May 24, 2010

Walking for Jane: Why This Matters

I love the idea of Jane's Walk. I learned about Jane's Walk from Julie Black, Citizen Engagement Associate at The Calgary Foundation and new member of the Grassroots Grantmakers Board of Directors. Read the article that Julie wrote about the recent Jane's Walk in Calgary. Calgary was one of the 68 cities worldwide (29 in Canada, 32 in the U.S, 7 internationally) including San Juan Puerto Rico, La Paloma Uruguay, Goa & Mumbai India, Dublin Ireland and Madrid Spain that participated in this year's Jane's Walk.

Haven't heard of Jane's Walk? Here's a short blurb from the Jane's Walk website:
Jane’s Walk is a series of free neighbourhood walking tours that helps put people in touch with their environment and with each other, by bridging social and geographic gaps and creating a space for cities to discover themselves. Since its inception in 2007, Jane’s Walk has happened in cities across North America, and is quickly expanding internationally. In 2009 Jane’s Walks were held in 46 cities with a total of 315 walks offered. In 2010 there are 68 cities with over 418 tours on offer. All Jane’s Walk tours are given and taken for free.

The main Jane’s Walk event takes place annually on the first weekend of May, to coincide with Jane Jacobs’ birthday. Jane’s Walks can be organized and offered any other time of the year by enthusiastic local people or organizations, although the first weekend in May is where we focus our organizational energies and resources.

Jane’s Walk honours the legacy and ideas of urban activist and writer Jane Jacobs who championed the interests of local residents and pedestrians over a car-centered approach to planning. Jane’s Walk often takes Jacobs’ ideas to communities unfamiliar with her ideas, in order to advance local engagement with contemporary urban planning practices. The walks helps knit people together into a strong and resourceful community, instilling belonging and encouraging civic leadership.

I'm writing about Jane's Walk today for 2 reasons. First, I love the idea and want to spread the word and encourage people who connect with this blog to bring this idea to their community. I'm going to mark my calendar now for

Second, I'm stewing about something - and Jane's Walk provides an opening for me to ask you to help me think about this.

I've had two conversations in the last two weeks with funders who are clearly big thinkers about small grants - extremely committed to a more progressive type of philanthropy that invests in citizen action and brings resident voice into the forefront. These funders are champions of community organizing and either select community organizing groups to fund or use their funding to nurture the development of neighbor-to-neighbor connections into groups with a community organizing focus. In Grassroots Grantmakers lingo, these are groups that are working in the third layer of the grassroots grantmaking layer cake.

As I was introducing the layer cake to a new acquaintance - one of the funders I'm mentioning here - he gently broke some news to me that wasn't new news at all. He said that progressive funders who support community organizing don't believe that work like Jane's Walk makes a difference - that work that is supporting in the first two layers of the "layer cake" is nice but not important.

I can also see a similar bias among funders who identify as civic engagement funders, community development funders or public policy/systems change funders.

Jane's Walk and other similar events (like Pedal Pittsburgh, with over 2000 people bicycling through Pittsburgh's neighborhoods every year in May) is about the opportunity for people to connect to each other and deepen their connection to the place where they live. No, it's not specifically about change. It's about building "community" into everyday life - one event, hopefully among many, that provides opportunities for people to connect to each other and get beyond sound-bite messages about the place where they live. It's on target with what the John L. and James S. Knight Foundation discovered with their interesting Soul of the Community research - that how attached we feel to our community matters. And that we feel more attached when we have opportunities to connect with others in our communities and feel good about our physical surroundings - how our community looks and feels.

Even if Jane's Walk went to scale (and I'm poking some fun at how we think in the funding world by saying this), it wouldn't change the world. But what one event, idea or approach does? That's why there are three layers in our grassroots grantmaking layer cake - not just one layer labeled community organizing. And that's why we point to the first layer - the layer that is about inviting people out of their living rooms to connect with a neighbor to build connections and embrace their place as active citizens - as fundamental. No only important, but essential if working from a "we begin with residents" perspective is the goal.

I wonder if some funders don't take activities such as Jane's Walk seriously because they assume that those neighborhoods and residents who are at the margins, not in the economic/prosperity/opportunity maintream wouldn't be welcomed or invited. And if that's their assumption, I wonder if that jives with reality. And if it does jive with reality, what role that place-based funders can play in expanding the circle of participation and the possibilities that more cross-town/neighborhood/class/race/legal status activities might surface.

Or could it be because Jane's Walk/Pedal Pittsburgh/National Night Out feels more like community life than a program or a project - and that we're more comfortable with the boundaries and constraints that funding projects or programs provide? Or that it's more about ordinary people than professional problems solvers or money?

Or is it simply about focus? That some funders focus on issues such as health, education, or aging, where other funders focus on a methodology such as community organizing?

What do you think? Where do activities like Jane's Walk fit into the picture for you? A fun thing to do on a nice weekend in May, or an essential ingredient in the recipe for strong, vibrant, resilient communities? Help me out by posting a comment.


  1. Janis - thoughtful and insightful as always. A couple thoughts...

    1) Basic "community building" is a goal unto itself and has its own stand-alone outcomes. It is something that doesn't have to lead to anything else. There are both public and personal benefits to people simply knowing more about their community and being more emotionally attached to it.

    2) Community building and civic engagement are not goals owned solely by the progressive/liberal movement. The concepts can be also stand-alone, apolitical goals.

    3) Funders can choose to focus on methodologies (capital funding, community building principles, etc...) as well as or instead of fields of interest. In fact, more funders probably should understand how and when to use those methodologies.


  2. Thanks for weighing in, Tony. You reminded me of how many "boxes" there are and how challenging it is to resist the temptation to try to fit comfortably into at least one of them. Eyes on the prize (and away from the "boxes) for me - and that prize is communities that are healthy, nurturing places for the people who live there.