Do you remember the last time you really felt like you were a part of a community?

I asked myself this question lately and was hard pressed to come up with a recent example.

In 2020, during a time when many of us are confined to our homes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that feeling of community can be tough to conjure up.

What I hope to do with this interview series is to highlight some of the stories of community engagement that are happening around the world as a way to inspire others to become more engaged and invested in their own communities. I think today that’s more important than ever.

We’re at a moment now where many of us are trying to rethink practices that have been in place for a long time and the systemic issues that arise from unfair advantages and disadvantages pushed upon various communities and individuals. As we look to the future, a community-based approach to solving some of these problems is going to be extremely important.

After my conversation with Dr. Froswa’ Booker-Drew, I have hope that despite the challenges of this year, it is possible to create, engage with, and quite frankly, enjoy the perks of being a member of a community.

Dr. Froswa’ Booker-Drew

Dr. Froswa’ Booker-Drew is the Vice President of Community Affairs for the State Fair of Texas, responsible for grantmaking, educational programming, and community initiatives. She formerly worked as the National Community Engagement Director at World Vision where she served as a catalyst, partnership broker, and capacity builder for local partners to improve the well-being of children and their families all across the US. She co-founded the HERitage Giving Circle, one of the first giving funds for African American women in Texas, and owns Soulstice Consultancy. She’s written three books for women, and has won numerous awards including 2019 Dallas Business Journal’s Women in Business honoree and Diversity Ambassador for the American Red Cross.

I could go on—she’s extremely prolific and has accomplished an extraordinary amount in her career.

To say that talking with her was inspiring is an understatement. We spoke for only an hour, but by the end of the call, her warmth, encouragement, and genuine kindness made me feel like I had walked away with a new friend, and a connection that I hope to keep for years to come.

Below is just an edited selection of the conversation we had about community engagement, how smaller nonprofits can get funding, and why listening is so important.

Jessica Califano: To start out, I’m hoping to show that community engagement can have a real impact on people’s lives. Can you tell me about a moment from your career when you went ‘Okay, this is what a community is. This is what a community feels like.’

Dr. Froswa’ Booker-Drew: You know, I have a lot of examples but I’ll share one that’s more current.

In the context of COVID, I didn’t think that community engagement was still possible. I remember when we had shelter in place, I thought for the first week or so, ‘Oh my god, what am I gonna do? That’s my job.’

But it’s amazing that with technology, you can still have a sense of community. I do these calls twice a month where I bring nonprofits together. The goal is for them to start sharing resources and to connect to each other. 

And so I remember the first virtual meeting and listening to folks going, ‘Hey I’m doing diapers. I’ve got this. Can we connect? Let’s start doing events together.’ And you’re sitting there going ‘Oh my god, this is what it’s supposed to look like.’ It’s sharing resources. 

I’ve had multiple experiences of seeing people come together and talk about issues and then coalitions start. I remember we had a group of gardeners, urban farm folks, who were coming to us and they were frustrated about things like lack of irrigation, and other issues. So I just brought them together. And then this group says ‘We’re gonna spin off and do a coalition that focuses on urban farms.’ I was sitting there going ‘Yes! This is so awesome!’ You’re watching people decide that the collective can work instead of going, ‘I can do this in isolation.’ They make the decision that they’re willing to sacrifice for the greater good. 

You’re watching people decide that the collective can work instead of going, ‘I can do this in isolation.’ They make the decision that they’re willing to sacrifice for the greater good. 

I think quite often there is this fear when we do that kind of work that we’re going to lose something. Like if I collaborate, you’re gonna get my funding, or you’re gonna get more visibility or whatever it is, and I noticed that there’s so much more to gain when people are bringing all these different skills and ideas. You know, because we have blind spots. I love when I’m in these groups and I see people go ‘Yeah I never thought about that because that wasn’t in my sphere of influence,’ or ‘I just didn’t know that this existed.’

So it’s been really cool for me to watch it throughout my career, but even more so during COVID. You can still have community in the midst of a pandemic.

JC: That’s amazing. Hearing about the organic way that it came together too is really cool. It’s not an easy thing to do, to build a community, right? And when it comes together organically, I think that’s the key to making it a really engaged group rather than forcing people into a box together.

FBD: It’s trust, I think, at the core of this. I always talk about that with social capital, but at the core of building community is trust. I have to believe that you’ve got my best interests at heart, and that there’s not this hidden agenda. That you’re not coming in and saying you’re gonna do one thing, and then doing another. So I think it’s trust and track record. 

Dr. Froswa’ Booker-Drew’s TEDxSMU talk entitled, Proximity + Presence: Social Capital and Polarization

People have to be comfortable in knowing that we’re gonna do something. That it’s not that we’re just meeting to meet, but that there’s a track record of being consistent. Folks want to be around something that works and that they know people are committed to. Those are the things that, even in the midst of COVID, even more so now, that people want to be a part of. Something that works. 

This is a great time for people to really reimagine what communities look like. And we’ve got the time now because many of us are at home. We’re busier than we ever were—oh my god I didn’t know we could have so many meanings—but it’s a real opportunity to reimagine things. I think now we have opportunities to create communities that can address equity issues and not just build on the existing foundation but reimagine what the possibilities could be. 

This is a great time for people to really reimagine what communities look like.

JMC: Yeah, I totally agree. So let’s go into your work with the State Fair of Texas. As I was doing my research on your role there and what the State Fair does with the local community, I was really surprised that there’s such a wide range of community involvement from the organization. Is this something that the State Fair has always done or is this an initiative that came about when you started working there?

FBD: I was hired in 2016 and the Fair had been doing the scholarship program for probably a decade or so, but there really wasn’t a formalized community affairs department. They had been doing some charitable giving, the agriculture piece had been going on, and there was a curriculum, but there really wasn’t this program. So when I came in, I was so blessed to have the opportunity to develop what we do.

For the first six months I went around and listened. Now, I have been in that community for years, and to kind of give you some context, South Dallas is an area that has really been neglected and has not had the resources that you see in other communities in the Dallas area. It’s a primarily Black community with some Latino population, but not a whole lot. Low income. 45% of the folks who live there do not have transportation. It’s a food desert. So you have this economic engine that sits in the midst of this community that has had a lot of challenges around poverty. But it’s a gold mine because of the people. It’s just an amazing place.

I had been working there in the past with a number of institutions, but I did not want to take for granted that because I’d been there, I knew what people needed. I think a lot of times with community engagement it’s real easy to go ‘Oh I know what they need because I’m a part of that community. I’ve been there. I know, or I’ve worked on it.’ And I didn’t want to do that.

So I spent the first six months listening. I just went around and let people just tell me what they wanted.

And I remember at one of the meetings a good friend of mine—I mean we’re really good friends—she was in an elected official position, and she went off on me. I mean just going nuts. And I remember looking at my watch and I was like, ‘Okay you’ve got a few more minutes of this because we’re friends but why are you going off on me?’ And she said ‘I never had anybody to do this with.’ In that moment I was like, ‘Oh wow, this accessibility piece is huge.’ For organizations to be present and to just show up and listen.

So often we make decisions in isolation and think, ‘Oh they should like it. If we build it they’ll come,’ and then when they don’t, we immediately blame people for being apathetic. Well, we weren’t there, and we didn’t listen to find out what they needed.

So for the first six months—even though my church is in that community, and like I said I’ve worked in a number of places there—I listened. And I came up with three areas that I noticed that people kept bringing up.

The first was economic development, because it’s a community that does not have a lot of jobs available. Most people have to leave the community, and even then, they’re not living wage jobs. So you’ve got that piece that was going on.

Then, we had a number of nonprofits that did not have the infrastructure they needed. They were out there hustling, doing great work, but they weren’t on the radar of larger foundations. And the foundations would say things like, ‘Well, they don’t have an audit.’ Well, that’s a barrier. It’s not to say that you don’t want good accounting practices in place, but if that’s important, and their work is important in that community, then I felt like foundations should be responsible, so to speak, to help them with getting what they need. Because if the goal is to make sure these communities are cared for and that they’re sustainable, we have to help them.

So that was the other thing. How do we help build their capacity through training—not only through funding—but technical assistance and making sure that we’re paying for things like audits or grant writers because that’s what gets them to the next level.

Image via State Fair of Texas.

The other area was education. We have a number of schools in our local area that have brilliant young people, but because of some of the challenges that they face, their full potential isn’t realized. And so we wanted to come alongside our high schools and create programs that expose our students to possibilities. In the state of Texas, agriculture is like, the number one industry, and yet you have young people who live in urban communities who don’t even see that as an option because they don’t have folks in that space that they see or come in contact with.

And so I just wanted to be able to take what we heard and then turn it into something that we could use our human capital for, because we have folks on our team that are brilliant, along with our sponsors and vendors. So you take that, and you take our financial capital, and you take our social capital. Because you’re talking about an entity that’s a multi-million dollar entity. That in 24 days brings in all these resources. How do you take those relationships and then use that capital and advocate on behalf of communities that you’re serving?

So I was just blessed with the opportunity to come in and lay out this framework and start putting it together. My boss blessed it and the board blessed it and said, ‘You go for it. Do what you do.’ And so we’re in year four now of trying to make some things happen.

JMC: That’s amazing. I would love to hear about some success stories that came out of the work that you’ve done.

FBD: Oh it’s so many, and I don’t take credit for it, because it’s our agencies that we work for.

We had hired a grant writer to get our folks United Way funding because we do this cohort with them. It’s to build the capacity of nonprofits in that area. And the first year we did it, people didn’t think we were gonna get the applicants. It was kind of like, ‘Oh there’s not that many nonprofits in this area.’

First year, we had 35, 36 nonprofits apply. We could only take 10. Second year, same number, and only one was a repeat. So it was kind of like, ‘Oh my goodness, there are like 70 of these nonprofits.’ And funders had not scratched the surface of knowing that these folks existed.

And so we took them through this cohort program where we teach them fundraising and governance, and they have deliverables, and then we put in some financial investment.

But I remember saying to United Way, ‘We can’t take them through this program, and then they don’t have access to United Way funding!’ And to write a grant for it is hard. I mean, most of these folks don’t have grant writers. And so we quietly paid for a grant writer for six organizations. Well of the six, three got three-year funding. It’s unheard of for these small nonprofits to get multi-year funding, you know, and it was because we invested in the grant writer so they could get more money. And they couldn’t afford her. She’s one of the best in town. And so those are the kinds of things that you’re like, ‘Yes!’

Because we funded them it gave them credibility to go on to some of the larger foundations. And we were able to make introductions to other foundations and say, ‘Hey, here’s this group that’s doing great work, we’re funding them.’ I do this thing all the time where I’m like calling, going, ‘Hey I got a group that I’m funding, I can’t give them that much but can you do it?’

One of the nonprofits that we work with is Curtis Corbins who does Southern Dallas Link. He does transportation and he transports people to livable wage jobs. These are jobs that start off at $13 an hour (pre-COVID) and then they end up going to, in like three months to $18, $19 dollars an hour. Well at that point you’re getting people to where they don’t need his service. They’re then able to get cars through on the road lending.

Well he needed a bigger fleet. And I remember calling the Muse Family Foundation and saying, ‘Hey let’s meet.’ They’d already been talking to him, but I said, ‘Hey let’s put some financial investment in him. I don’t have a whole lot but I’d like to work with you all. What can we do to support him?’ And they’ve decided to support him with a major amount of money. And so to watch what has happened with his nonprofit and the doors that have opened because of our affiliation, for me has just been such a win. To see the collaborations that have occurred, it’s just been amazing.

Another story real quick. We do this thing where we thank the folks we give money to. So every year I do this partner thing and I remember the first year they were like ‘Wait you give us money, and you’re saying thank you? That doesn’t make sense.’ But I was thanking them for partnering with us. They didn’t have to do that. And they said, ‘well convene us.’

So I started meeting with them once a month and three things came out of that. It was we need to work on workforce, education, and transportation. But transportation kept coming up to the surface. So fast forward three years later after we have worked with Ford Foundation. Ford gave us a vehicle for Curtis to use for senior transportation. We did a study where we had 200 plus residents tell us about their transportation needs and we made recommendations to DART which is our major transportation carrier for public transportation. We funded an extra day for senior transportation in our community because that’s a real issue. Then, finally, three years later, after meeting once a month, we have a pilot from DART to do inter-community transportation. That has been huge.

JC: That’s amazing. I think helping these groups get a seat at the table and get an opportunity to really expand on the work they’re already doing is so important. And one thing that I took from what you were saying is that the foundations and the funders have a lot of requirements and things around getting grant money. Do you think there’s a way that those funders can be more inclusive and rethink their systems about how they grant money?

FBD: I’m proud because last year we gave over 60 grants and sponsorships to about 67 organizations that we gave a little under half a million dollars to. And this is the thing, 90% of those are run by people of color. You don’t see foundations that will work to try to fund not only small-to-midsize nonprofits, but place funding in the hands of organizations that are led by people of color.

Recent studies have come out that have shown that organizations led by Black women get only like 0.06% of the funding. So there’s a disconnect with funders and part of that is they don’t have folks on their boards who are representative of the people in the communities that they serve. So it starts at the board level.

But the other piece is staffing. So you have people who, oftentimes, may not have nonprofit experience but are now making decisions about where funding goes. So there’s a disconnect with knowledge. They may come out of corporate America and those systems that work there may not necessarily work at a small nonprofit that’s dealing with all these other obstacles that corporate America can pay for but they can’t. 

And so you have all these disconnects and the narrative typically is that these communities are broken. So instead of looking at ‘How do we do these long term solutions that empower people?’, it ends up being this band-aid approach that doesn’t really give dignity to both sides at all.

I love the fact that we’re trying to change the narrative of what philanthropy looks like. That you can hold people accountable but you can also walk with them and have an investment to build them up to where they’re sustainable and not just throwing money into something and then next month moving on to this other issue because it doesn’t help them. 

I love the fact that we’re trying to change the narrative of what philanthropy looks like.

I’m also interested in the growth of our nonprofits. You don’t always see foundations doing capacity building that opens up doors to other funders. That are intentional about their growth and surrounding them with support. Also, you don’t see many foundations, you see some, that have relationships with the people that they’re giving money to. 

I had an email from a couple of our folks in our cohort saying ‘I need help with social media.’ So I’m connecting them with folks who do that pro bono. You don’t have a relationship where people feel that comfortable going ‘I need help,’ because the fear is ‘I don’t want the funder to think that I don’t have it together so I’m not gonna tell you what’s wrong.’ And I’m honored that they feel like, ‘I can tell you everything that’s wrong because you’re gonna help me find a resource to fix it.’ 

So it can change. The narrative has to change. We can’t look at these communities as broken. We have to look at the systems and the policies that have been created that place these communities in the position that they’re in and that has to change.

JC: Yeah absolutely. What you said made me think about the timing of it too, because it’s not just investing money in these nonprofits and the work they’re doing. It’s about investing the funding over time because really, to build a truly engaged community and make really big changes, it’s not something that can happen in a one-year funding cycle, right? 

FBD: No. I mean, let’s be honest, what it will take to transform a lot of our communities—to your point—it’s gonna take years, because it’s been years of neglect. 

But even for me—I’m not giving like $100,000 grants. I remember when I first started I was like ‘I think I’m just doing band-aids.’ And another friend who’s a funder told me, ‘No you’re not. If you weren’t doing that, what would they have?’ So even the little bit that you do is contributing. 

But I think that as much as we’re demanding our nonprofits collaborate, foundations need to collaborate a whole lot more too. Bring the folks in from communities to listen to them to figure out how you use their funds to support what they need. 

JC: Right. I think that’s what makes a bottom-up approach to solving a lot of issues in a community super super important. Because if you have someone from outside of the community coming in with a top-down approach saying ‘Here’s what we’re going to do to solve this,’ that just leads to more of the same right? So there’s not actually any problem solving being done there.

FBD: Or buy in.

JC: Right! Exactly. So how can leaders and funders engage more effectively with communities to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard and also make sure that all the members of these communities are informed and invested and engaged with the issues that they’re working to solve?

FBD: You know, I think you have to decide as an organization or as a funder what level you’re going to address. Because there’s an individual level, there’s the organizational level, and there’s a systems level. And I made the decision in our work that we were going to address organization and systems. Individual levels require direct services and that’s important too.

And there are some groups that do all three of those well, but I think you have to decide very quickly where you’re going to work because you dilute your message and your effectiveness when you’re all over the place and you’re not sure of what those efforts look like.

So I think for foundations to bring people to the table, they have to decide, ‘Are we trying to solve organizational issues and problems in those organizations? Or are we really looking at using our resources to do the systemic changes that need to happen?’ I think in all honesty, foundations have to do both. They have to look at how they’re advocating on behalf of the people that they serve.

Let’s be honest, you’re not gonna get everybody in a community at the table. So it’s being intentional about trying to give voices to everyone but knowing that you may not be able to reach everybody in a community. But how do you find those stakeholders and those leaders in communities who can then go and get the feedback from the people in that area? It’s going to be important.

I think listening sessions are so critical right now. I mean, we have so much time on our hands so if you want to engage your community, how do you create these spaces for people to listen? And be okay with them being critical.

Like I mentioned about the lady who was a friend of mine who went off on me. You have to be ok with folks criticizing you. I don’t like it and I know that we haven’t always done everything right and there’s a lot that I could still do. But I have to put myself in a position of being okay with the fact that people may not agree with what you’ve done in the past or the decisions that have been made.

Instead of coming in bracing for being right, I think you have to posture yourself in a way that, if you truly care about community, you are there to listen and you’re there to create spaces for people to feel safe. I think now more than ever people need to feel like they’re heard. That they matter. That their opinions are valuable.

I think now more than ever people need to feel like they’re heard. That they matter. That their opinions are valuable.

Part of bringing people to the table is going to require trust. Why would I come to a table just because you’ve opened the door? I don’t know what your motivation is. It starts with building intentional relationships and creating spaces for trust to grow and knowing that it takes time.

But you have to be authentic and be okay with being vulnerable and going ‘I don’t have the answer.’ I think a lot of folks want to walk into communities and go ‘I can solve your problems.’ No we can’t! What we can do is work together and solve together.

The other thing I would suggest that people do in these spaces is something called asset mapping. I think quite often we walk into communities and we believe that there’s nothing there. And that’s a form of arrogance because it’s like ‘I know everything that exists.’ Well no you don’t! I’ve been in this work for a decade and I am constantly finding, even in the community I work in, new nonprofits that I didn’t even know existed. So I can’t have this belief that I know everything.

So you have to asset map which is based on the work of McKnight and Kretzmann. You have to really look at what the assets are in a community, whether that’s institutions, individuals, physical spaces, associations, the local economy, or stories.

Example of an asset map. Image via Wikipedia.

I don’t care how poor a community is, you can find some of those assets in every community. I think mapping them and becoming more familiar with what exists in a community that you want to work in or have an impact on will help you be aware of what’s already there, versus coming in and going, ‘We’ve got to create more tutoring.’ Well there may be a program down the street that already exists! Without doing the asset mapping and building relationships and listening to the stories and developing trust, you may not ever know that.

JC: So how do you build that trust? How do you get people to come to these listening sessions and actually be truthful and honest and share their experiences in an authentic way?

FBD: I think the way that you get people there is relationships with other stakeholders. It’s presence. I talk a lot about presence and proximity. So I’ve got to be willing to show up and be in spaces with you. Come in and say to folks, ‘I’m just here authentically to learn. I want to know more.’ And then based on people that are there, set up meetings to start getting to know people.

I went around, and oh my goodness, the number of people that I sat down with and just talked to in our community! But it has to be consistent. What you don’t want to do is meet with somebody and then you never talk to them again.

There’s a lady in our community, Miss Coleman, she’s probably 86. Miss Coleman is who I want to be when I get old, and I’m getting old. But she’s this beautiful older black woman who has blonde hair and wears these big glasses. She dresses out of this world and she cracks me up. She’s so wise and so funny. And she’s one of those people that’s a community staple because she’s around, she sees everything. Those are the folks that you have to keep in touch with. You can’t always focus on the people with the titles and the big names. It’s the folks that are in the regular community that you just have phone calls with and just sit up and let them talk about whatever they want to talk about. And I love what I learn from her. 

It’s putting yourself in these positions to just be available. I think when you do that, people trust you. I told her today—it was so cute—I said, ‘You know if you need something you can call me.’ She goes, ‘Oh I already know that. That’s why I was calling earlier.’ (Laughs) And I just laughed and go ‘I love you, you are who I want to be!’ So I think we just have to show up and be willing to be there and be human. Just be human.

JC: Yeah! And I think people probably are happy and excited about getting a chance to really get their voice heard. You know, maybe they don’t have that opportunity in their day-to-day life.

FBD: They don’t. It’s just creating a space to be human with people. Don’t tell them what they need. Allow them to dream and tell you what they want. In every community I’ve worked in, every person knew what they wanted for their community. And, truth be told, it’s all very similar. You want your kids to have opportunities. You want them to be safe. You want them to be healthy. All of us have the same desires and I think you’ll begin to realize when you’re in close proximity that you have more in common than you do different. Which is to be happy!

So how do you bring your resources to the table to help make their dreams and wishes for community come true? And it’s not the savior complex. Because a lot of folks come into communities and they have this idea that they’re gonna come in and save people. That’s why they go to church. (Laughs) I don’t do that. What I can do is walk with you. What I can do is figure out what to do with what I have, what you have, and how we can make some things happen.

Posturing is so big! I don’t think people recognize that it’s not ‘I’m gonna come in and save you.’ Let them go to church for that!

JC: Exactly! That’s just another one of the pitfalls of that top-down approach. 

FBD: Yeah! It’s, ‘I know more than you.’ At the core of all this is a dignity issue. You have to look at people and be able to believe that you deserve what I deserve. 

At the core of all this is a dignity issue. You have to look at people and be able to believe that you deserve what I deserve. 

You know, I was on a board and this man made a comment and I thought my ears were gonna explode. The man said, ‘You know, we’re building houses for low-income people and they are driving older model luxury cars.’ And I got so offended that he was bothered by that. He felt like they should not be driving those cars. 

I thought, ‘Okay, so this is a dignity issue.’ It’s the belief that, if I’m doing something for you, you shouldn’t have access to anything nice. I don’t know how they got the car, if somebody gave it to them. You don’t know if they’ve saved up all their money. It could have been, you know, all kinds of things could have happened. Why are you concerned? 

And it spoke to me in that moment, that as a society we have to really investigate our motives for why we give and help people. Because quite often the motive is ‘I’m doing something for you to make me feel good.’

When he said that I thought that was so disheartening. That for a lot of folks who give, it isn’t that they want to see you have nice things. They just want to be able to say that they did something for you and want you to stay in that place. You can’t get above that. Well, no! You deserve what I deserve. 

JC: Right, yes. It’s empathy. Empathy and truly, like, caring about others is something that I think is missing in a lot of our interactions on a day to day basis.

FBD: Part of what happens is, if I don’t really love me and care about me, then it’s hard for me to do that for someone else. And so if you’re gonna do community work, to me, that requires reflection. You have got to constantly check yourself. Check your motives. As much as you want others to grow, you have to be willing to grow too. And if you don’t, it’s a disservice to the very people that you’re trying to support. 

You have to constantly be taking time to sit back and create these feedback loops from them and even, you know, from yourself. What happens in communities is we don’t listen to folks. We keep doing what we’re doing and then it doesn’t work, and we walk away and that community it’s punished because we weren’t constantly creating these spaces to make change happen when necessary.

JC: Right. So, changing lanes for a minute, can you tell me a little bit more about the Nonprofit Infrastructure Initiative Cohort? I know it’s doing a lot of work with helping smaller nonprofits. What kind of advice do you have for nonprofits in other areas that don’t have access to this amazing program? What can they do to start getting their work known to funders and start getting that grant money?

FBD: Couple of things. I think creating that kind of program is easy. Every community has experts, so it’s finding out what are the needs of your nonprofit. If it’s government, if it’s fundraising, you’ve got experts right now who are so willing to do a Zoom call and help put together a two-hour, three-hour workshop. So I think that’s easy to do in communities.

For nonprofits to get themselves in front of funders it goes right back to the relationship piece. Before you submit a grant, go talk to them. Set up a phone call. Do not ask for money. I tell all my folks, if you call me and I’ve never met you and you’re asking me for money, it’s like a cousin comes out of the blue and wants a loan. And you’re going, ‘What? Why would I give you any money? I don’t know you!’ Same thing with a funder. Build a relationship. Talk to them. Find out what’s important to them and then if they tell you no—if you submit your application and they tell you no—call back. Ask them why and they’ll tell you.

I’ll be honest, more often than not it’s not that it wasn’t a great application. It’s you and five hundred other people that are applying for this. I have to make the decision about what is the best investment for our organization. 

But do call. Ask for reviewers notes and then ask them for introductions to other funders. Say, ‘If it’s not something you all are interested in, do you know another funder who might be interested in the kind of work that we’re doing?’

I’ll say this, there are these groups that you can go to where all these funders are at. For example, Council of Foundations and Philanthropy Southwest. Typically those places are opportunities for nonprofits to not come in and pitch, but to talk about an issue. 

Let’s say homelessness is a big issue. If that’s the space you’re working in, you’re a subject matter expert. So what does it look like for you to try to present at these different foundation convenings your work and to talk about how this issue is important. Because then you’re able to shift the narrative for a funder to say, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t realize that was happening in our area.’ 

So those are some of the unique ways that you can still get in front of people and again, not pitch your organization, pitch the issue. It positions you as being the subject matter expert and folks want to talk to you about it.

JC: That’s great advice. And going off of that, I’d love to talk about your work at the HERitage Giving Fund. I thought that was really cool, that you started your own foundation. I’d love to hear how that came about and what work you’re doing there.

FBD: So HERitage came about because of a lady named Akilah Wallace. She came to me and another lady, Dr. Halima Leak Frances, and said ‘I want to start a giving circle.’ And we were like ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’ not knowing anything. And it’s been a journey. We’ve learned a lot.

Members of the HERitage Giving Fund. Image via Texas Women’s Foundation

We work with Texas Women’s Foundation which houses our money. It’s been amazing to watch 40+ Black women get together, many of them in nonprofit management, who don’t have a lot of money, but commit every month to putting money into this. We have attorneys and developers and all kinds of folks that are in this group and I love it because they’re absolutely brilliant. The camaraderie, the informal mentoring…today I’m doing a leadership circle with the folks that we funded.

We started in 2017 and we’ve raised about $50,000 that we’ve given out to organizations led by Black women in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. What makes us different from some of the other giving circles is that it’s not just fundraising and granting. As I mentioned, I do leadership circles with the folks that we fund. Well, the women who are a part of the group come to the leadership circles too. So we started a mentoring program between our members and the folks that we fund. So now they’re mentoring and helping out those organizations. We give them opportunities for funding and share our resources with them so it’s more than just giving grants. We really are about relationships and building these women-led organizations. It’s been amazing. I’ve learned a lot.

Giving circles have been around for a long time. It’s something that, in a community, if you get ten folks to give $1,000, what you can do with that $10,000 to help organizations can really make a great difference. 

It’s just a great way of changing the narrative of philanthropy. And that’s what it did for me. It showed me that I am philanthropist. I’d never seen myself as that, but yeah, I give money to this and it’s like ‘Wow, we’re philanthropists!’ We’re taking our dollars and putting them in a place that we believe in and can make a difference. And it does.

We’re taking our dollars and putting them in a place that we believe in and can make a difference. And it does.

JC: That’s really cool because I think philanthropy has kind of a connotation of extremely wealthy people starting a foundation. That’s kind of the image that comes to mind when you think about philanthropy but this is almost a complete rethinking of that. Anyone can be a philanthropist. Anyone can do this work. It’s not just about the money, it’s about the time you’re investing in talking to these nonprofit groups and hearing what they’re working on and then deciding ‘Okay, that’s what I want to support.’ So I think that’s amazing. I hope I can find a group like that somewhere in my community because I love the idea.

FBD: Or start it! I mean you can go to a foundation and create a donor-advised fund because that’s really what it is. And they keep your funds for you—you may pay an administrative fee for them to give you monthly reports on funding and they help you with the back office—but it’s something that anybody can do. I encourage people, if you want to engage in your community, what a great way of putting money behind it. 

Then, take your skill set and bring all these other skill sets together and you focus that on the nonprofits that you work with. So you have folks who can do marketing and people that can help them think about strategic planning and that’s really bringing this level of change that doesn’t always happen in our communities.

JC: That’s amazing. So can you tell me a little bit about some of the groups that HERitage has funded?

FBD: Oh there’s a number of them. Carter’s House is one. Shawana Carter started this because when she was going through some financial challenges, and buying clothing for her kids was difficult. She didn’t want other people to have to choose between clothes and food. So she started this clothing boutique for families to help folks be able to still have money to pay their rent and take care of their bills, without having to choose between that and their kids having school uniforms. So she gives out uniforms and clothing for free to families. Just watching the growth of her organization has been incredible. The fact that we could support her work has been wonderful.

Phillipa Williams, has ilooklikeLOVE. Phillipa does diapers. We look at those things and we think ‘Oh it’s not such a big deal,’ but it is! COVID really highlighted it because people couldn’t find diapers when it first started. It wasn’t just an issue for poor women. Well-to-do women couldn’t find them in their areas so they were coming to our neighborhood trying to find diapers for their kids.

ilooklikeLOVE diaper distribution. Image via ilooklikeLOVE.

We take those things for granted and I recognize that they’re very expensive. For a single mom who’s trying to feed her baby there’s that need and it’s hard to get access to them. If you see the photos of when they’re doing diaper distributions, it has closed up highways because so many people are in line. You’re like ‘For diapers?’ Yeah!

Natalynne Walton has a group called Hopeful Solutions and it’s for mothers who have substance abuse issues. So she has housing for them and she helps them get on their feet through life skills and helping them find jobs. She’s able to give them housing at a reduced rate while these mothers get their lives together. She was telling me one day she had a family with a mom with six kids and I was just like ‘Oh my God, in COVID?’ and they were living in a hotel and she moved them into a two-bedroom apartment. She said the family was elated to move into a two-bedroom apartment because they had been in a one-bedroom hotel. People like Natalynne are helping these women by giving them their own and providing stability for their kids. We’ve invested in her work. 

So it’s just awesome to see—and I could go on and on—but it’s awesome to see that even with our small contributions we can make a difference. There’s another one called Heart of Courage. Dania Carter helps mothers whose children have been taken away from them by CPS. You’ve got moms that because they just smoked weed they had their kids taken from them. Well that’s not a reason to disrupt an entire family. Get her help. Maybe she’s self-medicating because of all the stress. She advocates for these mothers to get their children back. She helps them get apartments and she helps them find jobs so that they can be a family and have a home. We supported her, because that’s important work. 

JC: Absolutely. And I think if these people weren’t on the ground in their community seeing these issues they wouldn’t necessarily be coming to light. People have preconceived notions about someone whose child was taken by CPS but you don’t know everyone’s story. You don’t know people’s situations unless you’re out there with them. 

FBD: And that’s why community is so important. Because if we’re not in close proximity to people you make these judgements that are so wrong and rooted in misinformation. Just being around her has made me even think a little differently. Like ‘Yeah, I never saw it like that. We do need to help them.’

So I’m grateful to all these people in these communities who say yes. Who step up and want to make a difference. And I’m just happy that, either through the State Fair or through HERitage, I have an opportunity to support them.

So I’m grateful to all these people in these communities who say yes. Who step up and want to make a difference. And I’m just happy that, either through the State Fair or through HERitage, I have an opportunity to support them.

JC: Absolutely. So we’re almost out of time but I wanted to get a little bit into your work at World Vision. You had a national title there so I’m interested to hear how you developed strategies to work with groups across multiple locations and areas that you weren’t in close proximity to.

FBD: Oh, that was hard. I had a team here, locally, in North Texas, as well as in Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, D.C., West Virginia and Appalachia, and then we had smatterings of work in Jackson, Mississippi, and Immokalee, Florida. I learned an enormous amount.

I learned that communities, although they all have poverty, manifest poverty differently. In some communities they have segregation. Whereas in a rural community like in Appalachia, because people are so distant from resources, it impacts their ability to get a good education or have access to healthy food.

I noticed too that rural and urban centers have some of the same issues but don’t always see themselves that way. The poverty may look different but it’s still poverty. I’m often like, if these two groups could get together, man they could change the world.

But for me it was going into those communities listening. The way that I developed the strategy about how we would engage our communities was using asset mapping. So I would have my staff actually look at how they could map resources and know what was available in a community. 

I also started something called Community Engagement Day which I still do at the State Fair. It was about bringing all our nonprofits together to build social capital. I would always hear our nonprofits say, ‘I need money,’ and what I discovered was, that wasn’t always what they needed. They needed a relationship. So we had these days where we would facilitate conversations and put nonprofits at tables with each other for them to share who they are and talk about ways they could collaborate. It was amazing to see the partnerships that started to develop.

It was hard work because I had to learn about all these different communities but at the end of the day it was so rewarding because you could see how transformation was beginning to happen. Like in Chicago, years later, I’ve been gone, but they’re still doing Community Engagement Day. I spoke at their Community Engagement Day virtually this year. It was just incredible to see that they’re still building relationships and that they’ve taken this idea and they do it all the time now. It helped me for what I get to do with the Fair, just in a more condensed area.

JC: That’s amazing. I think that’s really cool because some of these community-based organizations, these nonprofit groups, they could all probably learn a lot from each other. Being able to get them all together to be able to talk and communicate that way is a really smart idea that maybe just hasn’t happened in a lot of places. So I think that’s really awesome.

FBD: We just did one at the end of June that had a hundred plus folks show up online and we did breakout groups. I did networking breakout rooms. We were talking about advocacy because now with the Census and voting, nonprofits don’t realize that they can do advocacy. So we brought in all these speakers to tell them what they could do, how they can mobilize their folks, and then we put them in breakout rooms and they lost their minds! They thought it was like magic. I was like no, it’s just Zoom. (Laughs)

But we put them in breakout rooms and they were having so much fun. I messed up and dropped them out of the breakout rooms and they got mad at me! People love having space where they can just share and they were telling each other, ‘Call me!’ I mean, when we put them in the breakout rooms they were like who’s that one, what’s her name right there, tell her to call me. It was so cute. People were doing work that’s complementary to them.

So even Community Engagement Day, it’s easy. Every year we have themes so it’s something that can be done in anywhere that can really help build an even greater sense of community.

What’s Next for Stories of Community Engagement?

If you enjoyed this interview as much as I did, get excited because we have another one coming soon!

For next month’s interview, I’ll speak with James Lietner, founder of MissionCleanWater. MissionCleanWater helps people gain access to clean water using a community centered approach. Through grassroots relationship building, training, and long-term involvement, they collaboratively develop a solution to bring out clean water’s full potential.

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Posted by:Jessica Califano

Jessica is Head of Marketing at Temboo. When she's not working to spread the word about environmental engagement, she enjoys traveling, metalworking, and design. She's also passionate about gender equality, anti-racism, and sustainability.