Category Archives: Uncategorized

“Grassroots” philanthropy for equity and community systems change

Part 1 in a series on the topic

A colleague recently shared with me this post from the witty (and insightful) blogger, Vu Le, of Nonprofit With Balls: Is Equity the New Coconut Water. In it, Le discusses how in the philanthropic community, discussions of “equity” have become faddish, yet programs and initiatives developed in the name of equity actually perpetuate inequity for low income communities and communities of color—“dissonance in equity”, as the author describes it, or “Fakequity”, as another post discusses.

The article reminded me of the work that I helped build at the DC Trust through the Communities on the Rise (COR) initiative, Washington DC’s first place-based, multi-year youth-focused collective impact initiative. True equity work is difficult. In part: It is about undoing large multi-layered systems with significant history and weight. Many philanthropic organizations are funded by the very systems that equity work seeks to dismantle. There are no formal “schools” (at least institutions of higher education) where one can learn how to do equity work, so those in the funding community who have been trained in those institutions might not have a theoretical and practical knowledge base to equip them to do the work.

As Le notes, to truly level the playing field in philanthropy, to make it equitable for low income communities and communities of color, requires redesigning many cogs, or really, redesigning the entire system itself. Communities on the Rise was a stab at righting the system.

While the COR initiative is far from perfect, and while we understand that it is a work in progress, an iterative process that involves significant listening, learning, and re-drafting, it represents a radical departure from the oftentimes patronizing approach of many community development initiatives, the sometimes inequitable demands of funders, and the siloed work at the government level. I will share my thoughts on both the theory and the challenges of praxis from this living process in multiple parts, each post focusing on one key aspect of the whole.

First, a bit of background…

The Rise of Communities on the Rise (COR)

The Communities on the Rise initiative was born from more than four years of interagency work within Washington, DC government, coordinated by the DC Trust on behalf of the executive administration of Mayor Gray. Dubbed the One City Summer Initiative (or One City Summer Fun Initiative), this collaborative work was initially envisioned as a summer youth crime reduction strategy. Each summer the Metropolitan Police Department city would identify a number of neighborhoods that, during the course of the year, had seen a high level of youth crime. The DC Trust then layered onto the crime data other data points relating to youth development and wellness (academic proficiency, high school completion, domestic violence, obesity, unemployment, poverty, etc.) to select a number of “target areas”. Over the ten weeks of summer, all the largest District agencies would rally their troops and outlay additional funds to offer programs, events, and services to the youth and families in those neighborhoods. These included recreational activities, academic enrichment programs, wellness visits and workshops and community celebrations.

This effort was successful, in the myopic sense that youth violent crime decreased during the weeks of engagement. However, as one would suspect, no real sustained impact was seen. In fact, many of the neighborhoods targeted in 2010 remained on the “hot list” each successive year. This is because once the summer ended, the targeted focus would also end, leaving the youth and families once again without opportunities and services to thrive.

It was clear to all involved that a new approach would have to be taken if the City really wanted to change the outcomes for the youth and families in the most marginalized “at risk” neighborhoods. When the team at the Trust really began digging into neighborhood-level data and conducted focus groups and participant interviews, the complexity and scope of the problems really began to emerge.

Aside from the very significant systemic issues found in the large institutions the community residents interact with (school system, justice system, public welfare system, etc.), some of the other reasons this well-intentioned but short-sighted first iteration of work failed to produce lasting outcomes for youth and families in the neighborhoods are:

  • The length of engagement had been limited to summer months, when clearly the risk factors that created the negative developmental outcomes existed year-round. No large scale, cross-sector, year-round efforts had existed focused on youth development outcomes.
  • Community residents had largely been left out of the planning and development process. Efforts had always been brought to them and put on them, without empowering and engaging them to help guide and lead the efforts.
  • Efforts had focused on funding singular programs in communities, and those programs typically were not networked, did not share information, and did not work collaboratively.
  • Many of the programs deeply embedded in the communities, those that had strong relationships with the youth and families there, did not have strong organizational capacity, and so could not offer services consistently or at the quality and scale needed.
  • There was no guiding infrastructure in place to help formalize, focus, and support the work—no shared goals and outcomes held by all programs and agencies, no division of labor and responsibilities, no communications systems and feedback loops between the various stakeholders, etc.

Though by no means comprehensive, this list of issues was where we started when designing the Communities on the Rise initiative—hoping to build a more equitable system and create real change for the most underserved youth and families in Washington, DC.

Pt. 2 will discuss COR’s novel approach to capacity-building.

Stay tuned…

What exactly is youth “engagement”?

Just read this post on–What do we talk about when we talk about student engagement? This “connected learning” blog is launching a four-part conversation with educators about the meaning of “engagement”. I have assumptions about the term that I bring from a background in critical pedagogy. Engagement requires relevant curriculum, adults stepping back and facilitating youth leadership, project-based experiences connected to the “real world”, etc… Until reading this post I hadn’t thought that those assumptions might not align with how others view it. NextThought poses some good questions that I look forward to digging into with others in the field. Yay to peer learning!

Leveraging the Power of Our Personal Networks

This thought has occurred to me before, but not so accutely felt as a few days ago, when sitting around the table with some of the young women Youth Outreach Coordinators at the DC Trust: my personal network is a mighty powerful thing!

I am in my late 30’s, have attended some of the country’s top schools, and am in an executive-level position at a reputable youth-centered non-profit in the Nation’s capital. My social circle is full of similarly-positioned people. To me, though, they’re just my friends–a village of really good people with whom I can have stimulating conversation about politics, policy, and culture; can battle on the dance floor at “ol’ skool” night at the club; can leave my 6-month old son, while my husband and I enjoy date night… Rarely do I even think about what it is they do for a living, the power they hold in their respective fields, and how to best leverage that power to build a stronger community.

But on this recent day while sitting in on a workshop a colleague was facilitating for a group of young adult women, I realized that I have been sitting on an untapped gold mine. The particular context that crystalized that thought had to do with helping young women of color become financially literate. While I am by no means “wealthy”, seven years ago I brought together a group of friends who were interested in learning how to build wealth to form an investment club–the Sista Millionaires Acquiring Capital (Sista MACs). Of the now 9 Sistas (all African-American), one is a Harvard-educated medical doctor/anthropologist and head of a local community medical organization, one is a senior researcher and evaluation expert for a nationally-recognized youth policy organization, one is an expert in women’s small businesses and travels the world educating state leaders on the value of women entrepreneurship, and so on…

Outside of what we do in our “9-to-5” (though often 24-7) jobs, we collectively have amassed a knowledge of how to analyze stocks to manage a portfolio that consistently sees profits at a rate three times that of the S & P 500. (Pretty impressive, if I must say so myself!) As the Sista MACs have mulled over various avenues for our club’s investments,  we’ve talked about micro-lending to small social enterprises (which we did–supporting Aminata Brown’s Sista Works business), opening a bed and breakfast that employs local youth as guides and hosts, supporting a promising young artist whose early works might be very valuable in the coming years–in other words, using our collective dollars to help grow community (the principle of “ujamaa”, cooperative economics).

We also can share the knowledge that we’ve gained with other young women, doing as the National Association of Colored Women advanced–lifting as we climb. The young women Youth Outreach Coordinators were excited about the possibility of learning about money from other women, and about the idea of an investment club itself. When I shared this with my Sista MACs, they became excited about the possibility of sharing our knowledge with the next generation. We immediately began conjuring up images of circles like ours multiplying, of brown women becoming empowered with knowledge of how to ensure stable financial futures for themselves and their families, of small “Grameen Banks” opening around Wards 7 and 8 in DC (the most economically marginalized areas in the city)… Quite powerful thoughts!

I was at a conference recently in Los Angeles, and one of my luncheon tablemates from the Casey Foundation said “We [people of color] don’t know how to network.” He is absolutely right. For a person like me to only now be having a “Eureka” moment about how well-connected and well-positioned my friends and I are, and to only now be thinking of how to leverage our power is pretty ridiculous. In some cultures and households, this is taught and lived early-on. It’s how a young person fresh out of college lands a great first job at a well-paying law firm, how CEOs have risen, how political seats have gotten won, how capitalistic wealth has been created. Networking–taking your friend’s young, bright niece under your wing for a summer internship, supporting a local candidate because another trusted friend said she was “dope”, introducing cool folks who you battle on the dance floor who also happen to be brilliant engineers to other cool folks who happen to be brilliant educators–is how the power structures came to be.

Washington DC’s new Mayor is just a few years older than me. We roll in similar circles. I go grocery shopping or to a museum or to the farmer’s market, and I inevitably bump into lots of people I know. I am at the age of power. If my circle just leveraged our collective power, we could have great influence. Great POSITIVE influence to shape policy, create programs, build community wealth, and bend the arc of history towards justice.

Pathways to Prosperity

I spent this weekend reading Harvard Graduate School of Education’s February 2011 report, Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century. I’m really getting into the issue of youth workforce development–because of my day-to-day work as the director of teen employment at DC Public Library, but also because so many things have begun to converge around the issue. Amongst them:

  • At the library we’re seeing a steadily increasing influx of job seekers of all ages, and we’re working towards a strategy to best meet the public’s need. We developed the Jobseekers portal on our website to assist, but we’re seeing the level of need is much higher and calls for more direct one-on-one coaching than a website can provide.
  • In late August, NPR’s Hansi Lo Wang (who volunteered at our teen radio program last year!) did a report on the staggaringly high rate of teen unemployment, which in some areas of DC is at 50%.
  • The Urban Alliance, a youth workforce development non-profit based in DC, recently issued a call to partner with organizations to bring their comprehensive package of workforce development workshops to teens, at no cost to the organizations. This is to try to meet the need in the out-of-school environment, since it’s not being met in school.
  • This summer, based on feedback from some of DCPL’s Teens of Distinction, the library piloted the “Shadow Your Future” program, whereby teens could shadow a professional for a half-day to see what a day-in-the-life of that career is like, and to learn the different paths to getting there. They said they had absolutely no clue “what’s out there”.

While my teens in the Educational Video Center’s 2002 Documentary Workshop identified the gap between what they learn in school and what connection it has to the “real world”, the critical need for integrating career exploration and preparation into school work hadn’t really crystalized for me. I know that I hated school (loved learning, though!) and didn’t see why I had to go everyday, when there were so many other exiting and stimulating ways that I could have spent my time (I grew up in DC, home to the best free university in the world–the Smithsonian Institution!). I also know that even when I graduated from Oberlin College, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I felt like whatever it was, I needed more training in order to really be able to do it.

Harvard’s report struck a cord with me, because of its emphasis on quality, holistic programs. The solutions lay at the nexus between intellectual development, workforce development, creative development, and “positive youth development”–all as facilitated by an engaged community of adults who can help support young people through their transition to independence.


Amidst the constant bipartisan bickering, the obliteration of the safety net for our nation’s most vulnerable populations (in the name of closing the budget gap), and the recent horrifying injustice that is the Troy Davis case, it’s wonderfully surprising and heartening to know that Congress introduced an incredibly thoughtful and desperately-needed piece of legislation, aimed at supporting disconnected youth. The Reengaging Americans in Serious Education by Uniting Programs Act (RAISE UP Act) targets youth who have dropped out of secondary school, are homeless, in foster care,  unemployed, young parents, in the juvenile justice system, or who are otherwise “disconnected” from a healthy support system to enable their successful transition to adulthood.

“By integrating essential, and often disparate, education, workforce, social services and supports, RAISE UP will provide pathways for disadvantaged youth to graduate from secondary school, attain a post-secondary credential, and secure family-supporting career.” (CLASP, 2011)

See CLASP’s analysis of the bill, and encourage your reps (or, if you live in Washington, DC, encourage your “shadow rep” to encourage her allies) to support the passage of it.

Falling in Love with Appreciative Inquiry

This weekend I spent working on my presentation for the North Carolina Library Association’s biannual conference (to be delivered in two weeks–YIKES!!), and writing a paper for my MLIS program’s Management class. I was thinking about the concept of participatory culture, and that led me down a research rabbit hole, through the tech world, youth development world, theological world, and management world. I landed thinking about a term I’d heard in a leadership class with Maureen Sullivan at DC Public Library–appreciative inquiry. I couldn’t quite remember what it was, but I remembered that Maureen spoke of it so affectionately and carefully, I knew it was important.

Lo and behold, appreciative inquiry is the LIGHT! Case Western Reserve University has a whole institute devoted to it, and developed a website dedicated to it–The Appreciative Inquiry Commons. Reading through the material, I feel so uplifted! Language about systemic change and transformation that is truly transformative! Language that doesn’t shy away from the true spiritual impact of the work. Check this out (a definition contributed by a member of the AI Commons):

“[Appreciative Inquiry] deliberately seeks to discover people’s exceptionality – their unique gifts, strengths, and qualities. It actively searches and recognizes people for their specialties – their essential contributions and achievements. And it is based on principles of equality of voice – everyone is asked to speak about their vision of the true, the good, and the possible. Appreciative Inquiry builds momentum and success because it believes in people. It really is an invitation to a positive revolution. Its goal is to discover in all human beings the exceptional and the essential. Its goal is to create organizations that are in full voice!”

Cooperrider, D.L. et. al. (Eds) , Lessons from the Field: Applying Appreciative Inquiry, Thin Book Publishing, 2001, page 12.

Exciting, no?

Your Story Has a Home Here: Creating Compassion and Understanding for the Homeless Through Art and Personal Story

I just saw that the article I wrote about the Your Story Has a Home Here project is on School Library Journal’s website! (Disclaimer, the version that appears here was edited by an SJL editor and placed online before I could take a look. As a rule, I don’t like using the word “kid” to refer to “teens”, but it’s done here with wild abandon. That being said, I’m TRULY grateful for having had the opportunity to share this project with the SJL audience!)