The Community Equity Project cohort fellows collected, shared, and reviewed extensive quantitative data. They were intent on understanding the inequities that plague Wilmington, but they also recognized that the data told only part of the story. They agreed quantitative data must be disaggregated to highlight the disparities. Further, the disaggregated data must also be narrated with lived experience that reveals the history, culture, beliefs, and structures that create and perpetuate inequities and that speak to the unique needs of each community. The fellows embraced the centrality of the community, emphasizing that the community must be empowered to define and lead the equity work. They recognized that equity work varies depending on the nuances and specifics of each individual community and, as such, community residents are best positioned to undertake authentic equity work. The community must take ownership over the development and progress in their own neighborhoods, using participatory action research, advocacy and change efforts on the issues they believe matter most. The fellows envisioned that an equitable Wilmington, in part, means that communities will share privilege to support the greater good; learn how to celebrate and value all individuals; and make decisions together.
The discovery team was tasked with exploring how to empower communities to lead the equity process. The team relied on their extensive experience and the experience of their network of organizers to identify the key elements of community involvement driven by and advancing equity. The team also offered an approach. Based on combined personal and professional experiences and on the information from the discovery team, the fellows developed a set of recommendations to facilitate moving communities to the center of equity efforts.
Empowering The Community: Key Elements
Placing the community at the center of equity work requires a shift across multiple vectors of impact, including process, structure, and policy. Equitable, fair, democratic decision-making and community driven development depends on two key elements: empowered communities and transformed organizations (discussed in Brief #3: Restructuring for Impact).
Although residents of communities and neighborhoods have the lived experience that allows them to lead the equity work, they need support to build capacity to do the work. Community organizers need to be identified, recruited and trained. Most importantly, they need to be compensated at a reasonable rate for their work. Communities need to be given the same information, including data, that organizational leaders, funders, and policymakers use to make decisions. Communities need to be prepared to embark on intentional equity work through education and awareness designed by trusted community leaders. And, finally, community leaders and organizers need to be funded to advance policies known to decrease inequities. These elements lead to a robust community organizing infrastructure designed to empower local leaders to drive decision making.
The fellows recognized that efforts to empower communities are unlikely without simultaneous organizational transformation. For the fellows, organizations include funders as well as government, business, and nonprofit organizations. Organizational leaders must listen to, learn from, and build trust with communities. They need to promote people with lived experience and ensure that their equity efforts are led by people with lived experience. They must share power and decision-making with community residents.
Prior to crafting a community-centered approach to achieving equity, the fellows first acknowledged the barriers to genuine community involvement. Equity is the harder work of co-designing solutions with communities that have historically not held power. It requires an acknowledgement of past injustices and valuing the lens and perspective of communities of color. The fellows noted that the existing philanthropic community typically funds direct services with key outputs, rather than investments in people and processes that are able to drive longer term systems change. They concluded that the lack of sustained movement toward equity has been the result of resource limitations, rooted in a traditional funding bias against financing grassroots community organizers and costs that are not directly related to a specific program. The fellows saw that a primary key to resolving these barriers is to fund stable positions for established grassroots community organizers in organizations who currently have high value policy agendas poised to advance equity in Wilmington. To this end, the fellows described a framework that empowers communities and places them at the center of equity efforts. The diagram below depicts that framework and provides an overview of its elements and the roles of key positions.
The fellows also noted the need to sustain the work of community organizers through what they called Grassroots Community Action Network (GCAN). The GCAN provides an infrastructure and format to link community organizers across Wilmington, enabling them to learn from and teach each other. The fellows envisioned the network’s primary purpose being rooted in long-term, sustainable change through advocacy and policy because lasting institutional and policy change occurs when the people most affected by issues lead efforts to develop solutions, and when those solutions address the root causes of disparities. The fellows also envisioned the network collaborating with organizational and philanthropic leaders as well as key advocacy groups, such as GameChangers, DelawareCAN, and the ACLU to name a few, to create a shared equity agenda and to align their implementation plans for greater impact.
The fellows summarized their work related to empowering communities in a set of recommendations. In general, they suggest promoting community-based capacity building by:
- Supporting grassroots organizing, awareness building and advocacy efforts
- Investing in community sourced ideas and resident leaders with lived experience
- Investing in equitable, community development and authentic community organizing efforts
More specifically, they recommended:
- Fund, at a justified rate ($55,000 to $65,000 with benefits) established grassroots community organizers working to promote advocacy work on high priority equity issues areas AND
- Invest in developing neighborhood-based leadership that identifies and promotes community driven policy and action, such as a Grassroots Community Action Network.
The fellows concluded that we will know if we are truly empowering communities by the number of community organizers driving policy and action related to a shared equity agenda and aligned implementation plans through the community action network.
The Community Equity Project cohort’s vision and the commitment to advance equity are influencing the work of the DCF. Explore DCF commitments and work at delcf.org/community.