June 30, 2010

Working in the Wetlands

I spend my days in the wetlands. That's how I think of the work that I do that focuses on thinking big about small grants. And its a metaphor that keeps me grounded as I think about the relationship between grassroots grantmaking and other approaches to place-based change that sit on the high ground surrounding the wetlands. The values and principles associated with grassroots grantmaking live in the wetlands that connects community organizing, community development, community building, civic engagement and inclusion.

In our post-Katrina world, wetlands have gained new status - now recognized as some of the most productive and important ecosystems in the world. We have been reminded of the immense variety of life - microbes, plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, and mammals - that are part of a wetland ecosystem and that instead of useless, disease-ridden places, wetlands are essential contributors to a healthy, functioning, sustainable environment.

The wetlands I know on a day to day basis are also full of life in surprising and every-changing ways. It's where everyday people wade into the place-based philanthropy world and find their place and their voice as contributors rather than clients, recipients or customers. It's also the feeder system for everyday people into the worlds of community organizing, community development, community building, civic engagement and inclusion.

Why is such a feeder system important - as ecologically important as natural wetlands are to our physical environment? It's because as we get immersed in our professional world, the everyday people part of these place-based approaches to community change seems to dry up.

In some cases - not all, but some:
  • community organizing is more about a professionalized organizing approach and getting "wins" on issues than it is about surfacing and elevating resident voice
  • community development is more about the bricks and mortar work that is guided by professionals in community development corporations than it is about creating the physical, economic and social environment that everyday people need to thrive and be happy
  • community building feels more like social work with professionals at the helm than it is about energizing the network of mutual support and people to people connections in a community;
  • civic engagement is more about advising and supporting institutional agendas via forums, focus groups, and volunteering than it is about moving community members' dreams and passions into action in the civic commons;
  • inclusion feels more like a professionally prescribed prescription to deal with community illness than friendship and fun.
That's why I love hanging out the wetlands of grassroots grantmaking. That's why grassroots grantmaking isn't another free-standing approach that is easily contained and described - alive like the flowing water in a stream rather than the H2O in a beaker. And that's why it's important for the everyday people orientation of grassroots grantmaking to have the the freedom to flow into the more categorical or ideological defined work of a place-based funding organization. And that's why I'm completely okay when people ask "how is grassroots grantmaking different from/distinct from/separate from one approach or another?" It's as hard to draw a line between us and them as it is to define the shore at the edge of the wetlands. And that's the point - the power of grassroots grantmaking and the ability to think big about small grants.

What do you think? Does this resonate with you? Weigh in with a comment or connect with an email.

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