Connected Communities receives $2 million gift

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Connected Communities has received $2 million as one of MacKenzie Scott’s Yield Giving Open Call awardees. The unrestricted gift is another step toward ensuring the longevity of the public-private initiative.

The call for applications came a year ago, aimed at community-led and -focused organizations with the intent of enabling individuals and families to improve their well-being through foundational resources.

Connected Communities, and three other local organizations that each received $2 million, fit the bill–they were among thousands of applicants nationwide, and 361 selected to receive a total of $640 million in funding. Scott, the billionaire philanthropist and author who is the ex-wife of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, said in a note on the Yield Giving website that the recipients are “vital agents of change.”

The other local organizations that were recipients of MacKenzie Scott’s generosity are:

■ Just Cause, which offers volunteer attorneys to resolve civil legal problems faced by low-income residents.

■ Spiritus Christi Prison Outreach, a support program for the homeless re-entering the community after incarceration

■ The Center for Teen Empowerment, which provides services for youth. (This grant will be shared with its locations in Boston and Somerville, MA.)

Connected Communities was formed in 2015 to break the cycle of poverty through antiracist community revitalization in the EMMA (East Main, Mustard and Atlantic avenues) and Beechwood neighborhoods. The nonprofit uses principles of the Purpose Built Communities framework to address the need for mixed-income housing, cradle-to-career education, community wellness, and long-term economic empowerment to reduce poverty.

“They made it very clear that this was unrestricted funds to support the longevity of organizations. There’s no reporting (that is) required, which is completely unheard of, especially at this level of funding, and they basically wanted to support our overall operation,” says LaShunda Leslie-Smith, executive director of Connected Communities. “So, we made the case for Connected Communities as a whole–our work across all four pillars.”

The timing is perfect for Connected Communities, which is in the process of securing funds for its Greenwood Project. The organization has acquired seven parcels in the neighborhood, including five commercial properties and two vacant lots. Plans call for debuting the Beechwood Neighborhood hub and Connect Lab later this year. The hub will be a gathering spot and the lab will be designed as a shared workspace for budding entrepreneurs and nonprofits in the community.

Leslie-Smith sees the hub as a “boutique YMCA, all families can come to that space, and there’s something for everybody there.”

“A big part of the Greenwood project is utilizing neighborhoods as economic ecosystems for breaking that cycle of intergenerational poverty and closing the racial wealth gap,” she adds. “We want to not only provide … community wellness opportunities, but then we want to work with these budding entrepreneurs to become their friends and family network, help them to ideate, prototype their ideas, and then launch.”

The name Greenwood pays homage to the Greenwood community in Tulsa, Okla. The Greenwood District, in spite of segregation, spawned a Black entrepreneurial hub. As families came to the area, the need for schools, businesses and retail followed. Community members joined forces to create a self-sustaining economic ecosystem, which would be known as Black Wall Street. It had hotels, movie theaters, nightclubs and retail. Racial violence in 1921 led the district into ruin. It was rebuilt and at one point in the 1940s had more than 200 Black-owned and operated businesses.

“Depending on what literature you read, it (has been) said that dollars changed hands anywhere between 19 to 30 times before it left the Greenwood community,” Leslie-Smith says. “We don’t have that in our communities today. 

“Oftentimes, impacted communities are highly funded but those dollars are going directly to service providers who often don’t live in those communities. So, it’s not creating opportunity for upward mobility or economic vitality in the neighborhoods and the only way you can use a neighborhood as an economic ecosystem is that you’re infusing opportunities for the people to live, work and play safely in that neighborhood.”

The MacKenzie Scott gift will help Connected Communities see its Greenwood project to fruition. Connected Communities, which operates on a $2.2 million annual budget with 10 staff members, has a couple of positions open today. The organization recently received $8.4 million in state support to create 54 new homes across 21 buildings on vacant sites in the Beechwood neighborhood. 

However, it has taken nearly a decade to see momentum.

LaShunda Leslie-Smith

“The work itself as a community quarterback feels intangible, really trying to help people become community organizers, being a connector (and) convenor. Getting people together to have the right conversations is undervalued in nonprofit work,” Leslie-Smith says. “But now we can see almost 10 years later, the fruit of that, us being positioned financially with the the staffing that’s necessary to be able to acquire eight parcels in the neighborhood, redevelop those parcels, hire folks from the neighborhood, launch our resident ambassador program, launch our block ambassador program, and really be able to implement a comprehensive neighborhood plan that highlights the voice of the neighborhood.

“The evolution of the work speaks for itself by way of these projects that we’re now in a position to implement,” she adds.

Connected Communities’ success has attracted attention–not just from neighborhoods in Rochester, but also from Toronto. The organization has been asked to share its learnings in using neighborhood residents as context experts.

Leaders at the local nonprofit are mulling a train-the-trainer approach to help other communities. 

“We never intended for this to be exclusive, but we did believe that it was important that we start small … and I also do think that in order for this to be replicated, it’s going to take neighbors in that particular community to enhance the bubble from the ground up; those neighbors have to desire this, want to be a part of championing it,” Leslie-Smith says. “And then we need philanthropy to help fund it because these neighbors oftentimes have full-time jobs and families to support. And so it’s hard for a volunteer group to get the kind of traction that we’ve been able to have with a full-time staff.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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