An open and outright take over of a non-profit by everyday residents recently occurred. Now sure, the take over was in the making for years. It was clean and smooth---with a bump here and there. No protests. No one was kicked out. The founder and co-founders were not asked to pack their boxes. The Community Governance Coach/Project Manager is still hanging around but on the path of transitioning out this year. It is not quite like the Steely Dan song and album title "Everything Must Go."
Nevertheless, it must be clearly stated: Neighborhood residents who were told in various ways throughout the years that they could never lead or manage their own affairs have now taken over a non-profit organization in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
On February 19, 2014, four resident leaders---called Host Neighbors---of Seeds of Promise took full reins of their local governing council known as the Host Neighbor Community Leadership Council (HNCLC). They took full reins by electing themselves after a process we created together. The decisions to create the HNCLC and the election process by what was then 17 resident leaders could be a model for those in Washington, D.C. Who knows, the plan and expectation by observers is that Seeds may sprout up many places.
Prior to that time, they were patiently learning and practicing self-governance in 2012-2013. Another five of them just replaced the founding Board of Directors. In May 2015 they are soon saying goodbye to their contractual coach and project manager---me! It is my last year where in each of the past two, I have gradually reduced in time. I decrease so that these talented men and women can increase! And are they ever doing that! But what is this organization that has actually acted upon what is still only spoken of as the new and necessary idea of doing civic engagement from the grassroots as opposed to the grasstops?
Seeds of Promise is a 501 (c) 3 organization otherwise known by its founder Ron Jimmerson as a 'community laboratory' serving a specific neighborhood of the Dickinson Academy area in the southeast side of Grand Rapids, Michigan with 2,000 neighborhood residents. Please be assured that the guiding word of 'laboratory' is literal at Seeds. Looking past systemic inequality and racism, Seeds of Promise gives residents the permission, resources and personal support that allow them to try something new within the start and stumble of solving their own problems.
The area is 55% African-American, 29% Hispanic, and with a small White population at 12%. The percentage of those residents below the poverty level is 39%. The distinctive in its community development work is that it is designed to have its solutions created and managed by residents themselves. One man's dream, vision for social impact of an inner-city neighborhood along with his spiritual faith created such innovation. However, he cites many founding partners. From God to the banker and student, Ron cites many founding partners indeed.
This hybrid of social entrepreneurship and local self-governance is committed to neighborhood self-transformation through collaboration. As it stands that collaboration is with 53 endorsing partners to build community leadership, perform continuous deep listening with residents and to empower the community to meet needs in the areas of employment, economic development, education, environment, health and wellness, and other social impact areas.
I had the pleasure to write the community governance grant, administer it, and the project that is training those 28 resident leaders (and more counting!) funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Training new leaders starts next week again! Every other thing that I tell you is done by residents, their growing sense of self, their talent and the benevolence from others through volunteer time. The grant supports those residents through 12 governance training modules, provides stipends to them in acknowledging their time in training and project activity (that only can start after they finish training), provides funding support for their projects and other classes and training of their preparation to lead people, projects and the whole program!
There are many narrative reports, evaluations, news articles and an upcoming economic impact report on what Seeds of Promise has done. For a brief moment though, here is what the Host Neighbor resident leaders have accomplished in less than two years:
-Completed 15 of their own self-created and self-directed projects within their block areas. Those projects included creating public safety awareness and engagement activities for 160 residents (by a resident leader on her block who never hardly met her neighbors before!), neighborhood-wide and street focused neighborhood clean-up projects, and bringing together the city government and residents to repair long neglected infrastructure on a specific street.
-After bylaws and Governance I and II training, they created their own governing constitution for the HNCLC. They governed their own election as well----selecting four of their peers for Chairperson, Vice Chairperson, Secretary and Treasurer. The HNCLC governs the Host Neighbor wide decisions via vote on Host Neighbor projects, external partnerships, some funding programs and other important matters to the resident leaders as a whole. Currently, they have made 14 full group votes on such matters.
-Managed a $25,000 financial education and business competition that prepared residents in financial literacy and a business investment contest (for neighborhood entrepreneurs in the Seeds Zone only) that awarded various $10,000 investments. Progress Strategies+ wrote this grant initiative funded by Fifth Third Bank-----but the residents, the bank, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women and the Inner City Christian Federation administered and implemented it!
-Coordinated with the the Co-founder to hire two community members with developmental disabilities for meaningful project support work with Seeds of Promise and the Host Neighbors. Progress Strategies+ wrote this grant funded by the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition (MDRC), but resident leaders---particularly Host Neighbor John Davis along with Ron Jimmerson---developed and coordinated the hiring process of two individuals with developmental disabilities. One is still with Seeds of Promise after the end of the MDRC grant!
-A team of 10 Host Neighbors after training voted to partner with Grand Rapids Public Schools not only to create neighborhood awareness for the school district's transformation plan, but to create and coordinate an engagement process to re-purpose their local school. Throughout the summer of 2013, they developed a survey and process that engaged almost 500 residents on recommended changes of the school's name and theme. Once an elementary school, this now-PK through Eighth grade school is the new Dickinson Academy with a cultural diversity theme. The Board of Education confirmed the resident recommendations through their vote. On Saturday, May 24th Host Neighbor Kalif Akbar is presenting awards to children at the school who have completed his programs. Kalif is also is a custodian at the school and will be completing his Seeds supported projects, the Booker T. Washington program (his guiding kids facing detention to do meaningful tasks instead) and the Carter G. Woodson program (his reading program for kids).
-Putting final touches on a new version of the then-Seeds Center For Urban and Social Entrepreneurship that trained neighborhood residents in jobs where 19 of them were placed with a local manufacturing company.
-Successfully advocated twice before their local planning commission to stop the proliferation of two liquor stores in their neighborhood.
I could go on and cite more. They also work with six impact teams of outside organization experts to create resident based solutions on a grand scale in areas such as health, education and job/wealth creation. These grassroots leaders have just begun! Such leadership is notable because they are among a group of 28 resident leaders---88% who never were involved in civic engagement before and are now governing their council, the 501 (c) 3 itself, creating their own community improvement projects, directing grant funds and other decisions that are making social and community impact in the Dickinson Academy/Seeds of Promise Zone area. It is my pleasure to implement and deliver a community governance structure for them in addition to the relationship that I have built with these residents.
Some thoughts as I know well regarding how they are doing so many things usually reserved for 'professional' leaders:
1. A system of inherent trust in the resident's ability to manage their own affairs. Through models that Ron Jimmerson brings from Cascade Engineering along with Ken Steensma's Help Build Community (HBC) resident leadership model, the entire approach purposefully initiates community improvement from the down-up.
2. Continuous governance coaching and 12 modules of technical training and interactive governance presentations by Progress Strategies+ added with two from Ron Jimmerson in Diversity and Problem Solving methods from HBC. The modules range from the details of training residents on how to identify problems, craft specific and measurable solutions, work with endorsing partners in governance (organizational operations and board governance) and computer training for their issued laptops.
3. Measurements and indicators from Grand Valley State University's Sustainability office (provided by its director, former Seeds board member and now advisory member, Norman Christopher---and his student interns). Their data that measures economic impact will be showing that for the second year in a row, Seeds of Promise is making economic impact close to a million dollars with the limited and light amount of resources (businesses would love this) of tangible funds and volunteer time. I keep imagining what more they could do with more funds.
In terms of new approaches to lingering problems and a new method of social justice/responsibility/entrepreneurship that I abide by, here is what it is all about in summation....in the words of Ron Jimmerson:
"Seeds of Promise is a 501(c)3, but with a different strategy in waging the War on Poverty that started 50 years ago under Lyndon Johnson. Since then we have only seen a 1% decrease in the poverty rate, with trillions of dollars poured into this war in just the last year alone. Seeds of Promise understands that historically the strategy for reducing poverty has not achieved its desired outcome. Significant resources have been invested, yet there is growing concern about increasing poverty in our urban centers, with all the money being poured into this process which does not encourage work, savings, investments or entrepreneurship.
“Top down” money for the War on Poverty in our urban center has not worked, and then came Seeds of Promise, taking the best practices from the Cascade Engineering Triple Bottom Line, with people being its most important access. With the help of Grand Valley State University and Sustainable Community Development Initiative we are learning how to make a community sustainable and prosperous without the “top down” money. We have also sought the help of Help Build Community, with its “Bottom Up” concept of community governance. Now we have Seeds of Promise, with a New War on Poverty that gives hope, to the hopeless, power to powerless, and prosperity to those who seek it."
Some of those who were hopeless are now running things! Check them out at their site. See 'News" for their newsletter or visit them at other sections at: seedsofpromise.net
Eric K. Foster is Principal and President of Progress Strategies+, a project management consultancy specializing in five areas of social responsibility (Diversity & Inclusion, Community Engagement Strategies, Grant Writing/Project Management, Public Policy & Advocacy and Corporate Social Responsibility). He also finds it hard to call this profiled organization a client. They are his family.
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