To find out where grants are likely to make the most difference in the San Francisco area, Retha Robinson asks residents a simple question: “Who in your neighborhood do you call if there is a problem?”

If the question elicits the same answers, then you can pretty much imagine who the doers and shakers are, says Robinson, director of the Koshland Neighborhood Fellows program at the San Francisco Foundation. These are the people to trust when it comes to completing the fellow’s mission to improve life in the Bay Area.

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The scholarship program, which the foundation has run since 1982, aims to put money in the hands of people who are already recognized as local leaders, despite not always having the reputation of an official title, elected office, or business .

During the pandemic, the foundation relied on the scholarship program to find out what was going on at the neighborhood level and to raise money to the grassroots. In particular, there was an opportunity to expand its reach deeper into the city’s mission district, an area with large numbers of immigrants and a huge increase in housing rental costs, which has made it difficult for low-income people to stay in the neighborhood.

As part of the scholarship program, the foundation selects 12 executives in a specific neighborhood and provides each of them with $ 1,000 in cash and a $ 5,000 grant to help their organization. Over the next five years, the fellows will receive $ 300,000 for a project they design.

The current group of fellows, which includes religious leaders, educators, and community organizers, has decided to develop a program to train people from all walks of life to become better advocates for their neighbors. It is tentatively referred to as the Mission Community Power Institute and is based on the Promotora model, which is used to train lay people to provide their neighbors with access to health care. Promoters in the mission program learn skills that go well beyond health care, such as: B. the support of roommates who are looking for housing, work or advice. You will also learn basic advocacy approaches.

When the group worked out the plan, the foundation was largely hands-off.

“These informal leaders set the agenda,” said Fred Blackwell, president of the San Francisco Foundation. “It’s completely driven by them.”

Trust the fellows

As the effects of the pandemic in the mission district worsened, the foundation and fellows agreed that local residents needed more support. The day after a brainstorming evening, the fellows gave the foundation a one-page document setting out their plans, Robinson says, and the foundation agreed to give the group $ 300,000, which doubled their support for the fellowship.

The scholars knew they wanted to make direct cash payments to residents affected by the ailing economy. But they feared that the people fighting for rent would just give the money to the landlords. The mission is at the center of a lengthy gentrification debate and the group did not want to support the people on the other side of the struggle.

In order to receive a $ 500 gift card payment, the grant recipients decided that residents would have to attend five online training courses on tenant rights. Then the 600 or so people who requested the aid had to promise to call five friends to keep them informed about housing policy.

Through the residency sessions that began in December, the fellows identified their first group of promoters, who embarked on a seven-week advocacy training course this spring. This includes a woman who sells groceries that she cooks from home, a maid, and a recently laid-off restaurant worker.

Temporary measures to protect residents from eviction and provide lease forgiveness opportunities in California will expire this spring. Eric Cuentos, director of the Mission Graduates Parent Partner Program and one of the Koshland Fellows, hopes the promoters can become a powerful advocate.

By training the institute, “we create a common language and a broader base of people who have this language in order to bring about change at the grassroots level,” he says.

The San Francisco Foundation expands its scholarship work. The next group of Koshland Fellows will be from the North Central neighborhood of San Mateo County. For the first time this year, the scholarship holder will support a separate regional scholarship based on the same model. According to Robinson, the foundation sees an opportunity to bring “unsung” local leaders together on a broader basis to address issues such as housing affordability that could benefit from a larger group of advocates.

While the Power Institute’s design came from the fellows who decided how the extra money would be used, the foundation played an important role in providing technical assistance and coaching, according to Cuentos. The community grant maker was willing to double their gift and cede control of grant design only because they had invested the time to build deep relationships with members of the community, says Cuentos.

“They trusted us and we trusted them.”