Saturday, January 14, 2017

Grassroots Organizing and Funding

I am a member of the Grassroots Grants Committee at the Connecticut Community Foundation. In the year or so that we've been active, we have been privileged to see some of the amazing individuals and groups that are changing people's lives in Waterbury and to make funds available for their programs. It has been a profoundly heartwarming experience to see how many people truly care about others, to see how many people who have experienced difficulties and suffering in their own lives turn that into a determination to help others facing the same challenges they once faced, and to see how many people are working to lift up those around them out of the goodness of their hearts.

The Grassroots Grants program is open to any Waterbury resident who wants to make positive changes in their neighborhood or community. This can include things like starting a community garden, offering a program for homeless youth, or building relationships between community members.

Melissa Green, co-chair of the Grassroots Grants Committee, speaking at the Silas Bronson Library

 The basic idea is to help community members identify the changes they want to see and then supporting them in pursuing their goals. Community change is accomplished by working with residents rather than doing things for them.

Anyone can apply for a grant--you don't need to be a nonprofit organization. All you need is a plan and to fill out the application form, available on the Community Foundation's website.

Community leaders at the Grassroots Workshop held on January 14, 2017 at the Silas Bronson Library

On Saturday, January 14, the Connecticut Community Foundation held a special grassroots organizing program at the Silas Bronson Library. We originally intended to hold the program in the basement auditorium, but instead held it in the Main Reading Room, which allowed us to reach community members who would not otherwise have known about it. I can't emphasize enough how happy I am that we made the decision to move the program to the first floor of the library. One person we reached because of the move was a formerly homeless veteran, who now does outreach to people who are currently homeless to help them get back on their feet; he walked into the library just before the program started. He didn't know about the program in advance, but he now has so much more knowledge about the resources that are available to help him help others, because he attended the program.

So what was this program? The first speakers were from Connecticut Community Organizing for Racial Equality (CORE), based out of New Haven. Much of their work is focused on supporting and training grassroots leaders with the goal of building an anti-racist community.

Isa Mujahid, co-founder of CORE, discussing challenges to communities

CORE started off the program by asking the audience members to talk about the community programs they are involved with. The audience included representation from the East End Community Club, Miss Greater Waterbury Scholarship Program, Butterflies with Voices, My Reflection Matters, Radical Advocates for Cross-Cultural Education (RACCE), and the Naugatuck Valley Project. Other audience members were individuals who want to launch new programs -- an African immigrant who wants to help other African immigrants organize; someone who wants to find ways to get young adults to come back to Waterbury after college; artists who run programs to help build confidence in young people; and the formerly homeless veteran who now spends his free time reaching out to others who are homeless.

Melitza Rivera (far left) talking about Butterflies with Voices

Several participants spoke about the need to build up the self-esteem of children who live in Waterbury. For some, that means overcoming the stigma of living in a neighborhood that is full of blighted buildings. For others, it means teaching them skills like meditation to help them cope with the stresses of life. Antoinette Harmon spoke about giving young people hope for Waterbury's future by connecting them to local professionals, especially minorities, so they can see a potential future for themselves in this city.

Rubis Collado talking about the low self-esteem of children living in blighted neighborhoods

The audience also shared what they have encountered as challenges to making things better. These included poor accountability for public funds; local government being harder to work with and less accessible than state government; and insufficient public transportation and programs for children held at night. Diana Drysdale emphasized that we have many great resources now, but we have to support them and we have to improve public awareness about what we already have.

The folks from CORE then talked about how to make change happen and that there is a spectrum of change, ranging from social service organizations to community education to advocacy and so on. The key take-away might have been their exercise in one-on-one community conversations using sample questions on a hand-out.

Renée Bascetta and Aileen Singleton practicing one-on-one community conversation

The idea with one-on-one community conversations is to connect to people in your community in order to better understand their experiences; to identify issues in the community you might not have known about; to discover new community leaders and to nurture the leadership potential in everyone; and to recognize the value that exists in the community. You start with people you know, like your next-door neighbors. You build trust and relationships, branching out further and further into the community as you go.

The one-on-one conversations are a way to move past the mire of endless complaining and get people to stand up on their feet and make change happen, to give people the confidence to stop complaining and start doing things to solve the problems.

Nakia Navarro from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund

The next speaker was Nakia Navarro from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund. The Grassroots Fund is dedicated to community-based environmental projects throughout New England (including Waterbury). Their funding opportunities include money for inner-city projects -- for example, hydroponic farming for growing both vegetables and fish. The Fund is also focused on social justice--as Ms. Navarro stated, "To build a truly sustainable community, all people must be at the table." Social justice and environmental issues go hand in hand.

The Fund can serve as a fiscal sponsor for community groups that are not nonprofits, allowing them to use their 501c3 for fundraising purposes. The Fund also offers training sessions, and will do whatever it takes to make sure people can attend. If a training session is being held in Rhode Island and enough people from Waterbury want to go, the Fund will rent a van to bring us to the program. Many of their workshops include youth training as well. They also have webinars that can be viewed from any computer. The next one, on January 17, is Using Social Media to Build Community Power. (Side note: don't have a computer or internet access? The Silas Bronson Library has free public computers you can use.)

Navarro also talk a little about how government works. What do you do after you get media attention for your cause? Her recommendation: learn how to be a lobbyist, how to make it easy for your legislators to support your cause. She emphasized that you have to learn how to speak the language of the people in power -- as with the one-on-one conversations, community activists and community leaders need to build their communication skills, so their voices can be heard.

If you are interested in learning more about any of these programs, you should contact Ellen Carter at the Connecticut Community Foundation, 43 Field Street (across from the Armory downtown). The phone number is 203-753-1315, x114. You can also reach out to any of the Grassroots Grants Committee members if you run into us out and about: Melissa Green, Nessy Rodriguez, Edith Reynolds, Pastor Derrill Blue, Pastor Dick Dill, Eden Brown, Ruther Glasser, Glenis Vialva, and me, Raechel Guest.

We all have the power to make good things happen in our communities. Thanks to the Connecticut Community Foundation and the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, there are resources available to help us make those good things happen.

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