with a wealth of lived experience, community-based groups have long been a critical source of support for under-resourced neighborhoods struggling to rise above interconnected challenges, including insufficient access to fresh and affordable food, clean air, and safe, healthy housing.

By listening to and investing in local organizations, philanthropy has helped accelerate resident-centered collaborative approaches that have made it possible for such groups to pivot to meet immediate COVID-related needs and maintain their financial footing during an economic downturn that has forced many nonprofits to shut their doors.

One such group, the Memphis-based Binghampton Development Corporation (BDC), which works to promote people-first property development, support affordable home ownership, and train new food entrepreneurs in English, Spanish, and Arabic, hasn't missed a beat since COVID emerged as a public health crisis earlier this spring. Although the virus forced the organization to pause its regular programming to ensure proper social distancing, it is still hard at work making sure the small food businesses it supports have the resources they need to navigate these uncertain times and sustain themselves in a post-pandemic world. Recently, for example, it secured a catering deal for one local entrepreneur to prepare food for emergency medical staff, helping that small business owner earn the income needed to survive while supporting critical frontline workers.

And BDC isn't alone. Montbello Organizing Committee, a group of community organizers and developers based in Denver’s multiracial Montbello neighborhood, responded to the pandemic by immediately organizing emergency food distribution and working with partners to distribute meals to more than eight hundred people a day. In New Brunswick, New Jersey, resident-led nonprofit Elijah's Promise has provided twice-daily meals to locals out of its community soup kitchen and is serving more than three times as many meals today as it did before the virus became a concern. And through its Corner Store Witness initiative, the Chicago-based Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) and its community partners recently held a virtual convening to discuss the challenges immigrant-owned corner stores in inner-city neighborhoods are facing and what can be done to provide a path forward to long-term healing and the building of real community power. All these organizations are working locally to meet the needs of the communities in which they are embedded and are examples of the idea that in times of crisis, hyper-local investment is essential for community survival.

About five years ago, the Kresge Foundation developed a grant program, Fresh Local & Equitable (FreshLo), to support resident-led approaches to community challenges that prioritizes cultural expression and food as a social determent of health. A joint initiative of Kresge's Health and Arts & Culture programs, FreshLo intentionally integrates food, art, and creative approaches to community building to drive neighborhood revitalization equitably.

One of our top priorities is raising up resident-centered, collective action that includes the voices of those who live and work in the community. During the grantmaking process, we intentionally looked for neighborhoods that have lacked access to foundation funding — especially those in the South and Midwest. We knew that groups on the ground were already doing important community-driven work and we hoped the funding we could provide would help seed new networks, bring resident-led projects to life, and develop infrastructure that could support their neighborhoods over time.

The twenty-three community-based groups we selected were already doing the work needed to drive long-term neighborhood change — the type of work Kresge has been exploring for nearly a decade through its Creative Placemaking efforts, which are based on the idea that progress depends on a more nuanced understanding of urban inequality and how arts, culture, and community-engaged design intersect with strategies to expand opportunities for residents in low-income communities.

It was the social cohesion and vision shared by residents in these neighborhoods that excited us and created, in our view, the essential pre-conditions for long-term change. That vision also served as a vital ground wire for the collective action needed to mitigate some of the impacts related to the pandemic and structural racism.

Over the past six months, we've seen these organizations evolve their programs and services to meet emerging needs of their communities. We had a hunch that investing in resident-driven collective action and cultural solutions would help strengthen communities that had been neglected for decades; the pandemic has proven that hunch right. The results of our grantees' efforts show that place-based, culture-first investing is critical in times of crisis.

In Minnesota, Native-led community organization and FreshLo grantee Dream of Wild Health has tripled its farmland with support from Kresge. During a pandemic — when food sovereignty is paramount — the organization's sustainable farming practices, informed by Indigenous knowledge and traditions, have proven key to meeting the growing food needs of its community. Not only is the group cultivating its land to yield more fresh produce for current and future generations, it's also delivering food to elders who are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill with the virus and supporting other members of the community impacted by COVID and ongoing protests against racial injustice.

Similarly, In Oakland, FreshLo grantee Planting Justice has spent decades mobilizing people impacted by mass incarceration to work toward neighborhood revitalization and food sovereignty. Since the pandemic began, the organization has shifted work at its plant nursery to provide critical produce and smoothie distribution to more than a thousand neighbors a week. As its community faces job loss and economic challenges, it also has taken on forty paid interns, creating new opportunities for professional development and routing money to local families, supported by additional COVID-response funding from Kresge.

Like Montbello, Elijah's Promise, and IMAN, the organization's ability to quickly pivot and use resources where they are most needed is a testament to the trust it has built up and its commitment to its neighbors. Investments in social infrastructure and the leadership of groups like Dream of Wild Health and Planting Justice can only strengthen their work.

For historically underresourced and marginalized neighborhoods, and the people who live in them, responding to crises is nothing new. But they are more likely to survive a crisis when strong community connections already exist and they receive the support needed to take neighborhood-level action. The lessons from the FreshLo initiative suggest that investments in social cohesion, local leadership, and community enterprises can yield huge dividends.

The crises we are grappling with today — and those to follow — require that we lean on our neighbors. The strongest safety nets are constructed out of local knowledge, relationships, and community action, and philanthropy should do what it can to support them.

(Photo credit: Kresge Foundation Fresh Local & Equitable Initiative)

Stacey_Barbas_Regina_R_Smith_PhilanTopic

Stacey Barbas is a senior program officer in the Health program and Regina R. Smith is managing director of the Arts & Culture program at the Kresge Foundation.

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    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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