Community Foundations as Catalysts for Community-Led Change

Written by: Kate Kelly

Date: March 15, 2016

Traditionally, community foundations work to create change by making grants to local nonprofits, advocacy groups and other organizations. This fulfills the valuable but limited role of purveying monetary support. Seldom, if ever, do they work directly with the communities they serve to create change.

A new breed of funders is showing how, by serving in yet another role, they can foster change that is more comprehensive, more responsive to residents’ needs and, hopefully, more enduring. This involves reaching into the very roots of the community they serve and empowering its people.

That’s the approach that Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, based in southwest Connecticut, is taking with the PT Partners initiative, a model for engaging and training public housing residents to lead change in their neighborhoods.

PT Partners is housed at PT Barnum Apartments, a 360-unit public housing development in Bridgeport, Conn., surrounded by a notorious brownfield site and, incongruously, a yacht club. Long known for crime and poverty, PT Barnum is home to more than 1,100 children and adults. The goal of PT Partners is to make PT Barnum a safer, healthier and overall better home for its residents – to transform it into a community defined by equity, opportunity and empowerment.

Residents are the majority stakeholder owners of the PT Partners initiative and are responsible for driving community change. After all, they are the experts on their community and its needs and desires. But they need support to harness their own power.

With a Partners in Progress grant from The Citi Foundation and The Low Income Investment Fund, PT Partners provided civic engagement training to about a dozen of our residents, all women and mostly single mothers. The Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition also conducted a three-part training, a sort of “Civic Engagement 101” that covered creating an advocacy statement and using it to get the attention of elected officials, meeting with elected officials and giving testimony.

It was amazing to see how these women found their voices – and used them. For example, at a meeting with the mayor about a proposal to replace the nearby brownfield with a hydroponic greenhouse, a resident asked if he could help make recycling bins available to residents. Newly empowered residents are also learning how to work as a team. Together they’re growing their group of advocates, bringing in more women who previously were fence-sitters.

Education is an important issue for the group. Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition has a grant from the Bridgeport Board of Education to provide social and emotional wellness training for parents and school faculty members, as well as support through our Partners in Progress/Citi Foundation grant to extend the civic engagement trainings to include a “train the trainer” workshop for PT resident participants.

In addition, PT residents have been organizing to inform the creation of a new magnet academy that will serve PT Barnum elementary and middle school children. Since the Parent Education Organizing initiative launched last summer, the number of parents engaged with planning the new school has doubled compared to earlier levels of parental involvement. With parent support and direction, the Geraldine Claytor Magnet Academy will be a critical asset to the community, built on student-driven learning and a Science-Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) curriculum.

With support from Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, residents are also working to rid their community of the noxious brownfield next door and replace it with a state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse. If the greenhouse project goes through, it will bring both fresh produce and good jobs to the community, both of which are currently scarce, and eliminate a toxic blight.

The way we see it, this is just the beginning of a community transformation led by the community itself. Too many programs are done to communities and not for them. Grantmakers must hold themselves accountable to the residents of those communities if they want their work to benefit them sustainably.

Community-led change represents a new paradigm for community foundations. It requires us to think and work differently. With this in mind, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation has become more than a grantmaker; it’s now a catalyst for community-led change. I urge all foundations that want to create equity and opportunity in their communities to step into this very exciting and rewarding role.

Kate Kelly, M.S.W., is project director of PT Partners, an initiative housed at Fairfield County’s Community Foundation in Connecticut.

Image by Kevin Jump adapted under CC license.