Ad*vo*cate: a person who speaks or writes in support or defense of a person, cause, etc.
Lob*by*ist: a person who takes part in an organized attempt to influence legislators.
The difference between the two feels quite nuanced doesn’t it? And, to add to the confusion, the rules for private foundations are slightly different than the rules for charities. With the extraordinary proposals coming down in the federal tax reform effort, my organization, the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, is spending a lot of time in this space right now. Truth be told, everyone that works in, benefits from, and supports our social sector should be in engaged as well.
One of the primary roles that the Council plays for our members is that of advocate. The proposed changes to the federal tax code include a number of elements that either directly impact the operations of foundations or stand to dramatically impact the work of grantees or both.
We have done a lot of outreach to New Jersey’s Congressional delegation and senators to let them know CNJG’s perspective on those issues that affect or concern foundations.
For instance, a key aspect of the legislation is to raise the standard deduction. Sounds like a good thing right? Except that now far fewer people will be able to itemize their tax return — which means they can’t take advantage of the charitable deduction. In fact, it means that 95 percent of tax filers will actually pay tax on their charitable deductions! It is for this reason that so many of us are concerned — if the incentive to give to charities goes away the loss in charitable giving is estimated to be as much as $13 billion.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the proposal to create a Universal Charitable Deduction, which would not only counter this loss but in fact open up the incentive to all taxpayers. It didn’t make it into either the House or Senate versions, but we are hopeful it might be taken up again when they take up welfare reform, which is apparently up next.
Or, perhaps you’ve heard about the effort by a very small group of conservative churches to have the Johnson Amendment repealed. This amendment, named for then-Senator Lyndon Johnson who championed the law, assures that charities are not allowed to endorse candidates or engage in “electioneering.”
There has been a large national movement to explain to elected official why repealing this amendment is very, very bad idea. Can you imagine the influence a donor, looking to advance one candidate over another, could exercise over a charity to endorse “his guy”? Or the boardroom of a charity now faced with the question of whether to endorse the current Mayor or the challenger? For a private foundation that wants to provide general operating support how can they be assured that a grantee won’t sign onto endorsing a candidate that the foundation has no interest in supporting? To learn more read an op-ed that my colleague Linda Czipo of the Center for Non-Profits and I authored in NJ Spotlight.
From taxing charities with supposedly “highly compensated” employees and flattening the excise tax that private foundations play, to requiring increased reporting for donor-advised funds, we are watching closely the negotiations between the Senate and House as the legislation comes through conference committee.
As this landmark tax legislation moves forward it is critical that all those who give to, work in, and steward our nation’s charities which are essential and integral threads of our society’s fabric — understand what these far-reaching changes will mean. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources and organizations (many that I’ve linked to here) that can help you understand and help you to connect with your elected officials to share your thoughts.
Imagine walking into an airy, beautiful, contemporary building with 50,000 poetry books, one of the largest audio and video archives of poetry in the word, a small theater for readings, spaces dedicated to workshops, meetings and conferences, and its own little cottage for visiting poets. The odds are, if you’re reading this blog, you’re among the people who will appreciate what a rare experience it would be.
The Poetry Coalition Meeting in Tucson | Photo: Tyler Meier of The Poetry Center
It would take a poem to describe the feeling of standing in the main library of the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center in Tucson, looking around at the stacks, and trying to imagine the time, resources, work and perseverance that went into creating it. People, many people, chose to bring this place into existence and keep it thriving. Even in these times, there are people making a space for poetry, not only in their own lives, but for everyone.
That spirit is also behind the work of The Poetry Coalition, a group of the largest poetry non-profit organizations who are working together to bring poetry into more people’s lives. When we met in Arizona this past weekend, we all felt the power of the place we were in, not only the physical place of the Poetry Center, but the collaborative one created by our gathering together for a common purpose: to increase the visibility of the art form and demonstrate its unique ability to spark dialogue and encourage empathy.
One of the things we accomplished was to choose a shared theme for our March 2018 national series of poetry events: Poetry and the Body. This marks the second year that over twenty poetry organizations will present events on a common theme. Each organization brings its own approach, so check back with us at Dodge, and follow the Poetry Coalition news for information about events in your area.
After a day of meetings, we traveled to the Phoenix Art Museum for a reading by Sandra Cisneros, Rita Dove and Joy Harjo, hosted by Natalie Diaz in partnership with ArchiTEXTS: A Conversation Across Languages. Listening to those three powerful voices reminded all of us in the coalition that, yes, this is why we do the work we do.
“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”
– Toni Morrison
As part of research for Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation exploring how philanthropy can support diverse, inclusive newsrooms, I visited local newsrooms, interviewed experts and community groups, sat with journalists and listened.
Leaders agree on the importance of innovation yet few can consistently agree on what it actually means or how it looks in a newsroom context. The journalism field is often seen reacting to disruption and an ever-changing digital media landscape rather than driving and defining change for itself. This reactive dynamic directly impacts diversity in newsroom innovation.
In absence of industry-shaping what innovation means for itself, news media startups tend to walk the similar, unfocused path set by Silicon Valley and often build products with an eye toward securing venture funding first and foremost rather than serving and informing the public. Furthermore, the same diversity challenges in journalism are heightened and exacerbated within the venture-backedtechnology industry.
The effectiveness of this approach is short-sighted and does not lend itself to sustainability. While the need for innovative, diverse journalism remains more pressing than ever, the venture funding environment has remained tough. Last year, venture funding to media startups hit a four-year low.
“The decline in venture funding comes amid a moment of reckoning across the digital media landscape. Web publishers like Mashable Inc. and International Business Times have fired dozens of employees this year. Smaller players are seeking new business models as they struggle to sustain themselves on digital advertising, which is being increasingly dominated by Google and Facebook Inc. Many of them are shifting their business to focus on web video, where advertising rates are higher.”
In the vacuum of redefining innovation in a journalism context, media startups are beholden to the Silicon Valley’s standards for innovation: growth, scale, and speed. While those conditions may work in some newsrooms, those metrics of success do not translate for local and hyperlocal newsrooms. In this context, these newsrooms are experiencing growth but work and function at a different pace and scale. Venture funding is one method, but there is a myriad of other paths to carve for media funders seeking to support innovative, diverse journalism that strengthens communities and serve the public.
There is an opportunity for journalism funders to study, support and build upon innovations in other fields and incorporate those products and tools into newsrooms. An example of this can be seen with CrowdTangle, a publisher tool embraced by newsrooms large and small backed by several venture funds as well as Knight Foundation’s Enterprise Fund. The tool was first developed to support activist organizing efforts during Occupy Wall Street. The social dashboard tool was later acquired by Facebook continuing the complicated tightrope walk between Facebook and publishers.
Generally speaking, the journalism field has defaulted to the Silicon Valley definition for innovation, a standard that holds even in face of failure. A recent example of this can be seen with Circa, a venture-backed news app once heralded as the future of civic media.
“It’s with great disappointment that we let you know that Circa News has been put on indefinite hiatus. Producing high-quality news can be a costly endeavor and without the capital necessary to support further production we are unable to continue.”
There is a mission misalignment when newsroom innovations are sourced from companies which exist first and foremost to deliver a return for its investors and not to serve or inform the public or strengthen communities. After Circa shut down operations in 2015, it later sold remaining assets to pro-Trump media conglomerate Sinclair Broadcasting Group.
Larger well-resourced newsrooms have approached this innovation challenge by building out internal research & development units. These R&D labs are often expensive to run, focused on branded content and are quickly shuttered. The research and development unit within the New York Times, NYTLabs, closed last year and will relaunch as Times Story[X], a division that will work closely with TBrandStudio, the internal brand marketing unit within the New York Times. Buzzfeed’s research and development unit, Open Lab, was its in-house open source innovation lab and ran for two years. It hosted Open Lab fellows, cohorts of technologists, developers, and journalists and regularly hosted hacker/maker gatherings. Buzzfeed announced it was closing its Open Lab, citing in a company memo, “As we near the end of our original two-year commitment, we’ve learned that there are better ways to integrate new technologies into BuzzFeed’s mission.” The Washington Post research and development unit, WaPo Labs, was not apart of the newspaper’s sale to Jeff Bezos, it was spun into a company called Trove before ultimately shutting down in 2015.
This grand opening/grand closing clip of internal research and development labs exacerbate the problem of approaching innovation from operating within a silo, instead of collaboratively with communities or by integrating product and solutions-building in close partnership with those who hold in-depth knowledge of internal newsroom challenges.
Innovation Matters: Invest in Collaborative & Sustainable Practices for R&D
A shared challenge among many journalists interviewed for this project included unpacking both institutional and resource constraints to approaching innovation in newsrooms. These challenges include building and adapting new systems to doing business, iterating on hiring procedures or remaking job descriptions to be more inclusive, and also shared challenges around developing and integrating technology tools for covering diverse, shifting communities in new and thoughtful ways.
Several journalists interviewed lead side projects and affinity groups of like-minded peers also interested in building solutions. Many had participated in events such as Hacking Journalism, This American Life’s Audio Hackathon or open data unconferences. These convenings proved valuable in building trusted relationships and communities that engined momentum for projects. Universally, journalists interviewed for this project expressed energetic hope for what was possible for the field. Unfortunately, they also expressed resignation at the lack of mechanisms for continuous support to integrate systems and tools developed after-hours back into their newsrooms.
In this context, the practice of innovation and solutions-building becomes siloed to nights and weekends, which is both unsustainable and an approach that neglects the most likely source for the future of journalism: journalists themselves and the communities they cover.
One journalist shared:
“I feel as though participating in these events gave me the opportunity to be both a learner and an expert. It exposed me to new ideas and fresh ways to approach covering communities and improve how my colleagues and I work. But trying to take those ideas back to my newsroom felt like hitting a brick wall. To make the case internally on implementing or simply testing new tools was really hard to the point that it became a distraction from my actual job. It’s ironic because these skills and learning experiences are absolutely crucial to doing journalism well. That is my job.”
The journalism field does not suffer from a dearth of ideas of how to improve the field and build the future of news. There are, however, a shortage of pathways for journalists and communities to continuously and collaboratively test, iterate, fund and implement innovative ideas in sustainable, collaborative local ecosystems.
To that end, the Coral Project, a joint initiative by Mozilla, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Knight Foundation is a refreshing antidote to the siloed approach some news organizations take to research and development. It is collaborative, the software the project stewards is open-sourced and the development and integration of new technology products are community-driven. The outlets part of the initiative “wanted to join forces to improve commenting, invite reader interaction, and expand our notions of audience engagement beyond comment moderation. The project aims to help publishers foster meaningful conversations with readers on their own sites,” explained in the Columbia Journalism Review.
“The Coral Project has been an unprecedented partnership that took on one of the industry’s biggest challenges: improving the digital dialogue about the news. Its exhaustive research, which included collaborating with hundreds of journalists around the world, has produced technology and best practices that will have a lasting impact on the way newsrooms and readers engage with each other,”
The Washington Post is the first publication to use the Talk system, “the Coral Project is in talks with a number of other outlets who didn’t want to be among the earliest adopters,” Nieman reports.
Newsrooms suffer from risk-aversion and innovation is inherently risky. Adaptation patterns indicate that newsrooms comfortable testing new solutions are outlets large enough to mitigate the potential downfalls but also large enough to reap the rewards of first mover advantage.
There is an opportunity for media funders to mitigate risk for smaller, local and hyperlocal newsrooms. But to do so, it must also seek to reframe and redefine innovation for this specific newsroom context. There is potential to reimagine R&D from a technology-centered orientation to community-centered orientation.
Invest in Community Expertise
To build diverse, informed communities, journalism funders should explore more inclusive, iterative methods to fund innovation. The lack of diversity within venture-backed companies reinforces the constraints women and people of color experience building and scaling technology products. There is an innovation Venn diagram in play: women and people of color not only make up the fastest growing segment of entrepreneurs but also represent rapidly increasing audiences for local newsrooms. Diverse newsroom leaders building products and relationships at hackathons and after-hour work sessions are already shaping the future of news.
There is an opportunity for media funders to directly influence the rate and face of newsroom innovation by meeting these leaders where they are, listening to their unique needs, and designing accessible systems to support them.
A Technology Case: Say This, Not That
Listening and building upon the expertise among us is a resource all newsrooms can leverage. Tapping into this innovative capital requires recognizing gaps in our understanding, the humanity in other people’s lived experiences and seeing the space between these two realities as an opportunity to elevate the standards of journalism. This requires looking beyond traditional innovation labs and tapping into the expertise of communities around us.
Yee Won Chong is a management consultant who regularly leads racial and workplace equity initiatives to support foundations, nonprofits and community organizations seeking to build and live inclusive values. Yee Won is a transgender activist from Malaysia, earned political asylum in the United States and as a college student bootstrapped an independent newspaper in college called The Other Press (or The O-Pressed for short). Yee Won is the co-founder of Say This, Not That, “an online platform that identifies harmful words and phrases in copy — any written content you choose to analyze. Then, STNT offers alternative words that are more inclusive and compassionate, with detailed explanations.”
In an interview with me, Yee Won describes the experience where they recognized such a tool would be transformative for their field, “As a communications person I have to think a lot about how do we use language that doesn’t just perpetuate certain attitudes or have implicit bias. I remember clearly at a training that we were co-facilitating, we were using the term “the achievement gap.” We were the trainers and we were talking about racial equity, and someone in the audience said to us [achievement gap] is actually not a phrase that is very inclusive and it actually reinforces racial bias.”
Yee Won immediately recognized the challenge to scale sharing that information, “As the communications person, I was thinking, ‘Well, you know, it’s great that people are telling us but what can I do to kind of spread that news even more?’”
Several years later, the Nonprofit Technology Network’sLeading Change Summit was hosting an Idea Accelerator, a competition where participants could pitch ideas for platforms and tools and win support for turning product concepts into reality. “I was taking a stroll around Union Square in San Francisco and taking a break from the conference. I was walking around and thinking about my experience back when someone told us about the achievement gap and to this accelerator program. I thought, ‘If something like spell check can do this, why can’t this work on words and phrases that are harmful? That is when the tool came together for me.’ Yee Won entered the competition, met those eager to support turning the idea into reality and won first place and the Community Choice award for Say This, Not That.
Yee Won’s vision for the product is similar to the ease of consumer-facing tools like Grammarly and would have immediate utility in a newsroom context. It sources and pulls information and expertise already used within media organizations and leverages it in a way to produce stronger, more inclusive journalism. “There are campaigns like Stop The R-Word, Drop The I-Word, things like that and this is all about language… what happens if you put all of them in one useable practical tool? A tool like Say This, Not That, where when you’re writing it will right away highlight the problematic word or phrase. It’s not like have to create resources to explain to people why that word can be problematic because there are people already writing about it. We can pull in things that already exist. There are people who do this language work already. There are people who do this leadership already.”
Yee Won’s recognized a space for their expertise as a racial equity trainer and the expertise and lived experiences of the communities they were working in. In doing so, Yee Won was able to build a bridge to potentially accelerate communication, expand understanding of how bias appears in language and by extension, improve humane coverage of marginalized communities.
“We are using words that are potentially harmful without even knowing because it is ingrained in so much of our culture. Again, the example of me as a racial equity trainer, using this phrase that is not actually very equitable because it is a jargon that we use so often in the nonprofit world. For me, I was using without thinking too much about what the implicit meanings are. Even when I look at people who are covering and working on these issues they are also not even aware because we don’t get to stop and think intentionally about certain terms. Usually, it is either used by thought leaders and we just assume, ‘Oh yeah, that’s trusted.’”
“We can evolve together”
The development of Say This, Not That follows the arc of other platforms conceived during journalism hackathons and intensive accelerator events. Yee Won was matched with consultant support to develop a funding proposal and was able to connect with a co-founder, linguist, and technologist Katie McCormick. Together they built an online community to support future development of the platform but progress toward a beta product has not emerged far beyond that stage. In this example, community is the innovative capital fueling this initiative forward while a relatively small amount of funding to secure developer hours could be the real gamechanger. Yee Won describes the challenge as weaving together community knowledge capital with technology, “Those are the two things, the two main ingredients that have to come together to make this happen.”
A Systems Case: Language Style Guide
Language is a powerful tool that can bring people together, bridge divides and builds power. But how journalists report and experience language, both as practitioners and as members of communities, can also be unintentionally exclusionary, harmful and divisive. In this case for journalists who understand how newsrooms systems implement language guides and communications design, there is a case to be made for funders to support internal systems innovators. Internal innovators occupy all levels of newsroom leadership; from human resources to editorial to business. As individuals who experience internal operations and systems first-hand, internal newsroom leaders can provide necessary insights to optimize and build better news products.
Hanna Thomas is a Campaign and Culture Director with SumOfUs, a global consumer watchdog group that campaigns to hold big corporations accountable. In her role, she regularly writes and publishes widespread email campaigns and public communications to encourage the SumOfUs community to take action. Like Yee Won, Hanna experienced a communications gap between her expertise as a campaigner and the communities she was working to mobilize and was able to recognize an opportunity for internal systems innovation.
In an interview with me, Hanna explains, “I wrote this email to a million people about angora fur and I used the phrase ‘falling on deaf ears’ and I got an email from a charity in the UK, the National Deaf Children’s Society. That was really sweet and asked, ‘We care about bunnies. Do you think the deaf children don’t care about bunnies?’ It was a wake-up call.”
In a Medium post, Hanna recounts the message, “What implication lies behind this old, outdated phrase? That telling a deaf person about the plight of rabbits, they wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t be able to communicate, wouldn’t care? Deafness is not a learning disability. I just want to express my frustration and disappointment in an organisation that is clearly working for the benefit of others, without realising in their message they are stigmatising a minority. I hope you succeed massively with this campaign, I really do. But please, remember to write in an inclusive manner.””
So for her own benefit, she began pulling together language and communication style guides and integrating them all into a shared Google document. Newsrooms are no stranger to the language style guides and many larger newsrooms publish their internal style guides online such as Buzzfeed, BBC, and the Guardian as well as utilize style guides provided by advocacy organizations such as GLAAD and the National Center for Disability and Journalism.
The style guide Hanna developed was innovative in the organic fashion it came together (a simple Google doc synthesizing free and available resources), the context of the intended audience (progressive activists) and the approach it took to discuss the evolving nature of language and community.
Working with independent editor Anna Hirsch, the pair “began the compilation of a new kind of guide — one that sparks a conversation about language among progressives.” The guide stated, “We invite drivers of progressive change — community members, grassroots leaders, activists, and progressive funders — to peruse the vital movement frameworks, decolonizing usage, and up-to-date word choice and phrasing for current theory of change directions and momentum across groups and issue areas presented in this guide.” Leveraging their knowledge of internal organizational needs and systems and their awareness to how language impacts marginalized and underrepresented communities, the pair co-designed a valuable repository of resources and stewarded The Progressive Style Guide.
The intention of the guide was to start a conversation and for a community of practitioners to become better together and in turn improve the communities they serve. What surprised Hanna was recognizing a guide on inclusive language was not already accessible within the field. She describes in an interview with me, “There are a handful of other projects, blogs or things along this vein that exists. But I was really surprised that at first instance when I realized I need to get better at this, I just Googled. I was constantly Googling, I was trying to find this and I could not find it. That was really surprising to me at the time. I was like, ‘Has no one thought to do this before?’… I think it is something that we are all struggling with so much.”
Recognizing systems, shared challenges and opportunities for improvement are undeniable strengths from organizations which hold space and support internal systems innovators. This approach can be adapted in a newsroom context for media funders seeking to support internal newsroom leaders. The staff time investment for this initiative was modest by Hannah’s estimates, while the value, impact, and dialogue within the intended community it serves have been substantial.
Innovate Innovation for Local Newsroom Context
Overall, there are tremendous opportunities for media funders to support inclusive innovation in the space between investing in expensive research and development labs and supporting one-off hacker/maker events. Identifying strategic opportunities, that both strengthen journalism and how it serves the public, requires funders and their partners to define innovation in the local news context.
This presents an opportunity for funders seeking to support an ecosystem building networked power. It opens the pathway toward improving diverse, inclusive and intentional innovation in local and hyperlocal newsrooms.
It is possible to innovate innovation and build upon the momentum of initiatives like the Coral Project, accelerator events and support developing systems that allow internal newsroom leaders to build and test new systems and processes in local communities. It is possible to turn to the expertise of the communities journalists cover to build, expand and improve upon newsroom products, language, and systems.
It is possible to intentionally design initiatives that support these activities in ways that collectively serves business outcomes and honors journalistic integrity.
But to successfully achieve that, media funders, local newsrooms and communities alike must be aligned with shared outcomes that do not prioritize shareholder value over a diverse, informed public.
“The invitation, the ask, and the important thing here is that we demand that innovation be something that yields healthy returns well beyond venture capitalists, founders, technocrats… Similarly, innovation and creativity that uplifts the opportunities, voices, and spirits of less fortunate people we walk this earth with must be lauded at least as much as the next viral app, if not more.”
it influences who gets to define innovation and shape the future of news when the journalism field responds to external disruptive forces rather than proactively and iteratively developing new tools and resources within the field and with communities it serves. Defining and resourcing innovation in local newsrooms and communities is the necessary step to building power for a diverse, inclusive and resilient ecosystem.
Sabrina Hersi Issa serves as a Senior Advisor to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, where she leads research on journalism ecosystems and how philanthropy can support efforts to build diverse, inclusive newsrooms.
Robert Frost once wrote, “An idea is a feat of association, and the height of it is a good metaphor.” As a former English teacher and current consultant to non-profit organizations, I couldn’t agree more.
I thought about metaphors as we kicked off another year of the Dodge Board Leadership Series in Morristown on October 14. My opening workshop is more about ideas than anything else — it is about how we think about leading nonprofit organizations with ambitious missions and all too often minimal resources. This year, I offered an association that, if not already a good metaphor, could become one.
I brought up the idea that when we go to the doctor, whether for an annual physical or an acute illness, we are very used to getting some quick diagnostic data: our weight, pulse, and blood pressure. My question was: what is the equivalent if we are focused on the health of a nonprofit organization? What are the baseline “readings” that can tell us how we’re doing?
Please pause over this question. If it’s not too late, don’t scroll down to see my answer, because you may take this association in a different direction that will be more helpful to you. I’ll make this paragraph long enough so that you have a chance for your own leaps of association. Perhaps you’ve already noted that our weight and heart rate and blood pressure readings are reflections of what we have done in the months before the doctor’s visit. I can’t think of a time when I have stood on that way-too-precise scale, for example, and not vowed to exercise more before the next visit. So, our metaphorical question might be expanded a bit: what is a non-profit’s equivalent of exercise?
So, what did you come up with?
Maybe instead of weight, we ask whether our staff and board, all of them, have a clear, shared sense of mission and vision for the future. Maybe instead of heart rate, we measure whether we have a balanced budget with a diversified funding base. Maybe instead of blood pressure, we examine whether the organization has a living, breathing strategic plan whose implementation is in the hands of effective working groups.
Those are good indicators of health, but let’s ride this metaphor a little harder. In both human and organizational health, a single measure may be misleading. Our heart rate could be elevated because we were late for our appointment and ran in. Our blood pressure could be up because we don’t like doctors. Our weight could be up because we’re just back from two weeks in Italy.
What would be a more comprehensive reckoning of health — something more like an annual physical with blood tests and maybe a whole-body CAT scan? How would we really know we are healthy, or really know what needed attention?
Let me offer one framework for generating more comprehensive diagnostic data. It comes from the LEAP Ambassadors, a group of 150 professionals (including myself) from various fields dedicated to high performance in the social sector and in public sector agencies with social missions.
In The Performance Imperative (PI) for Small Nonprofits, we identify six “pillars” of high performance. (There is a seventh pillar for larger organizations, which involves periodic external evaluations.)
Pillar 1: Courageous, adaptive executive and board leadership
Pillar 2: Disciplined, people-focused management
Pillar 3: Well-designed and well-implemented programs and strategies
Pillar 4: Financial health and sustainability
Pillar 5: A culture that values learning
Pillar 6: Internal monitoring for continuous improvement
Imagine a scale for each of those pillars, one that we create ourselves that helps us monitor our organizational performance in these areas. That’s at the heart of the opening workshop in the Dodge series — the case for formative assessment, for taking assessment into our own hands and measuring what matters.
If you want to see how the LEAP Ambassador group suggests how to go about measuring success in these areas, go to www.leapambassadors.org.
Creating those scales would be like exercise. For a human being, the salutary benefits of exercise come from getting moving. Paradoxically, for organizations, they come from slowing down.
For me, the most important indicator of organizational health is how much time staff and board members spend, separately and together, on important matters when they are not urgent.
In my book, I call this mission time. It is where we find clarity what we are doing and why. It is the place for true re-creation. It is essential for the practice of formative assessment. We must slow down to do it, which feels counter-initiative when we are pursuing urgent and worthy missions. But I believe the healthiest organizations create and protect mission time, however busy they are.
I’d love to know what readers of this blog would do with this metaphor, and whether you think it’s useful. I do.
In fact, when it comes to leading and governing nonprofit organizations, I take my lead from Robert Frost: “Unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world.”
David Grant is the former President and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He is the author of The Social Profit Handbook: The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations (2015).
This week, Sustainable Jersey celebrated the 82 municipalities, from 18 New Jersey counties, that achieved the Sustainable Jersey certification in 2017. Sustainable Jersey has almost hit the 80 percent participation mark this year with 445 of New Jersey’s 565 towns engaged in the municipal certification program.
The awards were announced at an event attended by over 400 local and regional government officials, green team members, industry professionals, and sustainability leaders. In addition to the certified towns, we announced the municipalities that received 2017 Sustainable Jersey special awards.
Jersey City prioritizes innovation
If our government is ineffective, our attempts to solve sustainability issues will also be ineffective. With an appreciation for this connection, Jersey City has prioritized transparency of data and allowed public access for its public information and engagement and open data initiatives. In recognition of this work, Jersey City received the Sustainable Jersey 2017 Creativity and Innovation Award for its forward-thinking and support of a culture of creativity and innovation.
Through an open data portal, Jersey City is working to be more transparent by providing access to data and information on the city’s resources, operations, and activities. Jersey City provides a platform that supports data-based decision making, promotes public use of data and strengthens citizen engagement in the democratic process.
“We are honored to receive this award for open data and public engagement,” said Jersey City Mayor Steven M. Fulop. “We pride ourselves on a collaborative, community-based approach to problem-solving, as well as creating a more open and transparent city government.”
The Jersey City Office of Innovation is an excellent example of how a city can promote sustainable practices by aligning priorities, encouraging partnerships and modifying behaviors.
Persistence pays off for National Park Borough
National Park Borough is a rural town in Gloucester County with a population of about 3,000. After five years of hard work, the borough achieved Sustainable Jersey certification this year and thanks to their determination, the green team and municipal partners received the 2017 Sustainable Jersey Rookie of the Year Award.
“The goal of Sustainable Jersey certification for our borough was important to us and we did not give up until we achieved it. The bonus is that our community will be healthier and more sustainable as we continue with our work,” said K’leen Cucugliello, the chair of the National Park Green Team.
Longport, Margate and Ventnor advance sustainability through partnerships
Realizing that sustainability issues do not stop at the town line, three municipal green teams joined forces to increase the quality of life on Absecon Island.
“As coastal communities, the four Absecon Island communities share many of the same concerns. By working toward common goals that improve the quality of life, the results are quicker and our efforts have a much greater impact,” said Margate Mayor Michael Becker. “Whether it’s working together to limit balloons, cleanup the back bays, our watershed management plan, we are fortunate to have dedicated volunteers in our four communities working to make Absecon Island as green as it can be.”
Sustainable Downbeach is comprised of the Longport, Margate and Ventnor green teams. Sustainable Downbeach and the Surfrider Foundation worked to have all Atlantic and Cape May County coastal communities pass an ordinance that prohibits the intentional release of balloons. Margate, Longport, Ventnor and approximately eight other coastal communities have adopted an ordinance. The ordinances impose a $500 fine for anyone who intentionally releases balloons into the atmosphere. The group is now focusing on statewide legislation.
“Living on an island makes you realize that boundaries on a map are just lines on paper. Actions that originate on land have impacts on our oceans and beyond. Plastic bags, bottles and balloons are ending up in our waterways and negatively impacting marine wildlife and ultimately ourselves through the food chain,” Longport Mayor Nick Russo said. “If Longport takes action to help protect the environment, it helps, but if all of Absecon Island takes a stand, the impact is that much greater. Together we have worked to address environmental issues including the release of balloons, plastic bags, watershed management, cleaning our back bays and celebrating Earth Hour. The Downbeach communities understand this dynamic and we will continue to work together to make this a better place for all.”
Through collaboration, Sustainable Downbeach is making considerable progress. Other projects the group has partnered on include reusable bag education and carry-out bag fee ordinances, beach sweeps, Absecon Island Back Bay Cleanup, bike and pedestrian plan and currently a watershed management plan.
Ventnor Mayor Beth Holtzman concluded, “Ventnor is committed to working with our neighbors to reduce costs and improve the quality of life in our community. We look forward to continuing to work in collaboration with the Absecon Island communities.”
Chatham Borough Mayor Bruce Harris Recognized as Sustainability Leader
Mayor Bruce Harris has made sustainability a priority for Chatham Borough for many years. The borough, a two-time winner of the Sustainability Champion Award, is focused on encouraging residents to live in a sustainable manner. This year, Mayor Harris received the Mayor Arthur Ondish Leadership Award. This award is given annually by Sustainable Jersey in memory of Mayor Arthur Ondish of Mount Arlington, who was a true leader and an original member of the visionary mayors who founded the Sustainable Jersey program.
Mayor Harris said, “To me, the important thing about the Sustainable Jersey program is that it provides the opportunity for all of us, as individuals, to find ways in which we, by our own actions, can contribute to protecting and preserving our environment. In Chatham, we have focused on encouraging residents to live in a sustainable manner. Our “pay-as-you-throw” garbage system, farmers’ market, community garden, beekeeping club and community apiary, and Explore Chatham trail network are just a few examples of our sustainable practices. Our task is to educate and to encourage everyone to incorporate sustainable practices in their everyday activities.”
Mayor Harris and Franklin Township Mayor Phil Kramer are co-hosting the New Jersey Mayors’ Climate Summit that will take place on February 3, 2018. For more information and to register for the event, visit: www.njlcvef.org/summit.
At last month’s Grantmakers for Education Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., we presented a workshop called “How Not to Read the Prize” to a standing-room-only audience of national, regional, and local foundations.
We did so not to dispute the findings in Dale Russakoff’s book, “The Prize,” but rather to expound upon the progress and challenges that have occurred during the period since Mark Zuckerberg’s $100-million-dollar gift was announced in September 2010 and to paint a fuller, more nuanced picture.
The process of putting together the panel was a learning experience for all of us who participated. It helped us to clarify our own thinking about what the gift enabled Newark to accomplish, how we as local funders have come to work together more effectively, and how we might advise national foundations interested in place-based impact to engage with the community and with local funders.
In September 2010, Mark Zuckerberg announced a $100 million gift, to be matched dollar for dollar, to transform education in Newark in five years. The Foundation for Newark’s Future was created as a local foundation that would manage a then-undetermined portion of the gift.
The Prize, by Dale Russakoff, documents the first five few years of this reform effort. As Russakoff illustrates, there were strong personalities involved in the reform effort who had or have now moved to new positions. Also, this was the donor’s first foray into philanthropy and despite efforts at community engagement, many community leaders and activists felt that district and state leaders and national foundation representatives did not invite or respect authentic community participation in its decisions. The book and subsequent book tour largely focused on these themes.
The narrative in philanthropy is that “this bold effort largely failed.” With the benefit of time, we would write a different narrative: there were missteps along the way, and some philanthropic overreach, but Newark is moving forward, education outcomes are improving, and some of the work that was started because of this initiative has had sustained positive impact. Most importantly, there is a robust education dialogue in the city that has moved from vigorous disagreement to an agreement to collaborate even when we disagree. So, the hashtag for this work seven years on might be: #notfinishedyet or #needapart2.
Photo at top: From left, Michele Mason, Kevin Callaghan, Tai Cooper, Robert Clark, Dale Anglin, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, and Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf at the Grantmakers for Education Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. Above: Robert Clark, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf, and Dale Anglin present “How Not to Read the Prize.” Photos courtesy Council of New Jersey Grantmakers
Recently, two studies by Harvard and MarGrady Research show evidence that educational outcomes for Newark students are improving. High school graduation has risen to 77 percent, as have standardized test scores, especially in the English Language Arts (ELA) category. African-American students in Newark are three times more likely to attend a school with test scores above the state average than they were in 2009. Controlling for poverty and English Language Learner status, Newark students show significant gains in Math and ELA between 2009 and 2017.
These improved outcomes stem from students moving to higher performing district and charter schools as well as systemic changes within schools and the district at large. Those in Newark also recognize that despite progress, the district still has improvements it needs to make, especially in special education, community engagement, and post-secondary matriculation.
Too many families still feel like a quality school is not available to them or they must leave their neighborhood and travel too far to access one.
Another contributing factor to Newark’s education progress has been the continuing and deepening partnerships among the city’s education funders. What is not common knowledge is that before the Zuckerberg donation was announced, local funders had already started to work together in 2007 by creating the Newark Philanthropic Liaison position, supported by nine foundations to work with philanthropy and the city to support Newark. Public-private partnerships were already underway to create new schools, create longer school days, continue Newark’s innovative public pre-school education program, and increase afterschool programs.
The large gift catalyzed, even more, local funders to come together and pool their resources to ensure that they continued to have a voice at the table since no one local foundation could match the magnitude of the Zuckerberg gift. And in fact, the Foundation for Newark’s Future joined these pooled funds and efforts that were already underway. For example, Foundation for Newark’s Future joined the effort to open new district schools and several of the schools opened have been highly successful, including Bard High School Early College and Eagle Academy for Young Men.
The “collective impact” concept took hold nationally right around the time of the Zuckerberg gift, and this strategy was adopted by local foundations, including Foundation for Newark’s Future, as a way to tackle issues where there was broad-based support. This was especially useful at a time of such community rancor.
These initiatives paved the way to what is the new normal today in Newark. Newark now has eight active collective initiatives focusing on a range of issues, including post-secondary education, STEAM, out-of-school time, arts education, youth employment, early childhood development, public safety, and workforce development.
Foundation for Newark’s Future’s grants to our post-secondary initiative, the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, and the city’s highly successful Summer Youth Employment initiatives remain the largest single grants they have ever received and catalyzed both. And Foundation for Newark’s Future helped launch the new South Ward Community School’s Initiative that is working with over 3,000 students and their families.
And many people are not aware that Foundation for Newark’s Future brought high-quality talent to Newark that has remained, Kim McClain, the former CEO is now the president of the Newark Alliance, and Kevin Callaghan, a former program officer is the city’s philanthropic liaison.
For national and local philanthropy, there are key lessons from the Newark reform initiative.
National philanthropy should respect, listen to and engage local stakeholders including local philanthropy as it shapes places-based efforts. This includes the local foundations they establish or local staff that they hire. Local staff must have the ability to be the “experts” and push the thinking of national donors.
Reform initiatives require attention to process, must include some measure of transparency, and need time to show results.
Stakeholders must engage in honest dialogue about the tension between building trust among stakeholders and urgency to solve the problems.
For system change, stakeholders should work to find a balance between moving quickly to make needed changes and taking the time to listen to community voices.
Education reform that involves school closures must ensure that there are higher performing receiving schools for students – before schools are closed.
If Newark could accomplish improved educational outcomes with the community unrest that ensued, could we have improved even further if community voices had been heeded more? We believe the answer is “yes.” But what is exciting about this moment in time is that Newark is in a hopeful place.
Our panel, with a community-focused mayor and the state-appointed superintendent, would not have been possible three years ago. We are returning to local control. Civic dialogue on education is robust and our community is now having deep conversations about the direction of their schools, curriculum, and programming. We have thriving collective impact initiatives and a community schools effort.
In short, do not be dissuaded from joining us in Newark. We are ready to welcome you with open arms. The table is set to make sure of it.
This essay reflects the work of the Newark Funders Education Committee, a subcommittee of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers Newark Funders Group. The members of this committee wanted to share lessons learned from this reform initiative with other funders. While the Zuckerberg donation was in play, 10 of these funders collectively awarded over $75 million additional dollars in a wide range of education initiatives. That work is documented in a commissioned report that was published in 2016, authored by Reginald Lewis, former President of the Chad Foundation, and now founding Executive Director of the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, housed at the Cornwall Institute at Rutgers University-Newark.
The Council of New Jersey Grantmakers is the statewide association of more than 130 funding organizations working in and for New Jersey. The Council is the center for philanthropy in the state, serving the leading independent, corporate, family and community foundations as well as public grantmakers of our state. CNJG supports its members by strengthening their capacity to address New Jersey and society’s most difficult problems.
As part of research for Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation exploring how philanthropy can support diverse, inclusive newsrooms, I visited local newsrooms, interviewed experts and community groups, sat with journalists and listened.
This research sought to explore how local newsrooms and journalists cover communities in deep transition, the role of listening in community journalism and how philanthropy can support efforts to build diverse, inclusive newsrooms. To achieve that, I turned to experts leading important work on issues directly impacting communities in personal and profound ways. Themes emerged reflected pathways for media funders to engage impacted communities in stewarding inclusive journalism respectful of complexity and diversity. There is space to design funding opportunities that evolves how diverse communities are covered and champions meaningful local journalism.
Covering the Public Square: Healthcare at the Forefront
Healthcare is the issue that impacts every community and household in America. There has been no single piece of legislation in recent years that has influenced American life at every level more than the Affordable Care Act.
The rollout and initial enrollment period of the Affordable Care Act was met with technical challenges that were aggressively covered for news cycle after news cycle over the fall and winter of 2013 and early 2014. The stakes were astronomically high and the team that saved Healthcare.gov from falling off a cliff were heralded on the cover of TIME magazine. The volume of reporting, hot takes and punditry of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act was tremendous but the specifics, the actual data-driven reporting and analysis on how many (or how few) Americans were actually able to enroll on the exchanges were sparse. It was a national story that was not reported in a local context. While the data was publicly available, there were not many media outlets telling the story within the numbers of how the Affordable Care Act enrollment and implementation unfolded in local communities.
Charles Gaba is a Michigan-based web developer and self-described data nerd. He runs ACASignups.net, a site he started during the inaugural Obamacare enrollment period in 2013. It hosts the most comprehensive publicly available datasets tracking the Affordable Care Act, measuring Obamacare enrollments, sharing data analysis down to local Congressional precincts levels. Gaba pulls together information from monthly HHS enrollment reports, healthcare interest data sources and updates issued from the states running their own exchanges. “I’m pretty good at taking those numbers and breaking them out in a way that explains the different variables without going over too many people’s heads,” Gaba explained in an interview.
He has come to expand ACASignups to include impact analysis should the ACA be repealed, using what public data is available to measure how many people in state and local communities stand to lose their healthcare. Gaba’s ACASignups.net has become a must-read for healthcare policy wonks, journalists and politicians hungry for information on how the ACA is impacting communities they serve.
Gaba started the site as a hobby.
“I was expecting that there would be a daily odometer style thing or be like, ‘Hey, we’ve had this many people each day. Sign up!’ There was nothing. I knew the real reason is because the [enrollment] numbers were terrible. It later came out that only six people, six, signed up through healthcare.gov on that first day. Not six million, not six thousand, six. What I was more astonished by was that of the major media outlets, places like the New York Times or CNN or whoever, none had a daily report about how many people enrolled. Because they love that stuff. They love colorful charts and graphs and all that. There was nothing. Or if there was something it was with data that did not inform anyone of anything or it was completely wrong.”
Gaba kept the site going because he was directly impacted by Obamacare.
Journalists began to take note.
In a 2014 piece wrote, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote, “Gaba, a website developer, realized that nobody was systematically keeping track of enrollment data for Obamacare, and has turned himself into one-stop shopping on the law’s progress. And he really fills a need: when you read news reports on Obamacare, you can tell right away which reporters have been reading Gaba and know what’s happening and which reporters are relying solely on official announcements — or, worse, dueling political spin.”
When the site launched there were a few healthcare data sites run by individuals, consulting groups or think tanks that tracked enrollment rates but over the years, those efforts have fallen off or been abandoned. Today major outlets such as the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Urban Institute also host datasets but none as comprehensive, with the level of local context or layered with analysis on related issues impacting the healthcare law in the same fashion Gaba’s site has become known for. Gaba blogs regularly and makes no attempt to hide his political point of view in his writing but maintains his data and analysis as strictly non-partisan.
“It is what it is. The data and analysis itself is non-partisan,” Gaba said. “I think the main reason why I get as much attention as I do is that it’s not just a matter of trying to be as accurate as I can. It’s also about citing my sources openly and when I do make a mistake and I realized that or somebody has called attention to it, that I have no problem owning up to it. And not only saying I made a mistake but also explaining here’s how I made the mistake. Here’s the methodology I used and it turns out that I forgot about this or didn’t know about that and I explain why. It’s not enough to just say, ‘Well, I was wrong’. It’s great that you admit that you’re wrong but that doesn’t help especially when we’re talking about data. It doesn’t help expand understanding.”
As a result, the value of his healthcare data analysis cuts across partisan lines and media markets. ACASignups has been cited in CNN, the New York Times, Washington Post, Vox, FiveThirtyEight, by Republicans, Democrats, in official Congressional records, even (bizarrely) by Donald Trump. During the 2017 enrollment period, a member of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors contacted Gaba to cross-check numbers with him. There are several resources for open data sites but in terms of pulling these multiple perspectives and providing an analysis and presenting them back out to the world, Gaba stands in a league of his own.
It is striking that a major resource for data infrastructure analyzing legislation impacting the lives of millions of Americans, a law that occupies substantial space in every community’s public square and dominates media coverage across the country is run as an unfunded side project by a small business owner in Michigan.
Gaba is a web developer by training and notes the primary expense for running the ACASignups is time. Time to source data, synthesize reports, write up findings, speak with reporters, meet with community groups.
Time that has slipped from running his business, “I had devoted so much time. I had lost business clients,” Gaba explained. To mitigate this, the site now runs modest banner ads from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, participates in Google Adwords, hosts a GoFundMe and Gaba occasionally freelance writes.
But those funding channels do not make up for or reflect the value ACASignups.net provides the public square. In 2014, after the first enrollment period concluded, the community behind the website DailyKos threw Gaba a retroactive fundraiser to thank him for his work filling a critical need. In his interview with me Gaba cited that fundraiser from 2014 as one of the reasons he was able to continue his work today.
Healthcare directly and viscerally impacts lives in every community. Resources that help journalists understand and measure the stories within the numbers, that help paint a clearer picture to how the Affordable Care Act is unfolding in communities they cover; it all adds necessary dimension and humanity to the stories they tell. It takes an issue often presented in the media as black-and-white and via split-screen punditry and adds nuance and complexity.
“Healthcare is all about nuance. The actual policy stuff, all the wonky stuff, is very nuanced. Politics does not like nuance and so I work to try to bridge that gap,” Gaba explained, “For journalists, I’d like more to look beyond the screaming headlines and look into what the numbers actually represent. These are people’s lives on the line.”
For media funders, this case is an opportunity to interrogate how data, infrastructure and resources shape how national issues are reported in local community narratives. How can media funders support local journalists in looking, as Gaba implores, “…beyond the screaming headlines”?
Four years ago LaBouvier lost her younger brother, Clinton Allen, to police brutality.
LaBouvier is not only part of a community of those directly impacted by the police killing unarmed black men, but reflects a growing force of individuals frustrated at stagnated media narratives and slowly building their power and raising their voices to demand justice and truth. Their experiences navigating obstacles to achieve this reflect systems never designed to deliver truth nor justice to communities like hers.
Historically, media coverage of police brutality, excessive force and police killing unarmed black men has lacked measure, depth and humanity. In countless cases and media markets, the coverage of these killings only resulted in minimal or no press coverage. The rise of social media, movements such as Black Lives Matter and a more interconnected viral culture has dragged this issue out of the darkness and into the light. And even though, there are still shadows. Only in the last few years have federal agencies and newsrooms begun to track the data on police killings of unarmed men.
“People don’t understand what these statistics mean until they have a human face. What does it mean when people say that every 28 hours a black man is killed by the police? Do people know what a body with seven bullet holes looks like? What does it mean when they say the police are rarely indicted? Do people know how the victim’s families sob in the court hallways?” [She] hopes that by telling her story, people will understand — and act upon — those statistics. LaBouvier shares in the piece, Challenging Police Brutality.
LaBouvier turned to guidance from activists after facing obstacle after obstacle tracking down facts about her brother’s case and having to repeatedly correct the record with local media. “We were told that by activists.’You’re going to have to get national attention because you are on your own on a local level.’ And it’s true. In the South, particularly, the only time you get any kind of journalistic accountability is when the story becomes nationwide,” she explained in an interview with me.
This was no foundation of trust between impacted communities and local newsrooms.
LaBouvier built national media attention as she and her family navigated a personal nightmare by embarking on a reporting project. She pulled through open records of other outstanding cases of police brutality and through that began to weave an organizing network to demand justice and accountability for her family’s case and others like them. That organizing effort eventually evolved into co-founding Dallas-based community organization, Mothers Against Police Brutality.
“I just started interviewing people. Because we were organizing we started pulling open records requests. That’s how we found a lot of families. It was because we were pulling open records requests with our own money and we were like, ‘Okay, let’s find this victim and let’s find this person’s family.’ I would find people on Facebook or they would reach out to my mom. Because we were doing news interviews people started reaching out to us and other activists who had been working on this issue for a long time like Dallas Communities Organizing for Change. They also connected us to a lot of the families they knew and had been working with them for years. That’s how we got connected with people. This is how we built trust,” LaBouvier explained in an interview with me.
LaBouvier sought to build upon her experience reporting on police brutality and organizing impacted communities from specific local contexts through various efforts:
One example includes a journalism project called the Allen Wells Project, examining the issue of police brutality as it impacts specific communities within cities, LaBouvier explains, “In San Francisco, in my process of research and activism, I saw how police brutality in the Asian community in the Bay area is a huge issue and no one talks about it. It’s about to get even worse because of the immigration situation, the raids and the climate of the country right now. There is a large undocumented Asian immigrants community in the Bay that are already hesitant to go to the police to report police brutality. So this issue of the immigration and the fear of raids is going to make it even worse. I actually met with a couple of Asian families about this. It’s an issue and no one talks about it. I wanted to look at police brutality in ways that people are overlooking.”
For LaBouvier her endgame is to use the power of her story, the power of her brother’s legacy to expand the humanity for how the media covers victims of police brutality.
“Journalists are missing the human story. It’s missing nuance. Everyone’s writing the same story. If there could have been this magic wand, I would have actual, in-depth conversations with victims and survivors of police brutality.”
When a graduate student grieving the loss of her brother to state violence is able to execute an organizing strategy to reach other impacted families through traditional investigative journalism methods it is necessary for funders to ask and examine this question:
What other the untold stories are being missed because there is an erosion of trust between local journalists and the communities they cover?
Invest in the Bridge Builders
Bryan Mercer is trying to build a bridge of trust over this gulf and increase understanding between local communities and journalists. He leads the Media Mobilizing Project, the organization works across social movements to increase media and communications capacity and run strategic communications campaigns.
The organizational ethos — movements begin with untold stories — reflects MMP’s strong track record equipping leaders from diverse, multi-generational, multi-racial and intersectional backgrounds with the training, skills and tools to own the power of their stories. Mercer describes the organization’s training programs as borrowing the best from community journalism and social impact documentary.
“One of the things that comes out of our work is because of the relationships we built with community organizations is we’re often a point of contact or connection for journalists. We see ourselves in relationships with journalists, but playing a different role because of the way that we’re embedded in community organizing work and are advocates for that work,” Mercer explained in an interview with me.
Mercer’s organizations champions storytellers within local community and leverages his role as a trusted expert, both by communities and journalists alike, to push for media that respects and reflects people’s full humanity”
“One outcome of this work that’s come up for us is the question of representation and how do you respect and uplift community stories. Something that we experienced struggle with journalists are narratives focusing on the problems that a community is facing without showing or really trying to interrogate the ways that communities are responding.
“We have a principle in our work to lift up the fight, not just the plight, as we talk about it.”
For Mercer, the challenge of building trust between communities and journalists is an opportunity for Media Mobilizing Project to equip impacted communities with the skillsets to own and drive their own narratives.
Overall, for media funders the themes in these cases reflect an opportunity to explore how to better support these bridge builders who improve local journalism ecosystem by providing necessary nuance, guidance, connection and humanity to complicated issues often at great personal cost.
Sabrina Hersi Issa serves as a Senior Advisor to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, where she leads research on journalism ecosystems and how philanthropy can support efforts to build diverse, inclusive newsrooms.
Over the past year, Teresa and Fredric have become valuable collaborators, not only to Creative New Jersey, but more importantly to each other. Creative Camden gave them the opportunity to learn more about each other’s work and to see where their experiences and goals are complementary and synergistic.
When Teresa learned that Fredric is a trained chef, with ten appearances on the Food Network, she invited Fredric to work with CFET’s Eco Interns, Assistant and Senior Farmers in a summer-intensive urban farming job training program for Camden high school students– about growing their own food, cooking, and the foundation of nutrition.
I recently spoke with Teresa, her colleague Theo Banks, and Fredric about the two days Fredric spent with the Eco Interns, Assistant and Senior Farmers and asked them to sharetheir experiences.
“The problem with a salty, sugary and high fat diet,” says Chef Fredric Byarm, “is that it covers a multitude of sins: I could take cardboard, spray it with sugar, salt, and fat – your taste buds are going to respond to this – but you’re still eating cardboard. When it hits your stomach, it will blow up and make you feel full, but you haven’t done any good for yourself.”
Fredric was speaking with a group of 14-19 year olds – part of the Center for Environmental Transformation’s (CFET) summer youth cohort, who were spending the day harvesting the vegetables they’d been learning to grow all summer, cooking their harvest, and then sitting down to share a meal with the CFET staff and Fredric.
“I could see the lightbulbs going off for the young people,” said Fredric. “That first day, I wanted to pique their curiosity about nutrition and connect it to their lives. The word ‘nutrition’ is not something you can put your hands on, so I talked with them about the energy component of food and supplying your body with what it needs.”
CFET’s job and leadership program is “an intensive job-training program for Camden youth, which uses urban gardening, cooking, and entrepreneurship as a vehicle to develop leadership capabilities among youth.” In CFET’s holistic approach, youth are employed and paid to work in the gardens – which include 2 garden sites, a greenhouse, and two fruit orchards in the heart of Camden; run the Farmer’s Market; and learn commercial culinary skills by creating and selling their own hot sauce. The youth receive training and education on nutrition, entrepreneurship, financial literacy, teamwork, and receive additional culinary training from the Community Food Bank of South Jersey.
On day two with the youth, Fredric said there was less talking and more cooking, including sautéing, breading, knife skills, and veggie cutting techniques. On the menu for the day were ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms, fresh sliced tomatoes off the vine, broad-leafed green basil and sautéed carrots from CFET’s gardens. Fredric’s approach to teaching cooking is hands-off: “I’m not showing them my skills – it’s about them getting their hands on the food.”
CFET’s Theo Banks, the FoodCorps Service Member, was there and agrees with the hands-off approach. CFET’s policy of ‘no sugary drinks’ meant the youth were going to have to come up with their own beverages, so Theo suggested trying flavored water; he offered no additional idea or instruction. Voila! Cucumber lemon water became the beverage of choice. Theo said that many of the youth have tried new things and their food preferences are starting to change.
The best part of the day, Theo continued, was when Fredric talked about growing up in Camden:
“I grew up four blocks from here. I told them about where my culinary career was able to take me — the places I got to see and experience because of my degree in culinary arts.” Fredric continued, “I wanted them to know that you’re not at a deficit just because you’re from Camden. Believing that can stop you from having incredible experiences. I wanted to show these young people that it’s possible to be from Camden and be on the Food Network 10 times, and have one of the top 10 restaurants at the Jersey Shore, like I have.”
“It is important for us to make sure that we’re providing role models for our youth who they can relate to, who have similar experiences of Camden, so when I learned about Fredric’s background I saw a natural way for us to partner,” said CFET’s Executive Director, Teresa Niedda.
Two of the youth leaders were in their final summer with CFET and heading off to college: CFET’s Senior Farmer, Dimitrius, came up through the program and predates the current staff.
What’s most important, Fredric says, is for the young people to know that there are opportunities to use what they’ve learned at CFET and possibly turn it into a career, like the staff at CFET and at Fredric’s start-up company Invincible City Farms, which is in the process of acquiring 20-acres of land inside the City of Camden, with the mission of “addressing food insecurity and food deserts using the basic skills of farming, the basic necessity for healthy foods and the goodwill of humanity.” Jobs for urban farmers will be available, and maybe some of CFET’s youth might see themselves there.
When I asked Fredric what stuck with him from those two days, he said, “I was really impressed by the level of curiosity in the young population. They really want to know what’s going on past the headlines.” In a conversation about one of the corporations in Camden, the students wanted to know what it means for them and for their City: “They asked: Were there environmental issues, security issues – this wasn’t anything I was probing them on. They brought it to the table on their own, and I think that bodes well for Camden.”
There are many positive, healthy, creative and collaborative projects blooming in the City of Camden, and Teresa and Fredric’s work is one project whose harvest will surely pay dividends well into the future!
Kacy O’Brien is Creative New Jersey’s Director of Programming and is a Lead New Jersey 2015 Fellow.
Creative New Jersey is dedicated to fostering creativity, collaboration, and inclusion by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.
Creative New Jersey’s leaders and partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog.
Posted onOctober 27, 2017byYsabel Gonzalez, Assistant Director of the Poetry Program
The Dodge Poetry team thought long and hard about how we could sustain the energy and excitement from the 2016 Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark this year, because of our deep commitment to and special fondness for the city. Having been raised in the North Ward, I know firsthand there is no such thing as enough opportunities to experience the arts and poetry throughout Brick City. Newark thrives on art and poetry—particularly with a Mayor committed to both. Especially downtown, Newark is expanding and growing at a very fast rate—so how do we, Dodge Poetry, continue to be present for Newark’s continued revival and its community? And, how do we give back to a city that generously offers its people, streets and venues as poetry resources throughout our four-day Festival? One easy answer is: do what we do best by bringing poetry into the schools.
Dodge’s Newark Poetry Festival was born out of the amazingly generous support of Newark Public Schools, the Victoria Foundation, Rutgers University-Newark, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. On Monday, October 16, 2017, the historic Paul Robeson Campus Center at Rutgers University-Newark hosted close to 500 Newark Public School high school students and teachers which included thirteen high school campuses: American History High School, Arts High School, Barringer Academy of S.T.E.A.M., Barringer Academy of the Arts & Humanities, Central High School, Eagle Academy for Young Men, East Side High School, Malcolm X. Shabazz High School, Science Park High School, Technology High School, University High School, Weequahic High School, and West Side High School.
Beginning at 9 a.m., buses began to arrive and there was a high-spirited buzz, with students wishing us all good morning, ready to get their fill of poems and music throughout the day. And our eight poets delivered the same excited energy back to these students! The day’s line-up included poets Marina Carreira (Newark native), Kyle Dargan (Newark native), Jonterri Gadson, Ellen Hagan, Robert Hylton (Newark native), Kurtis Lamkin, Jasmine Mans (Newark native), and Vincent Toro . (You can learn more about each poet by checking out our special Ask a Poet blog series, which ran from the end of the summer until the week of the Mini Festival.) It was important that our line-up’s diversity be reflective of this rich city, as well as some poets who started out just like these students—sitting in a chair in front of wordsmiths that mirror themselves.
Schools had personalized schedules, and were greeted and guided room to room by NJPAC’s wonderful and cheerful volunteers. These schedules allowed them to experience one group reading in the main auditorium, as well as smaller break-out sessions where students could deeply engage with the poets in a personal way. Students had an opportunity to experience a little bit of all the poets’ styles, and sessions included: Poetry, Music & Storytelling; Poetry and Social Justice; On the Life of a Poet; and Brick City Roots, with Newark native poets discussing their poetic journey. Dodge Poetry even designed a special session in the Robeson’s Dance Theater, Giving Poems a Voice, where students were encouraged to share their own poems that they had brought with them, all facilitated by a poet. Each student also received a handy Student Kit for the day, which included pages filled with poems and bios of the performing poets for the day.
This Newark Poetry Festival was indeed a celebration of poetry, as well as an opportunity for Newark Public School students to create, experiment, listen deeply, and be engaged provocatively. I remain hopeful that the day’s conversations and performances will have left students feeling positively challenged to see the world through yet another lens.
2017 school and district sustainability awards announced
This week, Sustainable Jersey for Schools celebrated the 91 schools that achieved Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification in 2017 at an awards event attended by over 250 teachers, principals, green team volunteers, school board members and staff. In addition to the newly certified schools, we announced the three schools and two school districts that received 2017 Sustainable Jersey for Schools special awards.
Lawrence Township Public Schools gets revenue from the sun
Lawrence Township Public Schools received the 2017 Sustainability Makes $ense Award that recognizes a district that has made exemplary progress in sustainability resulting in cost savings to the school district. Located in the heart of central New Jersey, Lawrence Township Public Schools includes: Lawrence High School (1,150 students), Lawrence Intermediate School (920 students in grades 4-6), Lawrence Middle School (590 students in grades 7-8 attending) and four PK-3 elementary schools (1,300 students). Four of the seven schools in the district have achieved Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification.
Since 2010, Lawrence Township Public Schools has earned over three million dollars in revenue from energy generated by solar panels on all seven district school buildings. This revenue is in addition to the energy usage offset by the panels. The total solar panel revenue plus cost of energy offset by the panels totals over four million dollars.
Dr. Crystal Edward, Superintendent of Lawrence Township Public Schools explained the process, “We were delighted in 2008 when our Board of Education proposed and the Lawrence residents supported a referendum to place solar panels on the roofs of all seven schools. Since that time, revenue generated and savings earned by energy usage offset by the panels is passed to Lawrence residents in the form of tax relief. To be recognized by Sustainable Jersey for Schools with a Sustainability Makes $ense Award for this green initiative is the icing on the cake.”
Municipal and school green teams collaborate in Delran Township
Delran Township Schools received the 2017 Green Team Collaboration Award that recognizes municipal and school green teams working together to advance sustainability. The Delran Township School District, located in Burlington County, includes four schools that serve students in pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. All four of the schools in the district have achieved Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification.
Erica DeMichele, Delran Township School District, K-12 Supervisor of Science, Technology, Engineering, STEM Program Co-Coordinator, and Sustainability Program Coordinator said, “Delran Township Schools and the Delran Municipal Green Team began their collaboration at the infancy of the Sustainable Jersey for Schools program. That work includes education to the broader community at events like Delran Day, the Delran STEM Fair, planting 1,800 native species in the Millbridge School rain garden and planting wildflowers in the community.
One notable success is the biodiversity audit completed by the middle school green team and seventh grade class last year, in conjunction with the Municipal Green Team’s task force on collecting data to stop the invasive Emerald Ash Borer.” In addition, the student green teams are impressive, with over 250 active participants at the four schools.
Three schools in Long Branch School District get Sustainability Champion Awards
The Long Branch Public School District is a leader in sustainability. Long Branch is a beach-side city in Monmouth County, New Jersey. The school district has nine schools and an enrollment of 5,396 students. All nine schools have achieved Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification and two schools–George L. Catrambone Elementary School and Long Branch Middle School–were each recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a National Green Ribbon School.
Three schools from Long Branch School District were recognized as 2017 Sustainability Champions for making significant progress toward sustainability and earning Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification with the highest point level in their category. The 2017 Champions are: George M. Catrambone Elementary School, Long Branch Middle School and Long Branch High School.
The school district has embarked on a successful district-wide sustainability program. Solar panels were installed on eight schools and green initiatives were implemented district-wide. Dr. Michael Salvatore, the Long Branch Superintendent of Schools said, “It is truly an honor for our school community to be recognized for actively engaging our stakeholders in sustainable practices. Our children are learning important lessons that will have a lasting positive impact upon our world.”
To date, 279 school districts and 693 schools are taking part in the Sustainable Jersey program. The district participation has grown to include 46 percent of all New Jersey school districts. From energy audits to integrating sustainability into student learning, and boosting recycling efforts, the past year has been exceptional.
Over 2,700 sustainability actions were completed by schools and districts participating in the Sustainable Jersey for Schools program and over $1.2 million in grants have been awarded to schools and school districts.
Since the end of the summer, we’ve been posting short Q&As on the Dodge Blog each Friday, featuring poets who participated in our Newark High School Mini Festival earlier this week.
Through readings and performances, Q&As and discussions, these poets engaged with over four hundred Newark public high school students at the Rutgers-Newark Paul Robeson Student Center.
For our last Ask a Poet feature of this series, we’re talking to Vincent Toro.
Vincent Toro is the author of STEREO.ISLAND.MOSAIC., which was awarded Ahsahta Press’s Sawtooth Poetry Prize and The Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award. He has an MFA in poetry from Rutgers and is contributing editor for Kweli Literary Journal. Vincent is recipient of a Poet’s House Emerging Poets Fellowship, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, The Caribbean Writer’s Cecile De Jongh Poetry Prize, and the Metlife Nuestras Voces Playwriting Award. He teaches at Bronx Community College, is writing liaison at The Cooper Union’s Saturday Program, and is a poet in the schools for The Dreamyard Project and the Dodge Poetry Program.
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What was your experience with poetry in high school? If you wrote poetry as a teenager, who were your influences then and what did you write about?
I grew up in a working class community and family. There were no books in my home, and the arts in general were not encouraged at school or in the home. But I had a very difficult childhood and adolescence, and the only thing that got me through years of abuse and ostracism was music.
Poetry came to me through music….I was very much into hip hop mc’s like Chuck D from Public Enemy and Run DMC, and rap is in many respects poetry. Also, my favorite rock band was The Doors, and the lead singer of the band, Jim Morrison, openly declared himself a poet in his interviews and referenced poets, poetry, art, theater, and philosophy in them (something that seems to almost never happen anymore with rock and pop stars).
I read every writer Jim Morrison referenced in an interview, and then I would read the writers those writers referenced, and on and on. Then when I was 15 my mentor gave me a copy of “Puerto Rican Obituary” by Pedro Pietri. I read that book a thousand times. It was the first time I read poetry that spoke openly about being Puerto Rican. I had never seen writing written by other Puerto Ricans. It really changed everything for me. After that, all I wanted was to be the next Pedro Pietri (or the Puerto Rican Jim Morrison, or the Boricua Chuck D). So I just started filling up notebooks with my bad rhymes and weak philosophical musings. It got to the point where I was getting in trouble in school for writing and reading, because I wasn’t writing the assignments and I was reading books that weren’t assigned by the teachers.
Do you have any advice for those who are trying to help students engage with poetry?
Find work to share that is shocking. Not superficially shocking with curses or explicit sex or something trivial like that, but work that is so startlingly, brutally honest that it’s frightening or exciting. I find work by Audre Lorde, Leonel Rugama, and Taslima Nasreen, for example accomplish this. I’m talking about work that got some of these folks jailed, exiled, or even murdered, like Lorca. Because it shows them the power of poetry and what people have done and been through just to write and share it. And I contrast that with work that is just downright fun and relatable, like Maggie Estep’s “The Stupid Jerk I’m Obsessed With.” High schoolers ALL can relate to that one. Don’t start with the dead white men of academia (try to avoid them entirely), start with bringing in rap music and spoken word poetry, jazz poems, poems by people of color and LGBTQ poets. Poetry that matters NOW! Show them what makes you excited about poetry. Find audio and video of legendary poets. Find poetic influence in other artists, such as the rap group Blackalicious’ interpretation of Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping,” or Benjamin Bratt’s performances of Miguel Pinero’s poems in the film “Pinero.”
I hope this helps.
Do you have a favorite memory from time spent in Newark?
Too many to identify one, but my two years in the MFA Program at Rutgers was magical, and the two years I spent as an 8th Grade English teacher at Rafael Hernandez Elementary made me the man I am today.
What are you currently reading?
As a voracious reader, which every writer NEEDS to be, I am always reading multiple books at the same times. I usually have at least one poetry, one fiction, and one fiction book I am reading simultaneously. Right now those books are:
It’s been a disruptive year. We’ve all had to adjust as the ground shifts beneath our feet — in business, technology, government, our personal lives — and even literally, in hurricanes and earthquakes.
Every day seems to bring new challenges around what we thought we knew about our society and our democracy. It has led all of us to ask many questions about the future and our roles in it.
At the Dodge Foundation, we’ve been taking in these questions as we look ahead and think about the long-term impact we want to have in New Jersey, our cherished home. Since completing our 2017 grantmaking in June, we’ve geared up a strategic planning process, reviewing our vision, values, and mission, and thinking about what we might do differently to better meet the challenges facing our communities.
As we continue this work, I want to share two key decisions we’ve made about our grantmaking.
Second, we will remain committed to our current program areas for the next three to five years, although our priorities and approaches may shift based on the outcomes of our review.
Our goal is to complete our strategic planning by March, and to integrate these efforts into our guidelines, grantmaking and internal operations during the remainder of 2018. Any new guidelines and policies would take effect in 2019.
I also want to take this opportunity to share what we heard from many of our grantees this spring through a Grantee Perception Survey conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy.
You continue to think of Dodge as a supportive, thoughtful, innovative, engaged funder. You believe our program staff understand your organization’s work, your field, and the challenges you face. You remain grateful for long-term, general operating support and our comprehensive technical assistance programs.
But we also heard that we have work to do: We need to better explain our vision and the role your organization plays in our strategies. We need to better understand your communities. And, we need to streamline our application process to better align the amount of time you spend seeking a grant with the size of the grant.
During the rest of the strategic planning process, we will continue to reach out to grantees and other stakeholders to solicit your thoughts on how best to shape the work of the foundation. We will share more of our findings in the coming weeks and months.
For now, I want to thank you for your help to date. We greatly appreciate your thoughts and advice. You’ll hear more from us about how we got here and what we’re thinking about as we move forward.
Chris Daggett is president and chief executive officer at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
I often wonder if it is productive to try to fashion a catchy title for a post, particularly when you could be the only person who thinks it is catchy. This one’s a stretch.
The driver for this title is that I recently encountered several nonprofits with approaches to the use of officer titles that I found to be a potential source of confusion, both internally and for unrelated parties dealing with these nonprofits. In some cases, the approach was also inconsistent with statutory requirements.
This prompted me to revisit the relevant New Jersey statutory language and to give some thought to the subject of management structure and officers and their titles and responsibilities.
The titles given to officers are not as important (but see below) as the description of responsibilities and reporting relationships. Although the responsibilities signified by some titles, such as president, secretary, and treasurer, are commonly understood, the responsibilities and reporting relationships still must be considered by the board and adequately described.
Some of the unusual (in my view) structures I have recently seen include an organization having an individual with the title of President and CEO who is not a corporate officer. Another organization has a position titled “CEO/Executive Director” that is not listed as an officer position in the bylaws but the duties of which are described in the bylaws. Outside parties dealing with someone whose title includes “CEO” will quite logically believe they are dealing with an officer, indeed the principal officer, of the corporation.
The New Jersey Nonprofit Corporation Act requires that all nonprofit corporations have a president, secretary, and treasurer. If the nonprofit chooses different titles for the three required officers, it must indicate in the bylaws what alternate titles correspond to president, secretary, and treasurer.
The statute also describes additional officers that may be considered, including a chair of the board, an executive director, and vice presidents, as may be prescribed in the organization’s bylaws. Certainly, chief executive officer is a title often used. In the nonprofit world, the executive director title is used more often, but both titles are generally understood to identify the principal executive officer of the corporation.
Generally, the officers are elected by the board of trustees, but the bylaws can provide otherwise. Their duties may be provided in the bylaws or in resolutions adopted by the board.
There is no requirement that the officers also be trustees, although in some cases that might be advisable. For example, it would be quite unusual and a difficult structure in practice to have a board chair who is not a member of the board. Members of the board of trustees of small nonprofits with no paid staff will, of necessity, hold corporate officer titles.
The board, in conjunction with the principal executive officer, should determine the most appropriate organizational structure for the nonprofit’s operations and the skill sets of its management team, including skill sets that need to be added. Officer titles and responsibilities will flow from that structure.
Most bylaws describe in a general way the duties of corporate officers. They don’t always cover reporting relationships. To avoid confusion internally and externally, the responsibilities and reporting relationships of the nonprofit’s management team should be clear. It may be a good practice to have job descriptions in addition to and more detailed than those in the bylaws that make clear each position’s roles, responsibilities, and reporting relationships.
A clear description of roles, responsibilities, and reporting relationships is important in small nonprofits as well as large organizations. Even with board members who are also officers, it is essential to define responsibilities and reporting relationships to avoid confusion and provide for operational efficiency.
The management structure should be reviewed periodically and changed as necessary or advisable. If activities or people in senior level positions change, the board should determine whether the management structure should be changed as a result.
The key is for the board, and the principal executive, to be thoughtful about the management structure and see that roles, responsibilities, and reporting relationships are sufficiently described to ensure a management team that functions well together.
An Unrelated Note on Committees and Trustees
While officers need not be trustees, all board committees that are empowered to act on behalf of the board must only include trustees. If a nonprofit wants to involve nontrustees on committees, those committees must be advisory only.
An Unrelated Concern Regarding Corporate Bank Accounts
I also want to share a story unrelated to the subject of this post. Over the last several weeks, I have had two clients ask for assistance due to an inability to access their bank accounts. In both cases, the clients had small business corporate accounts with a major bank, with one signatory on the account. The signatories became unavailable and the bank did not permit the clients to access their accounts.
I spoke with two different departments at the bank and the managers of two financial centers (branches), emphasizing that these are corporations; the accounts are not the property of the signatories. Each time, I was told that the nonprofit owner of the account would not be permitted to access the account unless the signatory was involved.
Curiously, I was advised that the nonprofit could open a new account, close the existing account, and transfer the funds to the new account without the signatory’s involvement. I’m not quite sure how that is different from simply accessing the funds in the existing account.
In any event, it may be wise to check with your bank and make sure that your account relationship is structured in such a way that a change in personnel will not have an impact.
Kent E. Hansen is a senior staff attorney with Pro Bono Partnership, Inc. Pro Bono Partnership provides free business and transactional legal services to nonprofits serving the disadvantaged or enhancing the quality of life in neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
Posted onOctober 16, 2017byAtiya Weiss, Executive Director, The Burke Foundation
Recently I was asked to speak about how the arts — and specifically arts education — will contribute to the workforce of the future. The convening at which I spoke was primarily concerned with STEM education and its importance to the future of this country, and we took pride in not only affirming that importance but pushing for the arts to be acknowledged for their value as well.
The world is changing rapidly, and the skills needed for college, career, and citizenship in the 21st century are different from those currently being emphasized and tested in our schools. We also know that we need to produce students who can think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, and collaborate versus simply scoring well on tests. In addition, we want our students to be engaged, passionate, and given ample opportunity to explore their interests.
Our business leaders — from Jamie Dimon to Jeff Bezos — are desperate for innovators who are intellectually curious, capable of overcoming adversity, and willing to take risks. In light of that fact, it is especially saddening that we lose our curiosity at too early an age. Four-year-olds constantly ask questions, wonder how things work, and test their assumptions about the world around them.
Unfortunately, the evidence reveals that by the time children are 6 ½ years old, they stop asking questions because they have learned the “right” answer is prioritized over the provocative question.
At the Burke Foundation, we’ve chosen three key areas in which to invest our resources: Early Development, Children’s Health, and Achievement Through Arts.
We’ve learned that the arts are a vital component in fostering curiosity, self-expression, and risk-taking. Yet, despite the many positive returns on the arts, they remain consistently underfunded and are the first to be cut in a crisis. This is one area where we as philanthropists can make a difference in guiding and supporting the development of well-rounded children.
Each of us has sat through a beautiful, inspiring performance — whether being drawn in by a theater production or moved at a concert. I have two young boys and had that magical feeling when watching my kids’ preschool class perform Where the Wild Things Are. I loved seeing the colors, costumes, and children finding their voices and having a chance to push their boundaries and express themselves. It was as magical for them as it was for me.
The impact of the arts on us isn’t just an intangible, and we’re learning more every day about the effect they have on us from a neuroscientific perspective.
The Washington Post featured an article called Your Brain on Arts and shared: “While art is considered the domain of the heart, its transporting effects start in the brain.”
We now know that when we watch a performance next to other people in an audience, we feel a strong sense of social connection and are attuned to the emotions and reactions of others around us.
In addition, given our brain’s capacity for empathy, we get a neural rush when art tells us a story—whether it’s through dance, visual art, theater, poetry—that speaks to the human condition. We generally laugh more, cry more, and enjoy ourselves more at a live performance than watching something at home.
Being new to the Burke Foundation, I wanted to understand how to unleash this potential and delve into complex questions about the value of the arts. I wanted to understand how that value can be measured and communicated. I also wanted to know how we, as a foundation, could stand to make a meaningful impact in the lives underserved youth in New Jersey and New York through arts education programming.
Since my arrival at the Burke Foundation, we’ve been engaged in a field scan process to guide our approach, and I’ve found that my perspective on the importance of arts education has deepened through conversations with more than 30 researchers, practitioners, and foundations active in the field.
Here is some of what we found:
We began by looking at the systems in place. Poverty is increasing in New Jersey, and it’s one of only three states where the number of families living in poverty is growing. In addition, New Jersey currently has one of the largest achievement gaps in the US when comparing low-income kids versus their higher income counterparts.
We also learned that closing that achievement gap in our schools is harder when students suffer from poor attendance, are not engaged in the classroom, and have parents that are not involved in their education.
In our search for productive approaches to get students more engaged, and to provide them with a reason to come to school and participate, we realized that music, dance, and theater programs give students a sense of mastery and excitement that is hard to find in other disciplines. We found that arts education can be a powerful tool for getting kids engaged in school and helping them see it through.
As part of our research process, we also dug into the evidence base. We spent some time with Professor James Cattarall, a giant in the field of research around arts education and creativity. He recently passed away, and while we don’t know him well we are grateful for the guidance he offered us and touched by his passion for supporting and empowering young people.
Cattarall’s research has indicated that low-income students with a high engagement in the arts had a school drop-out rate of just 4 percent, compared to 22 percent for low-income students with a low engagement rate in the arts. He attributed the lower drop-out rate to various factors. He hypothesized that the arts reach students who might normally fall through the cracks, speaks to students who have different learning styles, and creates more opportunities for student engagement.
Professor Catterall found that underserved youth who have high levels of arts engagement show more positive outcomes in a variety of areas than their low-arts-engaged peers. Importantly, his research also found that underserved young people with a history of intensive arts experiences showed achievement levels closer to, and sometimes exceeding, the levels shown by the general population.
We learned about many impressive results when the arts are integrated into education, such as:
Students not wanting to miss school on a day that there is arts programming
Better rates of homework completion in classes with an arts integration focus
Teachers reporting connecting better with their students and often saw them in a new light
Greater involvement by parents who come to see their kids’ performances
One of my favorite examples involves a theater and dance program, ArtsConnection’s DELTTA, that allows English language learners to excel and learn English much faster than a regular class.
These findings tell us that anyone considering ways to close the achievement gap should look to arts education as an option. It’s a proven vehicle to engage the three key stakeholder groups necessary to improving kids’ academic outcomes: students, parents, and teachers.
During our field scan, our experts repeatedly came back to the notion that the arts have a unique ability to engage the whole child. And while the arts share similar characteristics with activities like sports — which fosters teamwork and friendships and requires grit and dedication — it can also offer something truly unique by being an avenue for self-expression, communication, and creation.
At the Burke Foundation, we believe the arts serve as a powerful gateway for engaging the minds of at-risk youth and contributing to their cognitive, socio-emotional, and personal development. We learned the intrinsic and extrinsic qualities of arts education collectively play a critical part in helping underserved kids thrive, by keeping them engaged in school, giving them a safe space to express themselves, teaching them critical thinking and collaboration, developing their cognitive skills and social-emotional core, and giving them a sense of community, among so many other things.
The arts can prepare them for a wide variety of jobs in the modern world, many of which are as focused on persuading others, operating within teams, and crafting new solutions to pre-existing problems.
The arts offer many tangible benefits to young people, but there is also something distinctly human about them that we can’t forget. It is an opportunity to make sense of one’s life, create and express meaning, and cope with remarkably difficult circumstances.
The Burke Foundation, a member of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, was founded in 1989 by the late Jim Burke and Diane Burke with the mission of improving the health and well-being of children in the NJ/NY region. Over the last year, the Burke Foundation has expanded significantly in its grantmaking capacity and intends to fund research-backed interventions that will have an outsized impact.
This fall, we’re hosting a High School Regional Mini-Festival at the Paul Robeson Center in Newark. Through readings and performances, Q&As and discussions, a group of poets will engage with hundreds of Newark high school students over the course of one school day in October.
For the next several weeks, we will be featuring short Q&As with some of the participating poets on the Dodge Blog each Friday. This week, we’re talking to Jasmine Mans.
In 2012, Jasmine Mans was chosen by Glamour Magazine, as one of their Top 10 Most Influential Woman in College. Later, Lyon Magazine would call Jasmine “Your New Favorite Poet on the Internet.” Blavity, Saint Heron, and Billboard would cover Mans’ poetry, all commenting on the intensity and honesty safe guarding her work. Jasmine has also successfully competed in HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Brave New Voice and Knicks Poetry Slam competitions. Jasmine has opened for artists such as Goapele, Mos Def, and Janelle Monae. Her work has appeared alongside other artists such as NoMalice of Clipse and Pharrell. Her artistry has brought her to theatres and stages including the Kennedy Center, Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theater, the Wisconsin Governor’s Mansion and the Sundance Film Festival, amongst others. In 2016, Mans opened up for group Disbatch before 30,000 fans in Madison Square Garden. Jasmine Mans is a classically trained poet and orator whose toured London, Manchester, and, of course, the United States of America.
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What is something you have recently discovered about poetry?
I recently discovered that poetry can live in many spaces. Poetry should not be confined to just the page. It belongs on billboards, bodies, on the ground, etc. I am learning every day, and asking myself, “In which ways do I want my work, my poetry, to take up space?” I recently discovered that my poetry is allowed to take up space, once I allow myself to.
Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
Most of the poetry that I write, I am afraid to share. We are all worried that we will be misunderstood. And, moreover, we are worried that our truth will hurt the people we love.
However, the state of being “afraid” only speaks to a premature stage of growth. May I mention, after “fear” comes possibility, exploration, and chance.
I’m often afraid of writing about my family. I am often scared of making the people who love me unconditionally look “flawed.”
But then, I think, the most valuable question is: what do we owe fear and what do we owe truth?
Do you have any advice for those who are trying to help students engage in poetry?
Yes, my advice for those who are trying to help students engage in poetry is:
Vulnerability: Poetry begins with honesty.
Storytelling: At its core, poetry is simply storytelling. It is important to invest in how students already use their voice and tell their story. It is important to empower the language that’s true to their “literary voice,” and to shift the language that doesn’t channel their true intention.
Identity: Personal identity will always be important to the poet. Who or what is the reader identifying with?
Do you have a favorite memory of time spent in Newark?
I grew up in Newark. I would say that most of my valued memories were cultivated here. I attended Arts High School. I thank Arts High for my creative palette. It was during my time there that I discovered, subconsciously, my love for sound, dance, and poetry. That high school gave me access to an idea of talent that was surreal, yet ever so possible. Arts High taught me that you don’t have to be rich to gain a wealth of talent.