The work of creating racial equity will take time and involve countless conversations and collaborations among organizations and individuals. Many of these efforts will focus on specific areas and represent new initiatives. And, there also is work that was started long before the non-violent protests and demonstrations began two weeks ago calling for lasting change.
Since November, leaders of nonprofit organizations that are part of the Communities of Color Grant cohort in Battle Creek have been meeting regularly to develop strategies to better position themselves individually and as a group to access philanthropic dollars and create better working relationships with potential funders. Initial funding for their work was provided in September, 2019 by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation which gave a $250,000 three-year Catalyzing Community Giving grant to the United Way Battle Creek Kalamazoo Region.
Catalyzing Community Giving cohort members include VOCES, Burma Center, Southwestern Michigan Urban League, RISE, New Level Sports Ministries, Pastor Richard Bailey, Dr. Elishae Johnson, and the A. Philip Randolph Institute of Battle Creek.
The United Way BCKR is using these funds to help nonprofit organizations in Battle Creek continue to raise philanthropic dollars in communities of color while engaging donors around issues that disproportionately affect vulnerable children and families in those communities.
Initial meetings of the Catalyzing Community Giving cohort focused on surveying the philanthropic landscape in Battle Creek, says Nakia Baylis, Ph.D., Director of Data & Equitable Systems for United Way BCKR. However the spread of the coronavirus into the community in March shifted the cohort’s focus because of the way it was disproportionately impacting Communities of Color.
On June 2, WKKF gave a $240,000 grant to the UWBCKR to fund its continuing work to equip Communities of Color to tackle immediate and chronic needs, especially those heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Of those total grant dollars, $140,000 went to overall basic needs support in greater Battle Creek through United Way BCKR’s Disaster Relief Fund; and $100,000 addresses needs specific to Battle Creek’s African American, Burmese and Latino populations as part of the WKKF-CCG initiative.
“COVID-19 forced the cohort to dive deeper and move faster,” Baylis says. “They’re still in the phase of learning what each of the cohorts was doing around philanthropy, what’s important now and into the future, and how United Way and our networks support those efforts.
“We’re trying to be intentional in relinquishing that power to Communities of Colors and supporting them so they can carry it forward.”
Cohort members will decide among themselves how that $100,000 will be allocated. They are looking at that pool of funds with different goals in mind for long-term investment in the community that will create movement beyond the pandemic and relationship building.
Baylis says they also received an additional $37,500 to be used for disaster relief efforts from the WKKF. These funds were going to be used for a conference in April that was canceled because of COVID-19. She says members of the cohort were charged with deciding among themselves how that money would be allocated “because they feel some may need the money more than others.”
“We’re staying close-knit and focusing on how we can help the community more so than just each individual organization,” says Deboraha L. Sallee, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute Greater BC Chapter. “We’re all supposed to get a certain amount and decide what each organization plans on doing with it. We have not come up with a definite plan, but we’re also trying to work together so we don’t run into each other. We're focusing on using it wisely.”
The goal of the most recent grant is to support Communities of Color around philanthropy in a different way so they can have increased access to funding and resources and grow the work they do for the communities they serve, Baylis says. Their work entails capacity building so that each organization will be represented in a way they decide on, she says.
“We are looking at ‘What are the needs of each organization’ and looking at urgent needs versus those that could wait,” says Tha Par, Executive Director of the Burma Center. “We want to have an equitable lens on how to distribute the funds and have accountability among each other.”
The issues that have risen to the top for the Catalyzing Community Giving cohort are finding ways to reach out and provide assistance with COVID-related needs and more recently issues around ongoing and increased police brutality involving African Americans.
“There’s a lot of need for healing right now, especially in the Black community,” Par says.
As these efforts continue, Par cites examples of the way in which cohort members are working together to solve a particular challenge in their individual communities. She says her organization attempted for one month to do their own food distribution with emergency food kits they received from the Southwest Michigan Food Bank. These food kits contained non-perishable items which is not “what my people eat,” Par says.
The Burma Center recently partnered with RISE (Reintegration to Support and Empower) which has been doing distributions of free food, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene products every Friday since early April at Washington Heights Methodist Church. Fresh fruits and vegetables are among the food they are giving out, which Par says is more attractive to the Burmese community.
“We looked at how we could maybe partner with RISE and VOCES and this is what it looks like to address food insecurity. Symbolically, that’s beautiful,” Par says. “That’s probably one of most beautiful things that came out of COVID, how interdependent we are on each other and how we have the power to provide services.”
Although not a result of the relationships built within the cohort, more than 200 face masks sewn by Burmese residents were given to families in need. Par says the Burma Center works with members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church who have been teaching Burmese refugees how to sew as a way to earn money.
She says the face mask initiative began in April because of a significant number of COVID-positive cases in the Burmese community that prompted officials with Grace Health to get in touch with them about the need for masks.
Baylis says COVID-19 has presented many opportunities of connection for cohort members.
“This is a human problem and this allows them to network and build relationships with organizations differently and more meaningfully,” she says. “At the end of this three-year grant cycle each of these organizations and community leaders will be so well positioned and will have developed such strong relationships in different communities that we will see them networking with organizations they never would have in the past.”
Sallee says A. Philip Randolph Institute became involved with the cohort because she wanted to elevate her organization’s presence with other groups and work with them as a way to help further the mission.
“I think it’s a good process,” she says of the Catalyzing Community Giving cohort. “We’re all hard workers and each organization has some dreams of their own. The projects we’re doing now are healthy for the community.”
One of the jobs of the cohort is to give the United Way BCKR information about how United Way and other funders need to change their practices and processes so they can have better working relationships with organizations that represent Communities of Color.
Baylis says they are asking questions now such as "What organizations are engaged in strong efforts in Communities of Color that may not have funded extensively in the past?" "How can we partner with them and be better partners with better relationships?"
Another matter to be dealt with is that the philanthropic sector speaks its own language.
“Even though we speak the same language, there’s a language barrier and that came out of last listening session” Baylis says. “There are translation issues between COC and the philanthropic sector. Cohort members want to learn that language.”
In addition to learning the language of the philanthropic sector, there are also capacity issues that must be addressed.
Typically People-of-Color-led organizations tend to be smaller and often don’t have the capacity — the staff or volunteers — to really go after larger funding opportunities, Baylis says.
“We are making sure that they have access to and are eligible for and very competitive within their ability to access those funds,” she says. “We’ve seen that play out in the wake of COVID-19 where they have been able to access so much more in funding in a short period of time.”
At the start of the cohort’s work there were apprehensions, Baylis says, because these community conversations have happened before with nothing to show for them.
“From that first listening session the power in that space was so palpable and so different because we provided a safe place of mutual trust,” she says.
The work of reaching out to funders is ultimately in the hands of those Communities of Color organizations seeking funding, but Baylis says the United Way BCKR will work with them to connect them, in addition to providing technical support. Some of these support service activities are already happening.
Because the cohort is Person-of-Color-led, Baylis says the leaders of these organizations are used to struggling to access necessary resources they need to support community needs. She says this effort has really highlighted what a difference it can make to have leaders and organizations that “look like you to support you in a different way.”
But, this different way brings about greater pressure on the cohort to get this right, Baylis says.
“How that $100,000 will be invested into Communities of Color is not solidified yet,” she says. “They will be thinking about the impact that investment will have, what it’s going to look like and what kind of message it’s going to send to the community.
“One thing I know with absolute certainty is that these leaders are strong, knowledgeable and capable of moving things, changing systems and solving problems in a meaningful way.”