In the fall of 2014, we met Marshall Pollard at a Grassroots Grantmakers Convening in Cleveland, Ohio. He was on an urgent search for community change strategies to apply back home in Birmingham, Alabama, in his work with the Ed Foundation.
The Ed Foundation arose out of a city wide listening campaign in 2008, after concerns regarding the future of Birmingham City Schools hit an all time high. That year, data showed that only 39% of high school students were graduating.
As a result of the many conversations, the people of Birmingham reached a new Community Agreement to improve the Birmingham City Schools. Chief among the items in the Community Agreement was the call for a non-profit organization that would support the Birmingham City Schools and keep citizens engaged in the future of Birmingham’s children and in the school system. In response to this call, the Birmingham Education Foundation (BEF) was established as an independent 501(c)(3) in 2009. In a relatively short period of time, Ed jumped in and has provided close to 10,000 students with college and career awareness opportunities, as well as skill building to support these new pathways and pursuits. However, in 2013, the latest report on progress made since this time period, only 17% of third graders could read on grade level and only 13% of eighth graders met the proficient reading mark.
In early conversations with the Marshall and his colleagues at the Ed Foundation, they acknowledged the paradox so common in long term community change work: "We knew our work was impacting students, families, and educators. However, the data continued to reveal that many of the students participating in our programs are the same students who created the low level reading statistics previously mentioned."
As an organization, they were constantly asking, “how do we develop the capacity to ensure that 25,000 students are college, career, and life ready? Beyond the delivery of our direct programs, how do we spark innovation across the entire ecosystem of students, families, educators, residents and community partners? "
They spoke of being stuck in knowing exactly how to build momentum and collective action across a huge landscape, with deep racial and cultural divides and an overall mindset of hopelessness when it came to city schools. As we probed for specific examples of this mindset, they offered these examples:
Earlier in 2014, about six months before we met Marshall, they began an aggressive search for a community organizing strategy and framework that their small staff could deploy, with the hope of sustaining it over a long period of time. They initially landed on an asset mapping campaign, modeled off the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) approach to organizing. They jumped full force into this strategy during the summer and fall of 2014, recruiting a diverse team of parent and teacher “Connectors” who helped us collect an inventory of over 450 gifts, talents and demands for change. And, as their “action learning” process unfolded, they quickly realized that they had a great list of people and assets but no intentional space or device for bringing these change agents together, over and over again, to produce and sustain innovation at every corner of the system.
At the Cleveland conference, where we met Marshall and learned about the Birmingham Schools story, Trusted Space Partners and Neighborhood Connections provided an experiential demonstration of our Community Network Building framework. Marshall was excited to learn of our theory of change and our intentional spaces and practices. We quickly formed a partnership with he and his colleagues at Ed and have worked closely together since November of 2014 to spark a new on-going network of educators, students, parents, residents and community partners. We call it the Ed Network and the only requirement for becoming a “card-carrying member” of this network is that you profess to love the students of Birmingham schools and are committed to helping these students achieve excellence in school.
We want to take a moment to let you know the tangible and practical results that we have seen in a short 18 month period of time:
Here are the critical steps that Marshall and the Ed staff pursued, with quality and determination, to achieve these results in such a short time period. We'd love to tell you more about each of these steps and how you might apply them in your context.