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Investing in resident-driven collective action and cultural solutions can help strengthen communities


Kresge Foundation President and CEO Rip Rapson delivered the following comments at the 2020 FreshLo virtual convening on November 17, 2020. 

Good afternoon. I am absolutely delighted to be here with you at this year’s FreshLo convening. While I know we wish we could all be together in person, it is wonderful to be in the virtual presence of such extraordinarily committed and courageous community leaders.

It is hard to believe, but it was more than five years ago when we first developed a grant program to support resident-led approaches that prioritized food as a social determinant of health and cultural expression that we called Fresh Local & Equitable – or FreshLo.

Today, this initiative embodies our steadfast commitment to ensuring that people with low incomes have full access to pathways of economic and social opportunity, equity, and justice.

With FreshLo, yes, we can say we were the first national funder to intentionally integrate food, art and community to drive equitable neighborhood revitalization. But these ideas are not new. Food and culture have been at the center of community revitalization throughout time.

As a foundation, what we had was a hunch that investing in resident-driven collective action and cultural solutions would help strengthen communities in cities that had been neglected for decades.

So we got to work.

In what was a new approach for us at the time, this initiative was developed as a joint effort between our Health and Arts and Culture teams, led by Health Team Senior Program Officer Stacey Barbas and Arts and Culture Team Managing Director Regina Smith, and supported with passion and skills by many others.

What we learned along the way from the formation and growth of this partnership set the stage for multiple other innovative cross-team initiatives that are now tackling issues such as climate change, health and equity and creating a culture of justice.

During the grantmaking process for FreshLo, we intentionally looked for neighborhoods that do not typically have access to funding – particularly those in the South and Midwestern states. We knew groups on the ground were already doing important, community-driven work, and hoped our funding would help them seed new networks, bring resident-led projects to life, and develop the infrastructure to support their neighborhoods for the long term.

From a philanthropic view, it may have been considered risky, but we were willing to put aside those more traditional ideas of “risk” in grantmaking and invest in smaller, local organizations.

That belief in the strength of our grantee partners has paid off, and we now see that community-based groups led by local leaders are now having the greatest impact.

This early leap into a new way of grantmaking at Kresge has laid the groundwork for countless investments into community-driven solutions that center residents in leadership, planning, and implementation.

But that is not all we have learned from you. Through FreshLo, we have learned the true value of robust supports in technical assistance, in site visits and in annual convenings.

Alongside the powerful evolution of the work happening within neighborhoods and cities, we have seen a cohort come together and grow.

A learning community has birthed new relationships and served as a resource for new ideas and strategies, as well as a source of support during challenging times.

It is strong community connections and neighborhood-level action that prepares residents to survive and thrive in all crises, be they natural disasters, displacement, corporate pollution or racial injustice.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit communities with a wave of uncertainty, but we have seen how neighborhoods have banded together to keep each other fed, housed, and protected.

Your ability to quickly pivot and use resources where they are most needed is a testament to the trust you have built up and your commitment to your neighbors.

It has been your shared vision and social cohesion that have created the conditions necessary for reinforcing resilience and driving long term change.

As we deal with the ongoing impacts of the pandemic and structural racism, your work fits foursquare into our foundation’s priorities, and what we hope will be our nation’s priorities moving forward.

This work has to be constant. Change does not happen overnight.

The FreshLo model has outlined a new path forward for philanthropy that supports community development without driving displacement, and ensures people in historically under-resourced and marginalized neighborhoods have the support needed to innovate and lift up their neighbors.

The strongest safety nets are constructed out of local knowledge, relationships, and community action, and philanthropy should do what it can to support them.

I hope the rest of your time together is enjoyable, affirming, and productive.