It’s been just over a year since I joined DC Social Innovation Project as its Executive Director. During that period of time, we have created a remarkable amount of progress thanks to the support of all of our donors, community investors, and volunteers to go deeper in so many ways.
When I think back on this year, I think of a story with a real person who defines what we can do together to improve community health and well-being.
This is a picture of Julie Kirkwood, founder of DC UrbanGreens that I took just seven days into the job. Julie is one of our brilliant grantees and someone our board chair and co-founder Darius Graham suggested I meet with as part of an informal listening tour.
Julie’s farm is tucked next to Fort Dupont Ice Rink and across the street from a low-income housing project. Julie proudly showed me her growing farm and introduced me to her volunteers and board members. She shared how in just a short year, she had transformed an under-utilized plot of land into a full-scale farm. But it was more than that. The farm had begun to shift the community’s identity from a community defined by an open air drug market to a community directly connected to a growing enterprise focused on improving community well-being. People who used to hide from the crime by staying inside their homes came out to the farm to reconnect with their heritage and neighbors. By working on the farm and buying produce at the farm stand, they celebrated their own power to buy healthy food and better care for their families.
In addition to our seed funding, DC UrbanGreens’s pro-bono team developed a strategic plan to overcome barrage of daily decisions and identify key issues to scale her idea. We had a DCSIP Fellow work with Julie to help implement the strategic plan and we connected her to critical partners to solidify her niche in the broader community to get at her biggest struggles: scaling and sustainability. We also started to help her to better frame her impact and gain visibility for her model–for why growing and selling food directly within low-income communities was critically important to address big community health problems and innovative.
In the next six months, she would scale her farm by a factor of three and be featured in the Washington Post. This success is almost entirely due to Julie’s grit and creativity, her incredible board who backed her, and some transformational partnerships that respected her hyper-local vision. And we have played a role in that effort, too: We promoted Julie and her innovative model in blog pieces, facilitated visibility of DC UrbanGreens through a volunteer event held on the National Mall during MLK Weekend of Service, connected her to necessary services like financial expertise on auditing, positioned her leadership in our grantee newsletter ReKindle, nominated her for a Maya Wiley Fellowship for her work to address structural racism inherent in the food supply system, and highlighted her as a successful case study on our infographic and in a podcast with DC Young Entrepreneurs.
The deeper I dove into our organization’s track record to get at our essence–just exactly what our secret sauce was in our 80% incubation rate–the more I realized why Julie’s story resonated. It perfectly illustrates why we are successful. Quite simply, we believed in Julie enough to give her a grant and validate her idea.
“Before I got your grant, it was just a crazy idea. Then it became an “innovative” crazy idea. DCSIP believed in me and it was incredibly powerful,” she told me.
But we didn’t stop at the grant, and we didn’t stop at the pro-bono project, we kept going. We put our own social capital on the line to help ensure her success. And all in roughly one year’s time. It is simply a remarkable story of the power of authentic partnership which is very much at the heart of our essence and in our DNA.
The last year has been a remarkable journey for me to learn how we work by participating in the process directly with Street Sense, the Paper Project, and Wise Young Builders and now with our two new grantees Healthy Babies Project and ScholarCHIPS. I already see signs of Julie’s success in each of them. There are indications of scaling, stronger value propositions, heightened strategic vision and a show of amazing courage to come out swinging for success. So thank you to all of you who have helped make this a year of incredible success stories. And here’s to more to come.