What does it take for a group of strangers to build trust among one other when they can only gather virtually?
How can philanthropy help not just nonprofits, but everyday people wield power?
Can community leaders shape a more equitable future even as they fight for residents’ basic, daily needs?
These are a few of the questions the Changemakers Network grant program, a new initiative of The Chicago Community Trust, is seeking to answer. The program is supporting resident-led networks to collaborate, build collective power, and together drive local change. The Trust has provided $1.5 million in grants to 18 community organizations and grassroots leaders, and established a community of practice—a sustained meeting of the minds, where participants are working together over the next two years to develop strategies that accelerate community-driven change.
Envisioned well before the COVID-19 pandemic but launched in the midst of it, this new community of practice has become both more complex to facilitate—and more urgent.
“This work has always been important,” said Maritza Bandera, the Trust’s program manager who is working closely with the Network. “The Changemakers Network is connecting us with people on the ground, organizers who are telling us, ‘This is what we’re hearing, this is what we’re seeing.’ The goal is to ensure that individuals who are the hardest hit are the ones informing and helping to shape policy.”
The Network is the perhaps the most direct way the Trust is building collective power, one of the key strands in its strategy to close the region’s racial and ethnic wealth gap. The concept is to ensure regular people are prepared, willing, and able to hold the powers that be—including philanthropy—accountable. It’s not a new concept for Chicago, the birthplace of community organizing, where the likes of Saul Alinsky and Barack Obama honed their leadership skills.
We are not designing the agenda for our grant recipients, but rather creating the space for them to come together, deepen relationships, establish a culture of participation, and co-design their own agenda.
“What’s really exciting about the Changemakers Network is that these are leaders and groups that are investing in the power of ordinary people at the resident level,” said Ra Joy, the consultant working with the Trust to facilitate the community of practice. “The quintessential question of power in civic life is, ‘Who decides?’ In the Chicago region, will life and death decisions be driven in a top-down, need-to-know way, or will solutions generate from the people? We want to make sure the communities who are most marginalized are the architects and not simply the objects of public policy.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has required Joy, Bandera, and the participants to think differently about how the community of practice gathers and what is needed for the group to get off to a great start. For example, prior to the first group meeting in May, Joy and Bandera talked one-on-one with participants and heard from many that digital organizing, as is currently required to protect everyone from COVID-19, poses a range of challenges. Some are using part of their grant to purchase new laptops, while others have asked for support to become more fluent with platforms such as Zoom.
Once these resource needs have been met, the next step, said Joy, is building trust among participants.
“All of the participants are leaders by nature, which makes weaving together the various movements and missions incredibly fun. But oftentimes these groups have been pitted against each other because of the competition for philanthropic dollars and visibility,” said Joy. “It’s refreshing for them to have some room, and to have philanthropy show up in a very different way. It’s about building trust, building something together, and building it in a time of uncertainty where there’s an appetite to see transformative change happen.”
“One always works better when sharing feelings and thoughts and experiences with others,” said Leone Jose Bicchieri, executive director of Working Family Solidarity, which unites low and moderate-income families, especially African American and Latinx, to fight together for equitable development. “[The Changemakers Network] helps us to feel connected and supported.”
Although the Changemakers Network was not established as a response to the pandemic, the current context sheds light on the pressing realities that face community organizers.
“COVID-19 has revealed, once again, how African American and Latinx communities suffer disproportionately,” said Bicchieri. “COVID-19 did not create our society’s gross inequalities, but it is exposing them.”
“For far too many people in our region, these are constant questions: How do I pay my rent, feed my family, get stable employment?” said Bandera. “If people’s everyday basic needs aren’t met, they can’t be active in their broader activist agendas.”
Ultimately, the hope is that the Changemakers Network can go beyond meeting basic community needs to develop collective strategies that shape a more equitable future. As the group builds trust, said Joy, the next step will be building their collective organizing muscle.
“We are not designing the agenda for our grant recipients, but rather creating the space for them to come together, deepen relationships, establish a culture of participation, and co-design their own agenda,” said Joy. “Obviously we are in a moment of peril, and these organizations and organizers are ready to meet the moment—and imagine a better way in the future.”