MARC clients practice voting to prepare for Election Day with Manchester’s registrars of voters at an event sponsored by the Hartford Foundation.

By Yvette Bello
Senior Community Impact Officer
Hartford Foundation for Public Giving

Far too often, decisions impacting communities of color are made without hearing from the residents who will be most directly affected. Other times, when residents do lift their voices, decisions are still made contrary to the community’s interest. Policies can only be successful if they respond directly to the needs of the community they are intended to support; this happens when residents feel a sense of ownership of the decision-making process.

When the Hartford Foundation started its work in civic and resident engagement several years ago, it primarily focused on support for civic events such as participation in national, state and local elections. Research showed consistently low rates of voter registration and turn out among particular populations. In the Greater Hartford region, data showed our underrepresented voters include people of color, particularly those that identify as Hispanic of any race and African American/Black, young people, especially those between the ages of 18-24, and residents of Hartford.

With the Foundation’s focus on making investments where disparities exist based on race, place, and income, we prioritized our support for residents who are traditionally underrepresented at the ballot box.  Our initial Get Out the Vote work provided a significant learning opportunity. In order to reach underrepresented residents, the Foundation needed to collaborate with nonprofits and groups with proximity to residents as well as the intentional track record, credibility, and willingness to connect with people in their neighborhoods in the way those residents needed. This required our organization to examine our historic propensity to support larger, more established partners and to expedite the emerging efforts to support smaller, neighborhood-based nonprofits led by people of color as well as community groups with fiscal agents.

MARC clients practice voting to prepare for Election Day with Manchester’s registrars of voters at an event sponsored by the Hartford Foundation.

We learned that supporting civic efforts like voting, while important, is a small piece of a broader need to support resident engagement, resident leadership, and resident participation. This is particularly relevant to the people who have been demonstratively excluded from power and decision making, including Black and Latinx residents, immigrants, non-English-speaking residents, and youth.

These efforts will continue to expand and change over time as we learn from others who are actively engaging with and empowering residents. We are learning through our membership with Support Organizing Work Connecticut (SOW-CT), a funders collaborative focused on how philanthropy can support power building among residents most impacted, yet underrepresented in decision making.

We also recognize the power that public education and citizen engagement can have in building community support to create policy change. In an effort to build such support for one of the Foundation’s key priorities to create affordable housing in higher opportunity neighborhoods, we are funding resident education on the history of discriminatory housing policies and their impacts. The Foundation has awarded four, one-year grants totaling $70,000 to advance these activities, including grants to neighborhood-based organizations Summer of Solutions and TALK-Truth in Action with Love and Kindness to bring their expertise and education opportunities directly to residents in Hartford and Glastonbury, respectively.

With the Foundation’s declaration of its role in dismantling racism, the Foundation’s Board recently approved grantmaking policies that will support nonprofit advocacy efforts. This change recognizes the need to give voice to community organizing groups and advocacy work as a strategy to dismantle racism and move the needle on social/racial justice issues. In making these grants, we are backing the power of residents to shape the systems that affect their daily lives.

Hartford residents register to vote at a Hartford Foundation Get Out the Vote event with Hartford Parent University.

The Hartford Foundation recently funded Hartford NEXT (formerly known as Hartford 2000) through a one-year grant to implement the first year of activities to support the Neighborhood Training Institute (NTI) during COVID.  The goal of NTI is to provide targeted educational and training programs for residents and the Neighborhood Revitalization Zones (NRZs) in the City of Hartford to increase the residents’ capacity to improve the quality of life. Hartford NEXT is the coalition of all the NRZs and provides a forum and process for community residents to actively participate and collectively work with the city to prioritize and maximize resources.

“The coalition encourages dialogue and collaboration between neighborhoods to learn from each other and to support each other in matters that are important to the neighborhoods and the City of Hartford,” said Hartford NEXT Board Chair Marion Griffin.

The Hartford NEXT coalition is an example of the kind of resident-led initiative the Hartford Foundation is looking to support across the region in the months and years to come. This work will support residents in raising their voices to ensure that no decisions are made with them, not for them.

To learn more about our community and resident engagement focus or the work of our partners, please visit us online.