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More funding needed to sustain grassroots community development projects

By Michael Waddell, High Ground News

Last year, Community LIFT’s Empowerment Fund paved the way for improvement and beautification projects across the city, but a new study shows that much more funding is needed to keep momentum from those projects moving forward.

On August 2 at the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, researcher Madison Spinelli presented findings from her two-month study of the local grassroots development network which centered around Community LIFT’s Empowerment Fund and investments in grassroots leadership projects.

Her report analyzes Community LIFT’s Empowerment Fund grant program and similar neighborhood-level programs in Memphis, Cleveland, and Detroit to make the case for increased investment to grassroots leaders and projects as an important element of a broader approach to sustainable community revitalization and economic development.

LIFT’s Empowerment Fund provides financial support to grassroots leaders and organizations for community work that improves the quality of life in Memphis’ under-resourced neighborhoods. Last year 30 applicants from 20 different local neighborhoods received up to $2,500 for their neighborhood projects, which included activation, education, and blight removal efforts.
Some of those projects could have lasting effects with additional funding.

“The Heights Line project was a linear park that was created on a blighted portion of the neighborhood,” said Spinelli, who has been working at LIFT this summer as part of the Princeton Internships in Civic Service program. “The project was to show the community what this area could look like. There was a bike track and games, and they had community events within the month-long demonstration. Hopefully they will get the more funds to make it a permanent project.”

Other successful projects included the Diabetes Awareness Day Festival in South Memphis and the Mitchell Heights community garden that was created on a blighted lot.

“One neighbor saw the need to create a community garden to promote healthy eating within the community,” said Spinelli. “So a project that started as geared towards the environment and blight removal turned in to an educational project as well.”

Nonprofit JUICE Orange Mound, which collects spare change from community members for neighborhood improvement projects, used grant money from LIFT in the past year to fund its first Round the Mound 5K Walk/Run that took place last October.

“When I came home five years ago from Teach for America, I was really struck by the lack of development in my community, particularly in comparison to Copper-Young, which is just two bridges away from Orange Mound,” said Britney Thornton, founder of JUICE Orange Mound.

“The model seems to be to displace poor people,” said Thornton. “We want to get ahead of that trend and show people that you don’t have to keep shooing people, you can develop people.”

This year’s Round the Mound 5K Walk/Run will take place on October 27.

The project for the Crosstown Community Development Corp. centered on preserving the historic overlays for Speedway Terrace.

“A lot of what the empowerment grant is about is little things and how they can create big things,” said Justin Gilles, president of Crosstown Community Development Corp. “Our project was really all about ensuring that, as things grow and improve in the areas around us, the residents have a voice in what happens with their neighborhood.”

Their work in the Crosstown area spilled over the other areas of the community like VECA and Orange Mound that also want to define their own historic overlays. Leaders from VECA and Orange Mound will now be working with Gilles and others from Crosstown toward most efficiently achieving their goals.

Leaders from neighborhood organizations recently joined together to create the North Memphis Neighborhood Collaborative for Resilience with a focus on creating partnerships and connections that will improve the community..

“We have very informally formed the  North Memphis Neighborhood Collaborative in order to stay in touch with each other, to work together, and to help drive positive change in Memphis,” said Gilles.

The ultimate goal of LIFT’s grant money is to promote community cohesion, improve the physical spaces in the neighborhood, cultivate financial stability, and/or assist neighborhood stakeholders in collaborative action.

Ultimately, Spinelli recommended greater funding by local organizations, stronger community collaboration between non-profits, and providing training and tools for grant recipients to be successful.

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