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Funding Grassroots Solutions: Creating Skunkworks for Local Innovation

By Suzie Boss

Grassroots innovation can be an incredibly effective strategy for building community systems that are useful, lasting and resilient. The power of local innovators is their ability to focus on what’s do-able today, with resources available right in the community. Given the right support, a network of community innovators could serve as a global skunkworks, with those closest to the ground generating, testing, and sharing new ideas for solving what may seem like intractable social problems. The biggest challenge, however, is figuring out how to take a lot of great little ideas to a bigger scale.

In the U.S., a new community innovation fund could give local problem-solving a big boost. The new fund, which will be managed by the Corporation for National and Community Service, is authorized by the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. Details have yet to be announced, but with $50 million anticipated for 2010, the fund could be a real boon to promising, grassroots ideas that need a push to grow into something more powerful.

How can dialed-down community solutions fix big-picture problems? Terry Williams from Cheyenne, Wyo., offers just one example. Long before the housing bubble burst and jobless rates spiked, Williams could see trouble coming. By 2007, he had spent nearly 40 years working inside government, trying to address housing shortages, poor nutrition, and the other daily catastrophes that come with poverty.

Frustrated, Williams retired from government and jumped into his encore act: organizing a community-based project that helps poor families buy their first homes. Wyoming Family Home Ownership Program matches low-income families with local sponsors to save for a down payment. By pooling donations, sponsors (including individuals, faith communities, and businesses) save about $6 for every $1 that a family puts aside. During the two years it takes to save $18,000 for a down payment, participants also attend financial literacy classes and receive additional mentoring to get them on the path to self-sufficiency. The idea is like an old-fashioned barn raising only, in this case, it’s families who get lifted up.

Admittedly, Williams' program is a small initiative that's still in its infancy. In late March, the program celebrated its first new homeowner move-in. Two more families are expected to take ownership of their homes by early summer, and another five should be ready by fall. As the first families graduate from the program, another six Cheyenne families are ready to start saving. And already, other communities are getting in touch, asking Williams how to get involved. The idea could easily be exported to other communities, Williams says. “All you have to do,” he adds, “is find more Terrys.”

How many Terrys are out there, dreaming up fresh ideas to fix their communities? Plenty, it seems, and they are tackling a wide range of problems.

When US First Lady Michelle Obama spoke about the new innovation fund at a recent Time Magazine gala, she cited Project HEALTH as one example of what works. The project aims to break the link between poverty and poor health by setting up volunteer-run family help desks at pediatric clinics:

In clinics where we provide services, physicians can "prescribe" food or housing for their patients and their families. Our undergraduate volunteers then connect those families to local resources to meet these needs, enabling them to achieve the stability and opportunity that lead to better health for their children.

Project HEALTH started in Boston more than a decade ago and now operates in six cities, reaching 4,000 families annually. That may seem like drop in the bucket when it comes to families in need, but the same idea could easily be replicated in any community with poor kids and willing volunteers.

There’s no shortage of good ideas, hiding in plain sight in local communities. Grassroots innovators around the world are focusing on everything from urban planning to community responses to climate change to neighborhood energy systems (for more stories, browse the Worldchanging Community archives).

Although plans for the Serve America Act are still in the works, we hope to see groups like those mentioned above apply and secure the funding that will help them develop into viable, homegrown solutions for their respective communities. The new innovation funds should help to identify more like them, and turn local problem-solving into a growth industry.

Suzie Boss is a journalist from Portland, Ore., who writes about social change and education.

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Interesting to note the way things are moving in this direction in the US. Our not for profit has developed a program that can be implemented as a community to enable innovation that solves local problems.

The biggest challenge to small communities is having the information to make decisions.

Posted by: Greg Winning on 5 Jun 09

Probably one of the more brilliant concepts I have read in a long time.

People talk about wanting to change the world, making it more green, but honestly, aside from a deticated few, the majority of Americans are still not of that frame of mind, "Green is really nice and all, but I have to feed the family, pay the bills and so on, green is expensive". That is what we had been taught for a long time via the republican party.

Establishing a "Skunkworks" would move the ground beneath our feet. It would have an effective change on a subtle and long lasting level.

The very simple fact that the green movement needs to embrace is this: in order to create a long lasting change in the psychological landscape of the US and the world, the green movement needs to look upon what it wants in a Dept of Defense sort of attitude. Follow me here for a second. The founding of a skunkworks then the creating of a pentagon of sorts for the environment would give it the solid foundation for change to happen. Try not to misunderstand me here, I'm not saying we should adopt a millitant attitude towards the world and force our change (although at this point, to save the earth, we probably should), I'm talking about it's methodology in creating think tanks, consolidate systems and companies under a unified umbrella.

I think it will come to this anyway, it would just be better for all of us if it happened sooner rather than later.

Posted by: Thomas Jefferson on 5 Jun 09

As it happens, there's a similar idea that's been recieving increasing attention and support for the last few years. Business incubators are cropping-up in communities around the country, often partnerships between, colleges/universities, community colleges, chambers of commerce, small business administrations, local/regional economic development corporations, and the like. Some of these incubators specialize in a specific industry, like IT or biotech, while others focus on businesses that will create jobs for a particular socio-economic community. I'd imagine that in the current climate, there are probably some that focus on green collar jobs. It would be interesting to see BIs that specifically encourage sustainable businesses.

Posted by: e.r. dunhill on 5 Jun 09

I'm glad to see the US moving in such a community-oriented and positive direction.

Things like this are already happening in the UK. Two guys, Mark and Nick, created Project Dirt to hook up Londoners with community green events. Cool stuff here:

Posted by: Eleanor on 9 Jun 09

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