For Profound Change in America, Think Local

Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Director, U.S. Programs, Open Society Foundations
We live in an age defined by profound changes: New technology has revolutionized how we communicate and get our work done. The Great Recession has left many of us searching for jobs or struggling to gain skills that fit in the “new” economy. Shifting demographics offer promise and challenges as our neighborhoods transition. Federal and state funding cuts have left services, previously taken for granted, unstable.
These changes have particularly affected the U.S. nonprofit sector, especially that portion focused on promoting equitable development, effective and transparent government, and smart and fair criminal justice policies. As any who work with these groups know, they have been devastated by reductions in public and philanthropic funding.
The cutbacks have limited their ability to move policy, provide services or engage in collaborative partnerships. This occurs at a time of increased pace of change in the public and private sectors — some mandated by the federal budget picture and some driven by how organizations need to evolve to meet the demands of new technology and public expectations.
The Open Places Initiative grows out of the realization that the ability of communities to respond to these challenges requires increased civic capacity, especially for efforts that attempt to further the full inclusion of those with low incomes, people of color and other marginalized communities in civic, economic and political life. By investing in collaborations between nonprofit organizations, and supporting them in their partnerships with government, business and community, we aim to expand their potential to pursue effective responses to the profound demographic, economic and technological changes that are taking place throughout the country.
As part of the new initiative, we have awarded collaborations of organizations in Buffalo, San Diego and Puerto Rico $1.9 million each over two years. Our commitment to them is long-term.
We plan to continue funding each site for at least three years and potentially for as long as ten.  Reflecting Open Society’s great respect for local knowledge and experience, each Open Places site took the lead in determining the issues it would undertake, and the form of collaboration they will pursue.
Each site will be tackling multiple issues. Here are examples of just a few:
  • In San Diego County, a region reliant on the military to drive the economy, the team will focus on the region’s most vulnerable residents, especially immigrants and people who were formerly incarcerated. Their efforts include improving access to middle-income jobs, making critical social services and training benefits available to low-income populations, and engaging the social service sector to galvanize community members to take action.
  • In Buffalo, a city suffering the aftermath of manufacturing job loss and ongoing segregation, the groups will be pursuing a high-road economic development strategy that will provide quality jobs for marginalized communities. They will also be working with parents and schools to introduce restorative justice approaches to increase student engagement and radically decrease the numbers of young people entering the justice system. Throughout its work, it plans to tap the arts to promote social justice through diverse voices and different modes of expression.
  • On an island facing extreme poverty, high unemployment and an urgent need to strengthen the civic sector, the Puerto Rico team will work to increase government transparency, create new models to facilitate access to legal representation in civil cases and launch initiatives to create income supports and encourage savings for low-income residents. Over the long term, it believes supporting efforts to improve democratic practice and advancing specific ways that promote full economic inclusion of vulnerable communities as key parts of its mission.
The Open Society Foundations have had a long-term interest in addressing equality, justice and democratic practice at the local level, and understand that local communities have the deepest knowledge of the barriers and opportunities in their own region. It founded the social justice laboratory OSI-Baltimore in the late 1990s, and has invested in other place-based initiatives such as the Young Men’s Initiative in New York and efforts to increase government transparency in New Orleans.
The Open Places Initiative recognizes that strategies to enable local communities to advance real and long-term change require increased civic capacities based on authentic community engagement and partnerships that are more than skin deep. Without question, local governments play a key role in any real progress, but without a robust civic partnership, progress can never be sustained.
We are excited to be helping Buffalo, San Diego and Puerto Rico increase their potential to promote opportunity for all their residents.
This post originally appeared on OSF’s Open Society Voices blog on January 16, 2014 and is reprinted with permission.