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Evaluation is moment to look back and ahead for Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit


Commissioned by Kresge’s Department of Strategic Learning, Research and Evaluation and Kresge’s Detroit Program, the University of Michigan School of Social Work’s Program Evaluation Group (PEG) recently released an evaluation of the Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit initiative. This commentary initially appeared as an introduction to that report.

Six years ago this spring, Kresge’s President Rip Rapson, our entire Detroit Program and other foundation staff, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a number of other civic leaders, several reporters and a crowd of community supporters gathered at what was then Marygrove College to launch the first dozen-plus grant recipients of Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit (KIP:D).

Two women and male teens bent over row of what looks to be straw and saw dust
Work at the Penrose Market Garden project in Chaldean Town in northwest Detroit.

The Detroit Free Press had broken news of the initiative a few months earlier with the headline “Kresge to help fund the dreams of Detroit neighborhoods.” In contrast to the energies invested in downtown and the contiguous Woodward corridor-to-Midtown central city, the paper wrote that the foundation had committed a pilot $5 million to “help fund projects in neighborhoods across the city whose residents may feel left out.”

“So much attention is being paid to Woodward and downtown,” Rapson was quoted as saying. “It just seemed to us that we really needed to remind people that the long-term energy of the city is rooted in residents and that we can build infrastructure and scaffolding of all different kinds, but at the end of the day, if residents don’t have the tools and resources, they need to determine their own trajectory, this is all built on  sand.”

In a city where development has too often been seen as a tradeoff between downtown and neighborhoods, here was a program that reached out to neighborhoods, to all of them, beginning with the assumption that all of them have assets to build futures on, the most important of those assets being residents.

The energy seemed to course through the room that spring morning as we announced the projects and applauded the leaders of each group as they stood: the expansion of the Detroit Boxing Gym Youth Program, which couples sports and strong academic support for young Detroiters; two projects converting vacant lots into parks, one park helmed by Heritage Works celebrating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, the other a series of small lot-sized exercise sites helmed by Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corp; a market garden and nutrition program helmed by Arab American and Chaldean Council. Some 18 projects and planning efforts were launched that day, 18 awarded organizational partners chosen with great difficulty from more than 100 applicants who responded to our first call for proposals, far exceeding our expectations.

And clearly that day, as the project leader talked over lunch about their hopes and the challenges they foresaw, something else was launched — the beginning of a movement, a powerful network of awarded organizational partners with much in common.

Phyllis Edwards, executive director of Bridging Communities (center holding Future Coming Soon sign), stands with her team in the alley between two parks near McGraw Street in Detroit that is to be renovated by Bridging Communities through a 2020 KIP:D grant. With her from left: Bianca Hart -Youth Coordinator, Mayra Villa – Interpreter/Receptionist, Deshunia Perry – Elder Care Case Manager, Gabrielle White – Housing Coordinator, Dan Commer – Project Manager, and Jennie Weakley – Deputy Director. (Photo by Lon Horwedel/Kresge Foundation)

The energy of that first KIP:D event has only been magnified in the annual calls for application and grantee gatherings in the years since which have brought together KIP:D partners old and new. But the magnification goes beyond the simple arithmetic of added grants and groups. We can see a community of practice taking shape, a reflection of collective ambitions, and collective support, and the confidence that grows with the body of achievements.

Even on Zoom in the pandemic year of 2020, there was no mistaking the camaraderie of neighbors and the pride in their collective efforts. The first three-year $5 million effort was followed by another three-year commitment that in the end we exceeded, granting $11.1 million for awarded KIP:D partners and $1.5 million of technical assistance. The initial 18 KIP:D awardees have grown to a collective 78 organizational partners and 127 grants when the sixth round was announced in the summer of 2020, moving us toward a map of Detroit lit up by so many lanterns marking positive change.

And now, thanks to our partners at the University of Michigan School of Social Work Program Evaluation Group (PEG) we have a portrait of the first three rounds of funding.

We commissioned this evaluation because we are committed to learning from all our work — not just what was accomplished, but how and to what extent. We are committed to learning alongside our partners and expanding our notions of success to ensure they include the voices of our grantee partners and, most importantly, the residents of Detroit. Evaluating this work is also part of our ongoing commitment transparency and knowledge sharing to you — our partners.

The UM-PEG team conducted extensive interviews with over 40 participants across the 56 projects. The interviewees discuss the hoped-for improved quality of neighborhood life that has resulted from projects, from, for instance, the creation of new community spaces replacing blight and increasing community pride and cohesion. And there are important corollary impacts as community meetings brought neighbors together in common purpose, creating bonds of shared commitments and a sense of neighborhood ownership and agency of a project. There were new relationships between

individuals in neighborhoods and organizations; residents became empowered co-create solutions for their neighborhood through their KIP:D projects. Projects were avenues through which residents could use their voice.

The UM-PEG team also documents challenges that the KIP:D partners face with their own organizational capacity, with gentrification, with mastering the ins and outs of the city bureaucracy, among them.

Leigh Fehr, Development Director for Grand 7 Detroit, and Dr. Sandra Brown, a partner for G7 Detroit, pose on the porch of 19263 Lenore near Grand Avenue and Seven Mile in Detroit. The home will be renovated with the help of the Kresge Foundation KIPD-Round 6 community development grant. (Photo by Lon Horwedel/Kresge Foundation)

A number of the recommendations overlap with the directions that KIP:D has, in fact, pursued in the subsequent three rounds. We have worked, for instance, to streamline the application process and give credit for organizational collaborations. We also prioritized technical assistance: Michigan Community Resources agreed to curate technical assistance based on KIP:D partners’ needs and to create a network of KIP:D organizations that can share in common challenges and solutions through capacity-building supports.

We’ve particularly reached out to engage organizations of all sizes, including what in Detroit we call block clubs, which are community organizations comprising as little as a few city blocks; in addition to planning grants, we now also fund what we might call pre-planning grants, for neighborhood-based organizations to come together to strategize priorities and coalesce around a project to develop.

Notably, as the Detroit Program — and Kresge as a whole — have increasingly focused on racial equity, Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit has become a key embodiment of that commitment, aligning with and supporting the voices and visions of Detroit organizations with BIPOC leadership.

Meanwhile, in 2019, Kresge launched Kresge Innovative Projects: Memphis and Kresge Community Supports: Fresno, efforts that adapt the learnings of Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit to new cities — and that we expect will have lessons in turn for the mothership initiative in Detroit.

Group of about a dozen from babes in arms to adult standing on broken ashphalt in front of what looks to be a shuttered one-story school.
Woodbridge Neighborhood Development Corporation planned to reactivate an abandoned elementary school into a neighborhood hub and center for resident engagement in Detroit’s Woodbridge neighborhood.

We hope this evaluation and its three ancillary briefs (tailored for past, present and future KIP:D partners; for philanthropy; and for the community development sector) will be widely read and discussed — with advice and recommendations directed back to us as we engage the community in designing what comes next. We hope that you will also send your thoughts to at [email protected].

Our hope is that in reading our evaluation, you will be as inspired by the KIP:D partners as we have been every step of the way.