September 14, 2008

Wow! "On the Ground" Chicago

I'm still learning about blogging reality. My intention was to blog from Chicago to share the "on the ground" experience" there in real time. Up early/up late days that included lots of wonderful networking and information reminded me that the real-time blogging intention required more super-powers than I could muster.

And I didn't count on Mother Nature. Hurricane Gustav rains in Chicago. Tropical Storm Hannah in coastal North Carolina where I went for a post-event long weekend. Hurricane Ike preparation when I returned home to Texas. Fortunately, all we had to do for Hurricane Ike was prepare. I live 75 miles from the Texas Gulf Coast but the Texas Gulf Coast is very long. When the storm honed in on Houston, 100 miles to the east, we landed on Ike's "dry side". And dry it was. No rain. No wind. No nothing. Crazy as it sounds, that was initially disappointing. Not so anymore, however, as post-Ike footage from Port Arthur (my birthplace) and surrounding communities have come across the television. I'm happy to have this extra stash of water, batteries, lamp oil, canned goods and chocolate - along with my roof, my comfy bed and all of my "stuff" high and dry.

So what would I have said about "On the Ground with Grassroots Grantmakers in Chicago" if I was blogging "real time" or even immediately post event? Thanks to the Woods Fund of Chicago, the Steans Family Foundation, and the extraordinary group of people who gathered from all over to focus on building resident power and capacity for change, Grassroots Grantmakers' premiere "on the ground" gathering was all I hoped for and more. Not the typical "show and tell" site visit. Not another opportunity to be intellectual and talk about building community as if it was a science project. Not another self-serving "hats-off" to funders who have all the answers. Instead, these two days were, to my great delight, about "getting real".

Dr. Arvis Averette got us off to a wonderful start. A long-time South side activist and scholar, Dr. Averette provided commentary as we headed from downtown to Chicago's South side. Funny but full of painful truths. Arvis talked of the flip side of changes that look good on the surface. About welcomed ecoonomic prospertiy than came with pressures that pushed long-standing community residents out. More home ownership but less opportunity for renters. Gentrification that wasn't just about whites pushing out blacks, but instead went to core questions associated with our recent trickle down economic policy. Stories of what it really took for community activism to help shape the face of Chicago's South side.

We continued with time at the amazing Gary Comer Youth Center and the opportunity to hear about community organizing on the South side from Rey Lopez-Calderon (Executive Director of Alianza Leadership Institute), Bryan Echols (Executive Director of MAGIC), and leaders from two of the Woods Funds Southside grantee organizations, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network and Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP). We spent the afternoon on Chicago's West side in the North Lawndale neighborhood and visited with leaders of the Crib Collective and the North Lawndale Juvenile Justice Collaborative.

On Friday, we gathered at Loyola University's Water Tower Campus downtown to debrief and connect lessons from Chicago to our "back home" work. We began the morning hearing from Deborah Harringtons (Woods Fund President) and Reginald Jones (Steans Family Foundation's Executive Director), with Consuella Brown (Woods Fund Senior Program Officer) offering questions to Deborah and Reginald that set the perfect stage for the following "getting real" discussions about the challenges that funders face in building resident power and capacity for change. Three dynamic duos led us through energetic discussions on three topics:

In the afternoon, we spent time in "role-alike" groups - neighborhood residents, intermediary organizations, funders who are new to grassroots grantmaking, and experienced grassroots grantmakers.

There is a lot of I could share about the two-day experience - and I'll be blogging about some of the issues that surfaced in the discussions. Kristin Senty-Brown, a diarist who has worked documenting learnings with the Annie Casey Foundation supported Making-Connections investment in Des Moines, was with us for the experience. Kristin will capture the two-day experience and learnings that the 50+ participants brought to the discussion from their home communities in a document that we will be eager to share. But in the meantime, here are some comments from people who joined me "on the ground" in Chicago:

Wonderful networking and information/idea exchange opportunity.

I am a community member on a small grants neighborhood grantmaking committee. This helped a lot in giving me a wider perspective on this grassroots "movement".

Chicago was a great place to host this workshop.

Great examples of neighbors and neighborhoods stepping up to their challenges and finding success.

This grassroots conference was a great experience and I learned a lot about what people are doing to make their communities better........I look forward to attending again.


  1. Having attended my share of networking events over the past several years, I admit to not having the highest of expectations for the On the Ground activity in Chicago. Not that I wasn't hopeful, though. What I ended up with far exceeded my expectations. The gift of time with those doing similar work, with similar missions, toward a similar goal was priceless (stealing a bit from the Visa commercials here). Rey shared in his presentation on the first day that one of the best things funders could do is provide the space and time for conversation and exploration (true networking). The second day I came to realize that was exactly what Grassroots Grantmakers had done for us collectively in those two days - so my heartfelt appreciation to all involved. The volunteer residents who joined us for the experience shared that they've returned home with a deeper respect for this work. And we're all looking forward to the next.

  2. Hi Kathy - Thanks for your comment. I know what you mean about too many conferences, workshops, etc. I was initially skeptical about adding yet another event to anyone's calendar. Some face to face time is essential for us to build a network, however, so this gathering was our first go at something that didn't feel like "just one more". From one skeptic to another, it's great to know that this was worth your time!