Two years ago I was fortunate enough to be assigned the job of overseeing the Bradley Foundation’s support of grassroots and faith-based organizations in inner-city Milwaukee. I thought I was reasonably well prepared for the job. After all, I had cut my teeth in college working for local nonprofits, and I’d already spent two years at Bradley trying to get a handle on the ins and outs of the foundation world.
One of my first assignments was to make a site visit to Amazing Ministries, a drug and alcohol recovery ministry. I walked through the doors of the church, my heart swelling with ambition, and came out 90 minutes later, a sobbing wreck. The heartbreaking personal testimonies of three former drug addicts I had just met, complete with stories of prostitution, drug deals, deception, and shame, had erased whatever preconceived notions I had about so-called faith-based groups. My simplistic ideas about their benevolence were replaced by a deep desire to hear more testimonies and learn more about the gritty reality of inner-city life.
I work for a foundation that, having recognized the abject failure of many of the social experiments of the last 30 years, has made a long-term and unabashed commitment to finding and supporting neighborhood leaders who are quietly working to improve their communities. Our commitment to this approach is rooted in our belief that people should be viewed as active citizens who are both capable of running their own affairs and personally responsible for their actions.
A few reflections have emerged from my experiences in working with such individuals. I view these as guidelines for myself and others who wish to become involved with grassroots and faith-based groups that tend not to be easily classified, arranged, defined, or even described. Their methods are unconventional and so, too, deserve thoughtful, equally unconventional consideration.
I’ve learned that the inner city is not devoid of civic life. It is in fact filled with budding entrepreneurs, watchful neighbors, and loving parents who are already doing good things without the help of outside funds.
Twenty years ago in Milwaukee, a man named Victor Barnett launched the Running Rebels, a basketball program through which he taught young boys discipline and respect. He supported the Rebels out of his own pocket for 15 of those years simply because it pained him to think about what those kids would be doing without an alternative to running in the streets.
The Rebels began as one team. Through word of mouth, more and more kids showed up to play, in spite of the strict rules they would be required to follow. Barnett stressed the importance of formal education, making sure they received help with their homework. He stressed the importance of family, inviting parents to get involved. He stressed the importance of giving back to the community, organizing service projects for his players.
You probably haven’t heard about Victor Barnett because he’s not a self-promoter. He doesn’t have professional grant writers or a public relations department to put together eye-catching publicity packages. He doesn’t have time to massage local donors—like many people in his situation, Barnett has held down second jobs to support himself and his work.
I’ve also learned that neighborhood leaders need our resources more than they need our “expert” opinions. Residents of any given neighborhood are the very people who are most qualified to make decisions about how to address their own problems.
Cordelia Taylor is one such woman. Taylor revitalized an entire neighborhood in Milwaukee with her organization, Family House, not in concert with a sweeping, well-funded initiative launched by philanthropic experts or bureaucrats, but by responding to the needs of her community. Family House began as a decent, loving, faith-centered home for elderly residents of the community, but that doesn’t begin to describe the role it fulfills in its neighborhood. Taylor has put crack houses out of business, opened a free medical clinic, tutored kids, employed and nurtured former welfare recipients, and made her community safer just by stabilizing her neighborhood.
Yet for all they do, Family House and groups like it are overlooked by foundation program officers time and time again because such trained professionals can’t imagine that the solutions to the problems of blighted neighborhoods might actually be found right in the neighborhoods themselves. They certainly can’t believe that the residents there have been able to make serious, long-term improvements to their communities and change so many lives for the better without having brought in armies of social workers and other credentialed experts.
Family House is not an amalgamation of narrowly defined programs from which to pick and choose like items on a deli menu. It’s more of a neighborhood clearinghouse, and the duties of its employees change from day to day as priorities are reassessed. People go there because it’s safe and clean and because they feel loved, but that doesn’t make the place any easier to analyze from the perspective of a typical program officer who has to recommend grants against narrowly defined program categories. Top-notch grassroots, faith-based, character building groups like Family House deserve to be supported consistently and with general operating funds. They should not be forced to succumb to the trendy whims of the philanthropic macrocosm. They know how best to allocate funds in order to get things done.
I’ve also come to learn not to put too much stock in measurable outcomes. There’s a danger in equating measurability with value, because it leads to considering and appreciating only what one can count. Faith-based groups in particular would be hard-pressed to come up with an adequate quantitative representation of the work they do. Pastor Clarence Hill of Amazing Ministries—the subject of my first and most memorable site visit—reacts as follows when pressed to present statistics on the number of clients his recovery ministry has served: “Served? In what way?”
A woman I know from Amazing had been in and out of treatment programs 37 times. She stopped using drugs only after she came to Amazing and has been clean and sober for several years since. Did her prior treatment programs serve her with the same degree of effectiveness?
She’d been through the same treatment program a number of times, let’s say five times. In compiling outcomes reports, did the administrators of that program count her as five clients, for her five turns through the program, one client, because she’s one person, or no clients, because the program didn’t really serve her in the way it was supposed to? What would I do if I had to come up with the figures, knowing that the survival of my program may depend on them? Donors unwittingly impose such moral dilemmas on their grant recipients when they make it clear, as they often do in no uncertain terms, that the highest order of business is to produce a numerable return on their investments.
Forfeiting Bureaucratic Distance
This is not to say that quantitative information isn’t needed. Complete and thorough expenditure accounting and budget projections are obviously essential, capital projects need to be broken down into dollars per square foot, and costs need to be itemized. Clearly, though, insisting on quantitative results does not guarantee an efficient, effective program, and we must avoid the temptation to compel people to assign numerical values to things that defy such measurement.
Finally, I have learned that working with grassroots and faith-based groups is very personal. It’s difficult to remain detached and impartial, because the work is based on building relationships and earning trust over time. Such personal connections can make donors and program officers uncomfortable, and understandably so. Forfeiting the usual measure of bureaucratic distance has definitely made me question my judgment, my beliefs, and my commitments at various points along the way. But it has also brought great joy.
The realm of churches, schools, clubs, and other neighborhood groups is messy, duplicative, and political. For an outsider, just trying to get a feel for the fabric of a neighborhood is an energy-sapping task and sometimes an exercise in frustration. Some people take the path of least resistance, preferring to deal only with groups that appear to operate above the din of everyday neighborhood activity. I’ve learned that the deep commitment of people who have a personal stake in the revitalization of a neighborhood is requisite to achieving real, permanent change there. Just as the work of transforming lives and neighborhoods is difficult, tedious, and painstaking, the work of piecing it all together in one’s mind requires patience, diligence, and humility.
Alicia Campbell is a program officer with the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee.