November 2, 2009

Grassroots Grantmaking & Community Organizing: Are You Seeing What I'm Seeing?

I noticed something last week in northeast Ohio that I've been seeing across the grassroots grantmaking network - something that I'm hoping is really a trend and not something that I've conjured up from years of wishing it was so.

What I'm spotting is more synergy between the resident-centered work that some place-based funders are doing and practice of community organizing.  And I'm being deliberate when I say the practice of community orgnaizing.  What is exciting is that I'm seeing more direct, practical connections between funders who are engaged in grassroots grantmaking and community organizers.  This has a different flavor from what I've seen in the past - funders holding their nose while making a community organizing grant and then praying that the "action" won't bite them in the behind, or community organizers trying to convince funders that all they need to do is to give them money and get out of the way.  What I'm seeing is about working together - it's about synergy.

What this looks like is more comfort on the funder's side with having community organizing in the picture, and more openness on the community organizing side to having funders at the table. It's about dialogue, learning exchange, working in partnership, each side recognizing that they need each other. Perhaps place-based funders are realizing that resident-centered work doesn't add up to social change magically or naturally - that there are skills, attitudes and practices that residents need to move from short-term fixes to long-term change, and that these skills, attitudes and practices are squarely embedded in the work of community organizing.  Organizers may be spotting the shared values and goals associated with the resident-centered work that some place-based funders are doing as natural points of connection with the funding world - and that these connections can indeed advance their own work as well in ways that go beyond more money to do the work.

We heard the story at Grassroots Grantmaker's recent "on the ground" gathering in Ohio's Mahoning Valley of the synergy between the Raymond John Wean Foundation's Neighborhood Success grants program and the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.  The Organizing Collaborative serves as fiscal sponsor for some of the groups that receive Neighborhood Success grants - meaning that the new groups are introduced to community organizers and community organizing right away.  We heard Big Jim talk about beginning with 8 people in his neighborhood and growing his group to 300 members.  When asked how this happened, he talked about a Neighborhood Success grant and his relationship with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.  I'm not sure which came first - the grant or the relationship with the Organizing Collaborative.  But "first" doesn't really matter, does it?  It's the synergy that made the difference.

I've heard similar stories when I have been in Denver visiting the team associated with The Denver Foundation's Strengthening Neighborhoods Program - and it's no coincidence that the team now includes two people who have been trained as community organizers and were hired specifically because of that experience.   I've heard about the close relationship between Strengthening Neighborhoods and MOP (Metro Organization of People, the PICO affiliate in Denver.  And I've heard about board-level conversations at The Denver Foundation on the value that comes from funding "spicy groups".  Sounds like synergy to me.

Cleveland, Battle Creek, San Diego, Seattle......just a few of the other places where there are growing relationships between grassroots grantmaking and community organizing.

I mentioned earlier that I've been wishing for the change that I think that I'm now seeing.  In the years I was working in Memphis, I knew that we were missing something that community organizing could offer, but couldn't find a way to make the connection.  One of the national faith-based organizing networks had an affiliate in Memphis, but their work was clearly not neighborhood based and being part of a congregation was the only entree to the organizing training that they offered.  What they did and how they worked was a bit mystical and mysterious to those on the outside - creating the sense that they were a force to be respected, but also keeping the practices, skills and attitudes associated with organizing out of reach for the resident-led groups that we were funding.  I was hearing the same thing from my colleagues in other cities - that there was a disconnect between the faith-based or issued-base organizing that was going on in their communities and an unmet need for organizing training for residents who were accessing small grants for work on their own blocks.

The gap in Memphis was unfortunate - leading, I believe, to the ultimate demise of the grassroots grantmaking program there.  We didn't have what we needed to help the leaders chart a path between mowing the grass on the overgrown vacant lot on the corner and addressing the question behind the issue - why are there some many neglected vacant lots in their neighborhood and in similar neighborhoods all over Memphis?  So it became a game of blaming the victims (why don't these leaders figure it out - stop mowing the grass, ask deeper question and get the root cause) and associating success with the size of the grant (these grants are too small to make a difference).   End of story is that the program - the only program that made funds available to block clubs and neighborhood groups in Memphis - was cut. Unfortuante.  But what is really unfortunate is that this story is not unique to Memphis.

If indeed there is a new day with new synergy between grassroots grantmaking and community organizing, we may finally be breaking through a barrier that has limited possibilities for grassroots grantmaking and community organizing alike.  The new working relationships that I'm seeing introduces and integrates organizing into the grassroots grantmaking picture as technical assistance, training and coaching - technical assistance, training and coaching that develops leadership potential, builds groups, and helps people move from addressing symptoms to working on what is causing those symptoms. And, the long-term patient money approach of grassroots grantmaking is the perfect companion for organizing - an invitation that the organizers can use to encourage groups to take the next step when the time is right.

I can also imagine that this new synergy, if it indeed exists, opening some new funding avenues for community organizing, supplementing more traditional sources of funding - those social justice oriented funders who have long seen the wisdom in funding community organizing. This new synergy can help a new set of funders see community organizing as an important vehicle for reinvigorating active citizenship and local democracy.  There are the place-based funders who are directly engaged in grassroots grantmaking in their own communities for sure - but then there are also the funders who support civic engagement and capacity building but may have shied away from direct action organizing.  A win-win, in my mind.

So this is what I think I'm seeing.  I'm interested in learning how it looks it you - and if you're sensing a change, what we might do together to support, encourage and celebrate this change.  Post a comment or send me an email to share your thinking.

No comments:

Post a Comment