New neighborhood grants program starts small, thinks big

Want to create change in a neighborhood? Start small and rely on residents as leaders in the effort.

That’s part of the approach of Community Connections, a small grants program piloted by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Zilber Family Foundation and Northwestern Mutual Foundation in 2014.

The program provides up to $500 in grants to projects, events and activities led by residents living and working in 21 eligible neighborhoods in Milwaukee and Waukesha. To date, 21 projects have been funded for a total of $8,835.

Not only does the program support residents, but it’s run by them too. Ten graduates of the Neighborhood Leadership Institute, a nine-month training program funded by the three foundations, make up the committee that reviews and scores the grant proposals.

“By putting residents in the position of making the recommendations and making the decisions about what is funded, I think we actually tap into a level of information, knowledge and local wisdom that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to support,” said Susan Lloyd, Zilber Family Foundation’s executive director.

Reviewers were trained how to evaluate the grants, with “the understanding that it is not necessarily about awarding the money; it’s about rewarding the ideas that really benefit the community,” said committee member and Metcalfe Park resident Bregetta Wilson.

Each grant applicant needs to present a project that has at least three residents involved, one of whom is required to live or work in the neighborhood. Applicants also are required to provide matching support, whether monetary or in kind.

Some of the approved ideas include positive body image workshops for teen girls in Sherman Park; a community book club in Lindsay Heights and an effort to install more security cameras in the alleys in Grasslyn Manor.

“Being able to give opportunities like this to residents can create a lot of change in the communities we live and work in,” said Wilson, noting that it’s been a learning experience for both reviewers and grantees. “Having residents taking the lead is definitely something that is empowering and it makes me feel good about being able to say ‘This is something we’ve accomplished together as a community.’”

It’s been a learning experience for the foundations as well. While simple in concept, the program marked a new way of doing things for the three, which each had distinctive grantmaking processes. But they shared a desire to increase residents’ leadership capacity and wanted to build off of the success of the leadership institute, said Darlene Russell, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s senior program officer. Each foundation contributed $10,000 toward Community Connections.

Based on feedback from residents, the foundations have made improvements to the process along the way. They’ve added more orientation sessions and provided more technical assistance and plan to increase the amount of money available for grants. The foundations hope to regularly reconvene residents whose projects have been funded so they can share best practices, create new relationships and further build community.

Already a number of grantees, like Tree of Life Earthworks, have expanded upon their original projects. Ceramic artist Lori Gramling and three fellow artists with Tree of Life noticed all of the creative talent in their surrounding neighborhood and wanted to help mentor youth and help them develop their talents. Gramling received a $500 grant during the program’s first grant cycle to convert the first floor of a carriage house in her back yard into a ceramic class studio and community gathering space. They used the money on supplies like tables, clays, glazes and lighting. Their studio now offers classes to area kids and adults on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Gramling has applied for another grant, this time looking to create art in the alleyways surrounding the studio.

“(The grant) takes it one step further and gives it that community support and encouragement,” Gramling said. “We don’t have aspirations of becoming this big thing but we would like to continue to doing things like this. It makes a big change in the neighborhood.”

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