Generating ideas, connections, and action

Breaking New Ground in Leadership Development: What’s Money Got To Do With It?

In keeping with the theme of Creating Space X it seemed only appropriate to be on the lookout for innovations in approaches to supporting and developing leadership.  Linetta Gilbert of The Declaration Institute, called a session on how to reach people who are being left behind.  I was intrigued and moved to attend.  I believe that everyone has leadership potential but I am not sure that we have begun to wrap our minds around what it would mean to reach everyone who wants to lead (or maybe in their words, “make a difference in their community” and provide them with the support and resources they need to succeed.  I am very carefully avoiding the terminology of “leadership development” which for good reason always sparks some good controversy, but which is a topic for another blog. 

A number of participants who came to Creating Space X were from a program that was on our radar screen, Community Connections.  Probably my only disappointment at CSX was not getting to go out to dinner with Lisa Leverette, the director of this program (so many great people and so little time).  I had been reading about the work of Community Connections and wanted to know more.  One of Lisa’s colleagues, Dawn Wilson, was in our small group of people discussing how to reach the people left behind.  I was completely impressed with her humility as she talked about people who stepped up in ways that surprised her and were a reminder to her, and all of us, that we are surrounded by people who are not leading, not because they lack desire, but rather because they lack opportunity, resources, and sometimes the recognition of their potential.  With Dawn’s stories she taught all of us something about leadership and reinforced my early assumptions that this is a program worthy of attention.  

Thus far this is what I have learned about Community Connections, and I hope to continue to learn more. Community Connections is a grants program that was begun by the Skillman Foundation and is currently jointly funded by the Skillman Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  The program was originally part of the Good Neighbors program that was focused on six, high-poverty areas in Detroit with the intention of getting resources closer to the ground.  The Community Connections program was designed to give on the ground organizers a chance to have access to money. The grants program provides opportunities to grassroots organizations to apply for grants of $500 - $5,000 per year for anything from athletics, civic engagement, community organizing, arts and culture, academic achievement, and college enrichment.  The grants funding is very flexible and they encourage youth and youth organizations to apply.  Even informal organizations and volunteers can apply and get money through a fiduciary organization.  The staff understands that there is a lot of informal leadership, people out there doing good work who are not working through 501C3s and they don’t want to limit them.

So what has this got to do with leadership?  The grants are reviewed by a community panel of change makers, some are previous grantees and some are community folks that have good judgment and knowledge about what is happening in their community. The program has been running for 7 years and some of the same people remain on the panel. The panel itself has been an important vehicle for leadership development.  Members of the panel have a balcony view of their community and receive training in how funding work and grantmaking.  They have collectively granted over 2 million dollars.  They are participating in conversations around the country about grassroots organizing. They are trusted in their communities and they understand the needs of grassroots folks.   They are changing the power structures in their communities. In the past, it was a group of elites from non-profit organizations who became gatekeepers for community resources and these people were often not in touch with the needs of the community. The panels are bringing new values to this work that put community driven solutions front and center. 

The Community Connections program is creating a new pipeline of community leaders.  This is action learning leadership, leading and developing capacity by doing.  Many leadership programs are based on a deficit approach to leadership, e.g. what skills or capacities or framework does this group of people need to be leaders.  The Community Connections program acknowledges that people in the community already have wisdom, knowledge and ideas and primarily lack resources (money) and some technical training on grantmaking.

I was talking today with a friend about the “table” metaphor.  What we often don’t say about the table is that it is usually a place of power and access to resources.  It is not uncommon to hear people talk about the need to get other voices “to the table.”  What is often not acknowledged in the formulation is that people at the table often control resources and that new comers to the table will not necessarily be equals in this regard.  By moving money into the community and giving people from the community authority over its use, Community Connections essentially create a ‘new table’ one that gives people real power and not a token seat at someone else’s table.  It raises interesting questions about community leadership programs and how we are investing in leadership capacity by bringing resources to people.



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