The section under race on my mother’s birth certificate says white. That struck me because although my mom is fair skinned and probably could pass for a white woman, she was far from white. In fact, my mother is a third-generation Latino woman whose parents, my grandparents, migrated from Puerto Rico. If anyone were to pull race statistics from the 1940s to better understand demographic shifts related to something like housing policy or healthcare utilization, the numbers would be skewed. My mom relayed that during that time, the option to select “Puerto Rican” was not a possibility. Digging deeper, we discussed our culture and the experiences my grandmother had as a Hispanic woman navigating an environment that failed to recognize us as a people. Too inconsequential to be categorized on one of the most important documents you first encounter in life. As you can imagine, there was many layers to this story – some painful, and some laughed through to mask the shame of being invisible. Her story and her experiences, navigating her proximity to whiteness and how she felt about the erasure of our existence would never make it into anyone’s headline.

In my role as a leader at United Way of Greater Atlanta, I have been working to ensure that the voices and stories of community are an integral part of what informs our work and thinking around neighborhood change efforts. Resident stories are utilized as a tool to shape and drive solutions to many complex issues. And if we are to ensure the well-being of communities, we must consider each other’s lives and find ways to humanize its complexities. Otherwise, our failure to do so will create a power dynamic that reinforces what Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichiek, calls “the danger of a single story”. She tells us how deeply power is embedded in the act of storytelling. From “how they are told, who tells them, when they are told, to how many stories are told. How do we increase the opportunities that communities have to tell their stories? What do we miss when we leave out the experiences of whole populations? These are all important questions that should trigger us to persistently think about who gets to tell the story and who is missing. To address this gap in understanding, we partner with organizations like Canopy Atlanta who focus on resident storytelling.

Our investment in Canopy Atlanta is designed to help us achieve collective community change by scaling efforts that center community voice and create continuous learning exchanges between residents, community stakeholders and our philanthropic peers. United Way’s Brighter Future strategy, Resident Leadership and Learning is designed to uncover solutions through deep and empathetic listening and documentation of lived resident experiences. This has helped us in gaining an understanding of how our political and social systems at a pragmatic level, simply do not work for everyone. The bureaucracy imposed in the name of accountability or process misses the mark of who these services are intended to serve or frankly, designed to exclude. A community with deficient and lackluster social, political and economic systems will prevent us from reaching our goal to improve child well-being.

In true partner fashion, Mariann Martin with Canopy Atlanta will discuss how her organization’s work intersects with United Ways vison to expand and strengthen resident storytelling.

The importance of diverse voices and nuanced perspectives is what informs community engagement work at Canopy Atlanta. We believe story telling begins with people and their own voices. As we worked in Clayton County, we listened to the stories of Vietnamese immigrants putting down deep roots in Forest Park and the Hispanic population advocating for a more equitable policing approach. We heard from many voices – Black, brown, white, and immigrant – how they wanted a more transparent government and better food options. Each of these voices helped to tell the broader story of Forest Park.

In addition to listening, at Canopy Atlanta we equip communities to tell their own stories. We provide journalism training for community members and pair them to work with more experienced story tellers. What emerges out of this process is complex and nuanced and sometimes messy and beautiful. It is a picture of a community as they see themselves, not as they are seen. This process also allows residents to view their own communities differently. They are more aware of what is happening down the street, and sometimes they begin to attend neighborhood meetings or continue to write and work in their communities. Many times, the relationships that happen throughout the process are more important than even the story telling. As Darryl Holliday, cofounder at Chicago’s City Bureau notes, “Journalism isn’t just a career path, or a business, or a ‘pillar of democracy’; it’s the best tool we have to shape civic infrastructure and fuel the equitable revitalization of our communities.”

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 It’s no secret that Atlanta is grappling with serious challenges around inequitable outcomes. It’s the driving force behind United Way of Greater Atlanta’s focus on increasing the Child Well-Being of 250,000 children by 2027. This goal is a clarion call for stakeholders across our region, and across sectors, to lean in together to make big changes. Central to that effort are the many nonprofit agencies who work directly with children and families. They are the lifeblood of the social sector, working to deliver their mission with a fraction of the resources available to their for-profit counterparts. If we are to make a sizable impact on increasing Child Well-Being, we need to address the disparities that impact the nonprofit eco-system.

To this end United Way launched a new grantmaking framework in 2020, naming Capacity Building for nonprofits as one of three major approaches to addressing Child Well-Being gaps.  2020 also brought with it an unprecedented global event that continues to deeply impact all of our lives: the COVID-19 pandemic. The fragility of our social safety net and the inequitable impact of public health, economic, and social crises on communities of color were made starkly, undeniably clear.

Throughout the pandemic, Greater Atlanta’s nonprofits have worked around the clock to react in real time: redesigning their service delivery models, adapting to a digital infrastructure, and making sure that the people they served had what they needed to make it through another day.

Overstretched and exhausted, many nonprofit leaders expressed frustration at their Catch-22 of a situation: their organizations didn’t have the capacity to do capacity building, but they still needed capacity building support. One of the top concerns lifted up by local nonprofits was fundraising and resource generation. United Way knew it needed to find the right partner to provide the extra layer of support that their nonprofit partners needed.

Enter Network for Good. In 2020, Network for Good’s Director of Capacity Building & Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Maria Azuri, joined in discussion with local funders around helping support the capacities and infrastructure of nonprofit partner organizations as a necessary conduit in driving positive and healthy community impact.

“What we know is that just as there are structural barriers that inhibit individual’s and family’s equitable health and growth, there are also key historic barriers for nonprofits led by- and serving communities of color,” says Azuri. “Part of the investment that funders have to offer is for infrastructure – and nothing is of greater importance in long-term sustainability than investing in these leader’s access to fundraising capacity building and generating revenue with the leading requisite technology and tools.”

Financial sustainability is often the challenge nonprofit leaders cite as their number one concern. It’s also important to note that the nonprofit sector as a whole is the 3rd largest employer in the United States – nonprofit organizations are a key support pillar to communities in substantial ways. Supporting their economic growth and financial resilience has to be part of the investment made by Greater Atlanta’s philanthropic agents.

In Fall of 2020, United Way identified a cohort of 7 nonprofit organizations, led and serving people of color, to participate in Network for Good’s Jumpstart Capacity BuildingSM program – a year-long program that provides one-on-one coaching, integrated technology tools, fundraising planning, and guidance aimed to help nonprofits build fundraising capacity, diversify revenue, and sustain and grow their programs. Even as the strains of the pandemic continued, the support of the Jumpstart coaches enabled participants to lean in and reap the benefits of the program.

In January of 2022, United Way will sponsor their next cohort of nonprofits in the Jumpstart program. This second effort has grown into a joint funding partnership alongside the Annie E. Casey Foundation Atlanta Civic Site, Jesse Parker Williams Foundation, and the Cobb Community Foundation to expand the participant pool.

Supporting capacity building efforts in the midst of a long-term public health crisis continues to be a journey of discovery. We know that focusing on diverse nonprofits and employing innovative approaches is paramount. With partners like Network for Good, United Way is certain that success lies where capacity building support is accessible, inclusive, and equitable – and centers grantees’ voices in real-time.

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Did you know that one of the strongest predictors of success in school and in life is whether a child can read proficiently by the end of third grade? Yet, within the 13 counties of metro Atlanta less than half of all 3rd graders are reading proficiently.

Many things contribute to the achievement gap, but one of the biggest factors is summer. As soon as the school year ends, children in under-resourced communities begin falling behind their more privileged peers. They start the summer slide. By the fifth grade, summer learning loss can leave low-income students two-and-a-half to three years behind their peers.

Recognizing the significance of this issue as part of United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Strong Learners portfolio to increase overall Child Well-Being, in 2018 the United Way and the Georgia Statewide Afterschool Network (GSAN) commissioned the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) to conduct a landscape assessment of summer learning programs in the Atlanta region. The findings of the community assessment based on NSLA’s Community Indicators of Effective Summer Learning Systems (CIESLS) led to the release of “Summer Matters: A Community Landscape Report” in October 2019. While many children and youth across Greater Atlanta are offered a variety of programming, persistent gaps still exist between low-income students and their more affluent peers. These disparities widened during the pandemic as families reported lack of access to technology and other resources that prohibited some students from participating and engaging in distance learning.

In our efforts to ensure a regional summer learning agenda and increased and coordinated funding from public and private sources, United Way partnered with GSAN to convene a regional Summer Learning Council with the primary aim of increasing access to and strengthening the quality of Greater Atlanta’s summer learning landscape. The council was comprised of community and civic leaders, philanthropists school officials, state agency leaders and summer learning program providers. The council’s work resulted in actionable recommendations informed by input from young people, families, summer learning program providers, and community partners.

These recommendations reflect the unprecedented sense of urgency, calls to action, and investment of resources from multiple levels of government to increase access to, and expand the role of, summer learning programs. Summer 2022 is an opportunity for philanthropy and public funders to support school district and summer provider partnerships, improve teaching and learning year-round by testing new hands-on instructional strategies, rethink learning environments, and ensure the social and emotional supports students need are available following the disruptions of the last few years.

A critical piece to this work is understanding the choices families and youth are making for summer, what is already happening in our region, and how we best support those choices through quality assistance and access. As we collectively look to bring greater attention to and strategic investment in summer learning opportunities, GSAN and United Way plan to update the 2018 landscape assessment. The updated map and data will not only paint a more robust picture of where young people are and gaps in access, but also how the pandemic has impacted summer learning in the region.

Community members and regional leaders can join us by investing in quality summer learning across our region through a coordinated and informed summer learning strategy. Learn how to support this work here.

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