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Pastor Eric Ewell and his wife, Sonia, of Divine Restoration Church in Duquesne, were group facilitators in The Pittsburgh Foundation’s Community Conversations project. About 300 residents across Allegheny County helped staff understand what they dream about for themselves, their families and their communities. “I want what I know my father wanted for me,” says Eric, “ … for my kids to thrive, to be their best selves in the spaces where they are and to add value.”

Image by Nate Smallwood


A Pittsburgh Foundation project engages communities in conversations to identify shared strengths, assets and hopes for the future
by Douglas Root

As The Pittsburgh Foundation’s strategic plan starts its second year of activation, it has been shaped by answers to a simple question:

What do you need to thrive and realize your dreams?

One of the most significant ways in which Foundation staff is learning the answers is Community Conversations. The project, which began in the summer of 2022, engaged 300 Pittsburgh-area residents through small group discussions, pop-up conversations and surveys to help staff better understand what residents dream about for themselves, their families and their communities.

Under the direction of Michelle McMurray, vice president of Program and Community Engagement, residents shared their aspirations and extraordinary personal assets. “These have been invaluable gifts to us because they present a fuller, more accurate picture of the people and places we serve,” says McMurray. “They are offering powerful narratives to counter the deficit-focused storylines that too often define residents from low-income communities and communities of color.”

Coordinated through Pittsburgh-based Common Cause Consultants, 19 meetings generated 26 hours of discussion with the groups in their home communities. Those interactions enabled Foundation staff to better understand residents’ dreams for a better life and the factors helping or hindering their ability to realize them. Conversation facilitators were recruited based on their reputations as caring leaders and professionals, and they represented the geographic and racial diversity of Allegheny County.

Pastor Eric Ewell and his wife, Sonia, were among the facilitators who led rich discussions that produced new insights and perspectives. Many of the hopes and dreams that were revealed by residents — such as freedom and self-determination — are reflected in the strategic plan’s overarching commitment to addressing racial and economic inequities.

The Community Conversations project responds to the realization by foundation leaders nationwide after the pandemic period that far less progress in ending those inequities has been made than many have assumed. Much of that reckoning is based on direct evidence of disproportionate harm to people of color from COVID-19 and the social protests against racial violence during that period.

As an example, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2021 showed that 41.4 million people — 12.8% — lived below the poverty line. But Pittsburgh’s rate was significantly worse — 20.2%. And for some groups in Pittsburgh, the percentages were even higher. More than a third of Pittsburgh’s Black and Latino residents, and more than a quarter of Asian residents, lived below the poverty line in 2021.

The statistics only highlight the urgency; they don’t tell foundations how to provide pathways to thriving. Community members’ hopes and dreams do.

Some of that discovery happened in Duquesne, where Pastor Eric has lived for much of his 45 years. He has committed himself to the city’s economic and spiritual renewal as head of Divine Restoration Church and as director of continuing education at Penn State’s Greater Allegheny Campus in McKeesport.

As a facilitator for the Conversations project last summer, Eric recruited about 15 Duquesne area residents to meet and respond to open-ended questions.

[I want to see] measurable progress with finances, health and relationships. [It] makes dreaming feel more like reality.

Black and Brown Mothers conversation

[I want to] be able to make it out of childhood.

Young Adults conversation

For my kids, I want to be able to say, ‘You need this, I got it.’ Or, you know, not just happiness, but stability and not worrying about if I do this will I have that.

Mid-Career Black Professionals conversation

White supremacy doesn’t allow us to dream.

Nonprofit Leaders conversation

[A] community with the goal of aspiration for Black people, not deficit.

Arts Professionals conversation
Source: The Pittsburgh Foundation: Community Conversations with Nonprofit & Community Leaders, Common Cause Consultants

“One of my dreams I shared with the group is that I want what I know my father wanted for me,” says Eric. And that is, he says, “for my kids to thrive, to be their best selves in the spaces where they are and to add value.” He acknowledges that his four sons, aged between 12 and 21, are the third generation of family in a community facing economic and social headwinds, but he is proud that his children are committed to staying in Duquesne, since he believes its future depends on young people putting down roots.

Sonia, dean of students for the Clairton City School District, dreams of a system in which anyone can get the formal education they want.

Another participant, a single mother and an entrepreneur, dreams of funding for a business idea she’s developed, “to make it happen for the sake of my son’s future.”

An older Duquesne woman managing the church’s food bank operation dreams of opportunities to continue contributing as she ages.

Eric recalls one young resident who dreams of improvement in the “community aesthetic.” He explains, “For many younger people, their dream is to have nice places created and fewer crumbling buildings and boarded-up homes to walk past every day.”

Foundation staff has re-engaged the conversation facilitators to begin the second phase of this project. The leaders are collaborating to embed the dreams that residents disclosed into their work. “Dreams are powerful motivators,” says Eric. “If people know they are attainable, they’ll do whatever it takes.”

To learn more about the Community Conversations project, read the executive summary.

Douglas Root is The Pittsburgh Foundation’s vice president, Communications and External Affairs.

Grantmaking WITH Community

by Deanna Garcia

In addition to a new strategic plan, The Pittsburgh Foundation is pursuing a new approach to grantmaking that involves power sharing among Foundation staff, community leaders, organizations and residents who work directly within their communities.

It’s called participatory grantmaking and could replace the more traditional top-down power dynamics in philanthropy.

“We are learning that how funding decisions are made is perhaps more important than the decisions themselves,” says Michelle McMurray, vice president of Program and Community Engagement at the Foundation. “Ensuring that the people most impacted by our decisions are at the center of the decision-making process is more just.”

Program officers took lessons learned from their colleagues in the arts. Both the Foundation’s Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh and Exposure Artists Program are participatory. A panel of artists worked with staff to design the programs and make funding decisions. Program staff also researched how other foundations are using the participatory grantmaking model.

In 2022, the Foundation launched two participatory grantmaking pilot projects, one on juvenile justice and the other on criminal justice.

A group of community partners established funding priorities in those areas and planned and designed the application and review process for grants. There was also a “grantmaking team” that attended an orientation, reviewed and evaluated applications, and ultimately made final decisions. Between the two pilot programs, community grant makers awarded more than $700,000.

The Grantmaking Experience

Monica Ruiz, executive director of Casa San José, appreciates the Foundation’s overhauling of the top-down approach to grantmaking. “The new process includes the voices of people doing the actual work in the community,” she says. “The experience allowed for conversations and education about different organizations and programs.” Her organization is a community resource center that coordinates actions and serves as a base of support for Latinos who have recently arrived in and around Pittsburgh.

Fellow participant Kurtis Mennitti agrees that conversation was a critical part of the process. “It was intense, listening to others share some of their personal experiences on why they felt certain items were of higher importance than others based on their life experience. It was very interesting. Evaluation turned into a great discussion based in mutual respect with a common goal of helping the communities.” Mennitti is a job developer/case manager for workforce development and training at Pittsburgh Community Services Inc., which has served as an anti-poverty agency for the city for 40 years.

There was consensus among three of the participants — that it is hard to say no. Some, like Bob Jones, are part of organizations that are often on the other end of grantmaking – meaning they’re the ones applying for grants. “Folks don’t understand that there are processes in place that make funding decisions,” he says. “Too often people think that checks are just cut. This is an opportunity for folks to understand the process and have some level of skin in the game.” Jones is president and CEO of Brothers and Sisters Emerging, an organization that offers after-school, summer camp and mentoring programs to youth.

Ruiz from Casa San José agrees. “It is so difficult when there is limited funding…,” she says. “You would like to fund so many programs, but knowing the funding is finite, hard decisions have to be made about where the grants can do the most good.”

With new processes come new ways of measuring success — ways that might look different from those to which participants are accustomed.

“The process is the point,” says McMurray. “People sometimes ask, ‘Well, did you get better decisions? Did you fund better programs? Was it more effective? More efficient?’ Basically, was it somehow better than traditional grantmaking by a program officer?”

The answer, she says, isn’t that simple.

“What people learn in philanthropy is that there isn’t a void of good ideas, so how do you decide between a good idea and a good idea, between a promising approach and another promising approach? You know that by funding one approach, the other does not get funding.”

That, she says, is where trust comes in and why it’s important to engage community members, like Mennitti of Pittsburgh Community Services, in the process.

“This made me feel,” Mennitti says, “like I have a voice at the Foundation.”

Deanna Garcia is a Communications Officer with The Pittsburgh Foundation.

Center for Victims received a $50,000 grant from a group working on grants in the area of juvenile justice. The group of community leaders was convened by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of a new participatory grantmaking process. Center for Victims is a community-based nonprofit organization that provides services, advocacy and education for victims of crime in Pennsylvania. Its mission is supporting victims, healing trauma and creating more peaceful communities.

Image from Center for Victims

Mwanakuche Farm received a $50,000 grant from a group working on safety and justice that was established under The Pittsburgh Foundation’s new approach to grantmaking that involves power sharing among Foundation staff, community leaders, organizations and residents. Mwanakuche Farm is a volunteer-run, Somali-Bantu–led organization that operates the Mwanakuche Community Garden in Pittsburgh’s Perry South neighborhood. It focuses on programs and services supporting Somali-Bantu community unification, self-sufficiency and integration, while upholding cultural heritage.

Image from Mwanakuche Farm