Uniting a community through micro-grants
By Michaela Gonzales
Micro-grants, given out in Mount Pleasant this April, inspire and support budding grassroots programs and bring one of D.C.’s most diverse neighborhoods closer together.
The Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) of Mt. Pleasant awarded the grants, inspired by the micro-loan programs used in the developing world, to 22 small and newly formed organizations, as well regular neighborhood people with ideas to improve their community. The proposal ranked first by an impartial review panel received $500, and the following twenty-one received $200.
“Frankly, I was skeptical,” said Janelle Treibitz, one of the grantees. “I was skeptical because it wasn’t a very big amount of money and I was afraid it wouldn’t be worth the effort of getting it. But what ended up happening was that it supported a lot of sort of grass roots ideas which is a really beautiful side effect.”
In November of last year, proposals written by young and old, homeowners and apartment renters, Mount Pleasant natives and newly arrived people, came to the ANC commissioners. Applicants proposed to organize and create programs ranging from movie nights to bike cooperatives to classes teaching survival English to Latina stay-at-home moms.
Commissioner Gregg Edwards, the vice-chair of Mt. Pleasant’s ANC and the man behind the micro-grants said that this program, which mixes grassroots organizing and small amounts of money given by local government, was the first of its kind.
Edwards worked at the National Science Foundation for 13 years where he wrote and read many grants. He is using his expertise and this program as a way to teach the driven and inspired of Mt. Pleasant to navigate the grant-writing world.
“I’m hopeful that even if this [project] fails several groups will stick with it and within the next couple years get their own grants,” he said.
On April 15, Mt. Pleasant residents gathered at La Casa Community Center to pick up their grant letters and packages. Neighbors Consejo, “a community based, social service agency specializing in homelessness and homelessness prevention,” received the largest grant for its “Nuevas Raices- New Roots Program” proposal. They intend to start a gardening program that will help homeless Latino men in the D.C. area.
Urban gardening was popular among the grantees while others worried more about security in the area. Still others were concerned about renovations at the local public library. All had to do with building and maintaining community.
One of the most visible excited grantees at the April meeting was Treibitz, who let everyone know that she was eager and willing to work with anyone who might need her services as an artist.
Treibitz who has been active in the Mt Pleasant community since she moved there three years ago found out about the micro-grant program through word of mouth.
“I just started getting phone calls and emails and people like running to me in the streets saying, ‘Janelle, you hear about the micro-grants program?’ ” she said. “Like everybody was like, ‘Janelle, micro-grants!’ so I was like, ‘OK, OK, I’ll apply.’”
Treibitz got a grant to start an artist co-op called “We Are Mount Pleasant,” but has since opted to use the money towards an already established organization called Puppet Underground. Still, her basic purpose remains the same—to bring people together though art.
Of all the places in D.C., it seems most natural that all this creative community bonding comes out of Mt Pleasant. Community activism and involvement has traditionally been a part of the neighborhood identity.
“The idea of community is really strong here and it is sort of what sucked me into being part of the neighborhood and working with neighborhood groups,” Treibitz said.
Of course, this type of involvement is not unique to Mt. Pleasant, but it does seem more pronounced. What is it about this neighborhood that makes it so different? What is it that makes its residents so dedicated? Treibitz suggested that it was because Mt. Pleasant, bordered by Rock Creek Park on two sides, is so nestled.
“We are not actually a thruway to any place,” she said. “We are our own destination. You don’t accidently pass through Mount Pleasant usually, so to get here you actually have to want to.”
Commissioner Edwards’ answer had to do with the diversity of the neighborhood that boasts mansions and row houses, alongside apartment buildings, and a population made up of African Americans, whites and a number of immigrants from Central America. He noted that Mount Pleasant has “the most extreme of demographics living side by side.”
But not everything in Mount Pleasant is pleasant. Having people so different, living so close, does cause some friction. A desire to heal tensions came out in many of the grant proposals.
“There’s different kinds of communities here and people want different things, things that to them mean community, or mean safety, or mean home,” said Treibitz. “And there are tensions about different visions but, it’s like, what a beautiful struggle too.”
The movie night proposed by Neighbors Consejo was meant as a space where the neighborhood’s Spanish speakers and English speakers could mingle. And the bike co-op wasn’t just about bikes. It was about getting people from all segments of the population to share in something they had in common.
Commissioner Edwards said that as people start getting more into their projects the “necessity of groups working together is coming out.”
But for Commissioner Edwards and the granters it wasn’t just about the individual projects that emerged with the incentive of a couple hundred dollars.
Commissioner Edwards has high hopes for the micro-grant program and would like to see the funding for it go into the millions and for it to become a model for the rest of the city.
“I think we could use it as a first, to get a community of people savvy about the grants industry who will be able to support one another and also be able to critique each other,” he said. “This program could demonstrate that with a chance, there is an immense interest and creativity at the grassroots level.”
And for the grantees it wasn’t just about the money.
“The most exciting thing to me — over getting the grant — is just getting to meet all these people in the neighborhood who care enough to actually apply for a grant who have all these nascent ideas or large ideas,” she said. “My deepest of hopes is that it will connect the different people in the neighborhood more.”