Yesterday morning, I was out walking the dog when I ran into one of my neighbors. He told me that his wife, a research physician at Johns Hopkins, had just scored a $57 million grant. I was thrilled and amazed by this news.
Later in the day, I was brought to tears by a woman from McElderry Park, a neighborhood on the east side of Baltimore, who told me she’d tried—and failed—to get a grant to fund a trip she’d organized to take neighborhood kids to the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. This rodeo features black cowboys and cowgirls (is that really what they’re called?)—I’d never heard of it before. She (let’s call her Lisa) showed me pictures she took of the kids at the rodeo, the bronco riders, the kids playing back at home on the streets.
“I’d been counting on getting this grant,” Lisa told me. “I thought I was going to get it.” But she didn’t. She was devastated.
Lisa had come to Loyola on a Saturday, as I had, to attend a workshop looking at ways for institutions to work better with communities. I was there by way of my new job at Loyola, which is all about figuring out how to connect teachers, researchers, and classrooms with communities. The workshop leaders, De’Amon Hodges and Caitlin Childs, suggested that institutions could lead better and accomplish more by “stepping back”: rather than swooping in like golden angels to “save” communities, institutions should listen to what the community wants to accomplish, responding to goals instead of needs, energies and capabilities and gifts instead of deficits and problems.
This approach, they said, could break down barriers between institutions and communities and even lead, in De’Amon’s words, to celebration and “mutual delight.” It has an uninspiring name: assets-based community development (ABCD for short). But it’s an inspiring approach nevertheless.
As I listened to De’Amon and Caitlin, and all of the people at the workshop, which included community activists, various Loyola people (including a few students), government officials & politicians, and people simply involved in their city neighborhoods, one thing really struck me. A big question people in the community have for institutions like Loyola is simply this: How can institutions say they are invested (in principle) in communities, when they don’t invest (in principal, i.e., dollars) in those communities? Specifically, to the people in those communities? Why is it so hard to channel institutional resources—starting with simple, cold, countable cash—to actual people?
This isn’t just about giving away money. It’s about exchanging assets. It’s about equity. If you’re going to study a community, why wouldn’t you pay the people you’re studying just as you would expect to get paid to participate in a medical trial or weight-loss study? If you’re going to ask people to give their time to tell their story or give you a tour of the neighborhood or supervise your students while they learn how to work with kids or with elderly folks or people recovering from addiction, why would you not pay them? Time, bodies, local knowledge, experience, even passion and desire: these are all assets, are they not? Shouldn’t they be recognized and valued, and made visible, as such?
This is, indeed, a conundrum. It brought to mind a meeting I had a couple of weeks ago with the director of our office of community service and advocacy at Loyola. We were discussing my budget (another uninspiring, but important, subject). She emphasized that we needed to find ways to pay community members directly, even though the university generally disapproved of this practice. I was initially horrified to learn of this. “We pay our community partners?” I remember asking.
“Yes,” she said. “We need to make sure that they remain whole, no matter what happens in their interactions with us.” Especially, when those interactions don’t work out as well as we hoped. Which inevitably happens.
I now understand this. But the stark necessity of it became clear to me yesterday. Lisa had told her story to our entire group, bringing us, as I said before, to tears. I introduced myself to her after the workshop ended, which is when she showed me the pictures. She had clearly brought them to the workshop because she needed to tell her story. She needed to show someone those pictures of the kids at the rodeo. This is what she needed to become whole: for someone to know.
She also said to me, “I came to this workshop today because I want to know, does Loyola know about McElderry Park?” This question stopped me in my tracks. Does Loyola know about this neighborhood? I honestly had no idea. I fumbled an answer about how I’d had students do service-learning at an after-school program in Collington Square, another East Side neighborhood which I thought was nearby (though I wasn’t exactly sure), and I knew we worked with other organizations in East Baltimore (though again, I wasn’t quite sure if any of them served people in her neighborhood). But I had to admit, I really didn’t know if Loyola really knew much about McElderry Park. Our efforts, frankly, are focused on neighborhoods closer to Loyola’s campus, and our relationships to specific organizations rather than to communities.
She pressed me further. “I want to know, what can Loyola do about this?” She picked up the rejection letter she had brought along with her pictures, a thin, letter-size envelope with a cellophane window and pre-printed postage, very official looking. “Does Loyola show people like me how to get grants like this?”
“Well, no,” I said.
But couldn’t we? Needn’t we? The dean of our business school told me a few weeks ago that she had helped orchestrate the establishment of a Kiva program in Baltimore (Kiva is a microlender that uses crowdfunding to fund small-scale entrepreneurs; they started in so-called developing countries but have started programs in economically depressed areas in the U.S.). That’s great. But are we just going to make the money available, or are we going to help people get it?
And how much money are we talking about? How much money can make a difference? During the workshop, De’Amon described his own foundation, The Learning Tree, which gives $500 to people with projects they want to pursue to benefit the community. During the workshop, he showed how even $500 can make a big difference.
So I asked Lisa how much money she’d applied for.
“$660,” she said. This number astonished me. It also made me recall my morning conversation with my neighbor about his wife’s $57,000,000 grant.
Johns Hopkins Hospital is not far from McElderry Park. In fact, the hospital campus forms the western border of the neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood that was hit hard by the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, and remains contested gang territory. Many blame Johns Hopkins directly for some of the problems suffered by the neighborhood. Despite that, residents have doggedly remained, turning vacant lots into community gardens, blighted properties into murals, publishing a great neighborhood newspaper—and, I discovered, taking their kids to the rodeo.
This juxtaposition got me wondering about the actual difference between institutional and community resources. So I did some research (that skill is one of my assets, right?) And here’s what I found.
In 2013, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine received over $400,000,000—from the National Institutes of Health alone. In the same year, demographic info on McElderry Park set the average home price at about $50,000, average annual income less than that. I’m not sure how much money is invested in the community in the form of schools, urban infrastructure, and social/community services, but I’m sure it comes nowhere close to $400 million dollars.
I find it interesting that the JHU graphic states that the grant money enables them to “study” over 8 million patients worldwide. Does that actually mean they are serving them, or just studying them? And I’m also curious to know, how many of those 8 million live in McElderry Park? How many of them aren’t being served because they can’t afford to pay? Maybe one of you reading this can provide some heartening answers.
Now, Loyola doesn’t get anywhere near this kind of research investment. But the disparity between the resources we have and the financial resources many in our community have access to still raises the same questions. We need to figure out a better way to get resources to people in the community who have ideas and energy and passion to make the world—their world, our world—a better place.
So, I have it in my head now to establish some kind of grantwriting workshop for community members, maybe bringing some faculty and students in the business school, but also writing, English, communication together to have workshops with people seeking grants. Nothing particularly glamorous, but obviously, necessary. Especially if they’re going to have any chance at getting those Kiva grants.
And, a coda. In this new job I am constantly reminded of community assets, assets that accrue to me and my own work. I mentioned earlier that I’d never heard of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. Who knew that there was a black rodeo circuit—and that there’s actually a rodeo in Maryland every year featuring black riders and wranglers? I teach a course on the American West, and have always been interested in the unexpected ways that ethnic and racial minorities participate in American history and culture. Lisa gave me something great I can now bring into my course on the West, and maybe incorporate into future research. I’m chagrined that I did not even thank Lisa for this gift during our brief conversation. But I hope to make it up to her someday.