On Monday, 50 excited people from the conference gathered at the Jacob’s Center for Neighborhood Innovation(JCNI) in the Lincoln Park district of San Diego for a day-long learning experience about the power of grassroots community change.

What exactly did we learn?

  • Place and Perseverance: The Jacobs Family—through their family foundation—made a long-term commitment (since 1998) to focus their financial, human and social capital in one neglected neighborhood.
  • Ownership: The community’s residents have embraced the “ownership” ethic figuratively and financially. Where there once stood an abandoned factory surrounded by blight, the local residents, with support from JCNI, have built a thriving commercial mall, cultural amphitheater and social enterprise center, which are “owned” by the community. Over the seven years it took for the community and JCNI to responsibly develop the property now called the Village at Market Creek, residents came to trust and believe that they can transform their neighborhood. That is one form of “ownership.” More literally, more than 400 neighborhood residents actually own one third of the shares of the mall. At $10 per premium share in minimum lots of 20 shares, residents have earned 10 percent returns on their investments in each of the past three years—even in this challenging economy. Another third of the shares is held by the Jacobs Family Foundation and the last third of stock is in the hands of a neighborhood foundation, which is operated by residents who payout the annual dividends as local grants. All of this too translates to “ownership.” Joe and Vi Jacobs, the founders of the foundation and innovation center that bears their name, once said: “People don’t destroy that which they own.
  • Culture: A number of ethnic and cultural groups serve as the platform for community building, including African Americans, Somalis, Mexicans, Laotians, Chamorros, Filipinos, Samoans and more. Culture, like gravity, is the invisible force that holds the community together. As one conference visitor commented about philanthropy’s emphasis on strategic planning: “Culture eats strategy for lunch!”
  • Deep Listening: While we’ve emphasized the critical importance of nurturing ownership by residents, we cannot overlook the courage of the Jacobs Family in letting go of their “ownership” both figuratively and financially—a challenge that many funders struggle with. They have grown into that release of ownership by their commitment to follow the community’s lead—possible only through deep and patient listening. What began as foundation staff knocking door-to-door and convening living room listening sessions grew to town hall style listening meetings that could only be accommodated in expansive outdoor parking lots. One funder called that genuine active listening.

Perhaps the moral of this story is best expressed in the message from Joe Jacobs that graces the entrance of the JCNI: “What did we start with? Nothing but opportunity.”

Richard Woo is the CEO of The Russell Family Foundation. The session Woo attended was Off-Site Learning Exchange: Social Innovation: The Role of Philanthropy in Creating Sustainable Change.

2 Responses to Community Change from the Inside Out

Chris Park

February 3rd, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Great article and great work, Richard and Jacobs Family. How special it is when funders make a long term commitment to go narrow and deep and this kind of trust is built among stakeholders. Kudos for the good work!

Valerie Jacobs

February 4th, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Thank you, Richard, for that wonderful tribute to our foundation and the resident leaders in our community. However, The Russell Family Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Flintridge Operating Foundation, and the Rasmuson Foundation all participated in the learning exchange, bringing residents and partners to share how they do community building work. It was a powerful day that inspired us and gave us new tools to work in our own communities.

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