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Learning, Adapting and Looking Ahead

4/28/2021 |

As we move further into 2021, many institutions are sharing how they responded to the COVID-19 pandemic shaking the world in 2020, with its swift and destructive wave transforming life as we knew it. That new way of life was changed even more after the murder of George Floyd, with a renewed and robust demand for action to combat racial injustice.

It was clear these two crises would call for philanthropy to change throughout the year —particularly with so much uncertainty and enormous need. Foundations would have to and should have to take on an unprecedented role. Given its size and nimble and transparent grantmaking approach, Philadelphia’s Barra Foundation had the flexibility needed in 2020 to act quickly, with little bureaucracy and a historical nature to take risks when necessary. Their culture offered the foundation an opportunity to balance a more rapid response with some longer-term thinking about what recovery might look like.

Barra’s longtime practice of listening intently to many voices in the sector to inform how to best deploy resources was a well-toned strength that paid off during the crisis. No one was fully prepared for what happened in 2020, but an approach like Barra’s allowed the staff and Board to quickly respond to the evolving needs of a region that was jarred and traumatized.

Barra’s shift in its grantmaking in 2020 enabled grantees to continue strengthening communities throughout Greater Philadelphia while learning some lessons along the way, too. In the same spirit of learning, this story reflects on Barra’s 2020 grantmaking to consider how to move forward throughout 2021 and beyond.

Phase 1: Pivoting to respond to an emergency.

With COVID-19 on the rise in March, grantees and foundations alike faced a very specific challenge: How do we change our operations and continue to serve with impact? Case counts were skyrocketing. Indoor spaces abruptly closed, including most locations where nonprofits served their communities. Only essential workers were allowed to continue to go to their workplaces.

When the Philadelphia region (and the country) shut down, Barra quickly made small general operating support grants to a network of nonprofits of former and the most recent Barra Awardees. This was a group of exemplary organizations that had been identified through Barra’s unique peer nominator process. This rapidly disbursed emergency support in the early days of the pandemic went to grantees that had a reputation for leading, performing, and adapting to give them a chance to breathe then, refocus and move forward.

“Like many others, we were in a forced timeout because we could not use our building. It was really difficult to figure out what was next,” said Anne Iishi, executive director of the Asian Arts Initiative (AAI).

“It was not just the amount of financial support; it was the fact that the emergency grant was open-ended. I could make the decision about how to use it in a way that was beneficial to AAI. It afforded us a moment to think,” said Iishi.

The African Family Health Organization (AFHO) had a similar reaction to the emergency funds. AFHO works with African immigrants and refugees, many of whom are at a predisposed risk for infection.

“When the pandemic started, many of our clients were first responders, small businesses. Most were not given education about the pandemic or basic supplies. As a result, many got sick with COVID,” said Oni Richards-Warity, AFHO’s executive director. “We had to scramble and figure out how we were going to do this in a virtual setting.”

Contributions were also made to the collaborative joint COVID Emergency Aid funds in all five Greater Philadelphia counties. Rather than having nonprofits seeking funds from multiple foundations, Barra believed emergency funds to the county foundations would be a one-stop-shop for stretched nonprofits and closer to the on-the-ground needs of communities.

By late spring, it was time to consider what the next phase of recovery and response would look like as the crisis changed course, even though most nonprofits were still operating in an emergency mode and a constant state of unpredictability.

Phase 2: Addressing dual pandemics.

With the murder of George Floyd in late May, a racial reckoning came in the U.S. amidst COVID. The country was now facing two pandemics. Barra recognized and wanted to acknowledge the interconnectedness of systemic racism and COVID-19.

Barra quickly shifted to prioritize its next round of funding for nonprofits and communities of color being disproportionately affected by these interwoven crises. And they continued to see that it was more crucial than ever to relax funding guidelines and place trust in organizations knowing what they needed to survive.

This began with continuing to provide unrestricted operating support that did not require a formal application. Instead, Barra turned to an informal network of diverse peers to identify organizations already addressing these interwoven issues within the foundation’s four fields of interest: Arts and Culture, Education, Health, and Human Services. Barra re-purposed more than $1 million to provide unrestricted support in this next phase of Recovery and Response Efforts.

New Day Drop-In Center, a women’s center focusing on victims of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, notes the importance of continuing to function as a safe space for all at-risk women regardless of their backgrounds—even as spaces were less than safe for under-resourced communities.

Executive Director Heather LaRocca recalls shifting services to respond to the changing needs of those they serve. With the drop-in center closed, staff engaged with participants at outdoor meal distribution sites and joined community partners in ensuring individuals had consistent access to emergency food assistance. Case managers turned to a primarily telehealth model.

“Thanks to Barra, every client gets a mask, and we do temperature checks. We were able to think through all the measures we could take to operate safely,” said Larocca.

Richards-Warity of AFHO, which received both emergency and recovery funding from the foundation, calls Barra’s general operating funds an “unprecedented” opportunity to provide direct cash assistance to clients.

“We could help families with rent, phone bills, food, and household supplies,” said Richards-Warity. “We have undocumented clients who were hesitant or ineligible to seek assistance. Families survived because of this support. Perhaps most important, this support renewed their faith in humanity.”

AFHO found itself a touchpoint for its families in a new way. The organization began to conduct its services by phone while providing comfort to families with limited English or mistrust of the health care system.

Throughout the pandemic, the virus has disproportionately affected under-resourced communities of color that struggle with meeting basic needs. Black and Latino people have become infected with the virus at three times the rate of whites and have died nearly twice as frequently. Many have jobs that prevent them from working at home, rely on public transportation, or live in cramped homes that increase the risk of exposure. Black and Latino individuals are more likely to suffer from underlying health problems that raise the risk of hospitalization and death. There has been increased violence against all non-dominant groups, with targeted attacks on Asian and Pacific Islander individuals.

For AAI, the past year has been about coalition building and working with other Asian organizations.

“We were already seeing effects of bias against our community well before the shutdown. At the beginning, it was a communications issue. It was a challenge to say: We are still open, and it is not our fault. Then combatting outright acts of violence throughout this shutdown has been a challenge to the entire community,” said Iishi.

Phase 3: More than money.

In thinking about a just recovery and issues of systemic racism, Barra and its partners knew they needed resources in addition to money.

To tap into the collaboration and partnership that Barra values and works to foster, ImpactED was engaged to bring together nonprofit leaders to share lessons learned throughout the past year and discuss and discover new ideas and approaches for tackling challenges. Those resources also included Barra collaborating with Dr. Ken Hardy, President of the Eikenberg Academy for Social Justice and Director of the Eikenberg Institute​. He facilitated racial awareness training with grantees, partners, and the Board to deeply foster and enhance the will and skillset necessary to address race-related issues in the workplace and beyond.

“Race is one of those issues like air. We know there’s air, but we can’t see it. We can’t touch it. Part of what our sessions did was assess the ability to see race in a very nuanced way,” said Hardy. “Subsequent to George Floyd’s murder and in the middle of a pandemic, folks needed a place to come together for some semblance of community to regroup.”

Barra funded four virtual public sessions that brought together hundreds of demographically diverse attendees. Intensive workshops allowed the groups to explore race relations in a way that would inform their future work. Here Barra partnered with a few other foundations to reach a wider network of grantees.

“Barra’s humanism and their humanitarian approach foster authenticity and openness that I haven’t seen with other groups. They could have gone in any direction, but this is the direction they wanted to go in. They did it in a way that I thought was really a testament to who they are and what Barra accomplishes,” said Hardy.

Phase 4: Planting seeds for recovery.

From the beginning of the pandemic, the impact on small businesses – especially those that play critical roles in communities—was evident. Barra made both grants and impact investments to support a move toward economic recovery. Barra gave a 0% interest loan of $100,000 to Women’s Opportunity Resources Center (WORC) to enable them to provide PPP dollars to small businesses owned by women and people of color while they waited for federal dollars. That loan has already been re-paid to Barra.

In moving deeper into recovery efforts later in the year, Barra funded a few more projects focused on fortifying small businesses led by and/or serving people of color.

Community First Fund (CFF) is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) supported with one of these grants. It seeks to revive distressed neighborhoods, replace empty storefronts with active commercial spaces, and increase local economic activity.

“Our lending and services are directed at meeting the needs of the most disadvantaged, often operated by African American and Latino entrepreneurs who are regularly turned away from most banks,” said CFF President and CEO Daniel Betancourt. “Instead of underwriting loans based on credit scores, we look at all of the factors contributing to those low credit scores.”

CFF came to Barra to start a $20 million Economic Justice Fund to support lending to BIPOC entrepreneurs in the Greater Philadelphia region. Historically, this subset has weak relationships with banks—almost all of the entrepreneurs CFF serves have been turned down by traditional lenders. During COVID, many banks only considered PPP applications from existing customers, meaning most BIPOC-led businesses could not get aid.

“This is about human dignity,” Betancourt kept saying. “Community Development Financial Institutions like CFF uses a combination of government funds and private donations to seed businesses that banks won’t deal with because they view their owners as too poor and too disconnected from the financial system to qualify for standard loans. That’s how we are all going to get back on our feet.”

Phase 5: Listening, learning and moving forward.

Learning is a must at Barra; the foundation recognizes that learning can and must happen in the face of adversity to create change. Barra took the pandemic as a chance to move more quickly, to experiment with application processes, utilize more tools like impact investing, and identify resources to be more skilled at addressing racial equity in all work. Across the region, funders also came together to create a more significant impact. It was time to walk the walk just as nonprofits are asked to do.

Barra also considered its particular mission around innovation and where this may add value. Some partners expressed concern that there would be no dollars left beyond recovery for novel thinking and projects that involve risk-taking. Barra kept its Catalyst Fund open because times like this can fuel ingenuity. There will be creativity that comes out of these crises, and Barra wants to be ready when those “aha” moments emerge. Beyond adapting and re-building, Barra anticipates that some will be re-imagining better and bolder solutions.

Philanthropy is trying to find new ways forward as well. Barra has been participating in the Mission Aligned Investors cohort run by Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia. This is a group of nine foundations learning how to apply a racial equity lens to impact investing. In addition to a 5% grant distribution to charitable organizations, how can foundations invest the other 95% of their assets—sitting in their investment portfolios—to better align with their missions? More specifically, the cohort is finding ways to use this other 95% to advance racial equity.

As nonprofits and the communities they serve embark on the next chapter, Barra will continue to balance short-term response with longer-term recovery, striving to incorporate the lessons learned during this time in Greater Philadelphia and the country. No one has all of the answers yet, but Barra’s goal is clear: Keep moving forward toward greater change and the transformation that the past year has proven to be long overdue.

More information about Barra’s 2020 approach and grantees can be found here.

Creating Connections to Rescue Food to Address Food Insecurity

4/3/2020 |

Note: This story was written prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

The children who attend the afterschool program at the Salvation Army’s Red Shield Family Residence were pleasantly surprised one afternoon with an unexpected treat: pizza. “I like the kids to eat before they leave,” said program coordinator Michael Kuka. “And kids, they love pizza.” Without the services of Food Connect, an initiative that rescues surplus food, the pizza would have been discarded instead of being happily devoured by hungry children.

Food Connect is a bridge between two extremes: perishable food that winds up in the dumpster and the food insecurity experienced by one in four Philadelphians. With a tap on a phone app, a caterer, restaurant or grocer can summon drivers from Food Connect to pick up excess food and deliver it to food shelters and pantries around the city.

“Food Connect’s unique approach allows organizations across sectors to seamlessly integrate efforts. “So, whether you are a volunteer, a food rescue organization, a private company who wants to donate or a food shelter that wants to receive food; working together is now effortless,” says founder Megha Kulshreshtha.

The mission began with Kulshreshtha’s acute discomfort with the anomaly she witnessed on her daily commute from her job as a data analyst in Center City: restaurants throwing large quantities of unsold meals in the trash and an obvious need for food among individuals experiencing hunger and homelessness.

“Food waste presents a social paradox in our communities because, while Americans waste more than $160 billion worth of food every year, millions face hunger every day, with one in eight Americans being food insecure,” she said.

Kulshreshtha had been contemplating the problem at the 2014 Philadelphia Start-up Weekend, a convention for would-be entrepreneurs to explore their ideas. At the end of the event, she and other attendees put the leftover food in her trunk and delivered it to a nearby shelter.

From then on, Kulshreshtha spent evenings and weekends driving excess food to shelters. The opportunity to transform her personal mission into a formal program came after Pope Francis’ 2015 visit to Philadelphia amplified the problem of excess food going to waste. Restaurants that were left empty because of the disruption were forced to discard thousands of pounds of food.

In the aftermath, Kulshreshtha was invited to discuss her work at a meeting of the Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council, led by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. The meeting led to Kulshreshtha orchestrating a city-wide partnership of organizations and the creation of an app that enabled the rescue of more than 11,000 meals of fresh food when the Democratic National Convention came to town in 2016. Twice as many meals were rescued the following year when the National Football League held its draft in the city.

Still, Kushreshtha struggled to keep up, paying for everything out of pocket and scrambling to handle the day-to-day without time to think strategically about how to scale and financially support her model. A Barra Foundation grant changed that.

“The funding really allowed us to take a step back and look at the system as a whole, rather than struggling to make it work on a daily basis,” she said. “We could think more strategically, which allowed us to build capacity.”

The organization now rescues 15,000 to 18,000 meals a month, filling a unique niche in the process. Because they use a simple technology solution to connect restaurants and food vendors with an easy way to donate, it enables large food banks, like Philabundance and Share, to focus on what they do well – redistribution of pallet-sized donations of non-perishables – knowing that the smaller, perishable donations will be rescued by Food Connect.

Pizza, for instance. The treat for the children at the Salvation Army came from By George, a Reading Terminal Market vendor.

Kuka, the Salvation Army program coordinator, is passionate about Food Connect’s mission. “I have two obsessions,” he said. “I hate seeing food in the trash and I hate people eating from the trash. I’m really thrilled with what Food Connect is doing. They’re picking up food where there’s abundance and bringing it to people who really need it.”

Food Connect also has an emergency COVID-19 page with information on where to donate food or supplies, volunteer or if you need to receive food. We encourage you to connect with them.

Striking a Balance

8/2/2018 |

By the time visitors to the Barnes Foundation reached the third or fourth gallery of priceless art, they seemed to have grown weary of the audio headset that guided them through the collection. They took one earpiece off, then both.  They started chatting with their companions. Most importantly, an evaluation showed, they stayed in the galleries far less time than people who didn’t have the audio headset: 88 minutes versus 107 minutes.

“It seemed as if the tool we had given users – the audio guide – actually flooded them,” said the Barnes’ Shelley Bernstein, Director of Audience Engagement and Chief Experience Officer. “Not only was it difficult to be social with headphones on, but the content itself was dense on top of an already dense installation environment causing more fatigue and a faster exit.”

Bernstein had a hunch: “We needed to test short-form content.” The idea to dilute information was heretical to a museum culture that believes its mission is to educate and enlighten. “But if the stay rate is so much less, you have to start to question how we deliver information and our own assumptions about that.”  She came to envision a wrist-worn device, similar to an Apple Watch, which provided abbreviated information and promoted more social interaction. It was wholly experimental and would have to be shaped by an iterative process – regularly refined as it became clear what worked and what didn’t.

With support from Barra’s Catalyst Fund, Bernstein designed short-form content for a wearable wristband; random visitors to the Barnes tested it for a period of three months in 2017.

The first version of the prototype delivered information about one piece of art in a room, which most testers found inadequate. A second version introduced three pieces of content per room. A snippet about the East Wall of Room 13, for instance, said: “Compare Vincent Van Gogh’s unflattering interpretation of female sexuality to the more dreamy idealized figures in the neighboring Renoir.”

Word count and content was modified as feedback was evaluated. While reactions differed between regular museum-goers familiar with the Barnes who preferred more elaborate information, and newcomers who preferred more introductory content, the overall reaction was very positive.

Nearly three quarters of the visitors who tested the prototype agreed with a tester statement that said: “I don’t normally use audio guides and I find the paper guides a bit confusing. But this was on my wrist, it felt so natural to look at the screen and then up at the painting. It wasn’t obtrusive or distracting in any way.”

The ultimate test, of course, was how long visitors stayed in the galleries with the short form content. Bernstein anticipated, at best, a slight increase in visit duration. But the wearable that offered the “sweet spot” of content ranging between 60 and 100 words resulted in an average visit of 119 minutes – a full half hour longer than the average visit of people using the audio headset. “That’s unbelievable,” Bernstein said. “It’s very rare that you make a change like that in an institution and you see that kind of stay rate.”

The Barnes is now seeking funding for production of the prototype. The audio-visual guides are gone. And, most importantly for Bernstein and for Barra, old assumptions are being challenged, other museums are querying Barnes about short-form content, and internal discussions pivot around the lessons of the experiment.

“I think one of the most powerful learnings about the tool was not necessarily the actual stay rate, it was the ability to have the conversation internally that challenged us,” she said. The results clearly suggested a better way to enhance visitor experience that was “the opposite of how we’ve done our jobs forever. That is a very hard discussion in museums in general.”

Illustration by Narrator Design

Exploring Program-Related Investments

5/11/2017 |

This distressed street in the center of Chester, PA may look unremarkable, like any once-thriving commercial avenue in decline. But something unique is underway on the Avenue of the States that could not only change the game for Chester, but inspire other efforts to create an urban renaissance from within. And it provided The Barra Foundation the chance to try something new—providing a low-interest loan instead of a grant to an organization seeking transformational change.

It all begins with an entrepreneur named Devon Walls, a Chester artist who envisioned new life for this once-thriving street as an arts community owned and created by local artists. “I grew up in a family of artists,” Walls say. “One of my uncles wanted to put an arts and cultural district in the city of Chester.” When his uncle died with his dream unfulfilled, Devon decided to carry on—buying properties devalued by the fleeing middle class and turning them into community spaces for performances, classes, exhibits and events.

Walls worked closely with Barra on Bridges and Boundaries, a Barra-funded project which he co-directed with Widener University to build relationships between the campus and town. Through the project, Walls met Chuck Lacy.

“I was attracted to the project largely because of Devon’s vision, but also, his resilience and long-term commitment to Chester,” said Lacy, former president of Ben & Jerry’s and president of the Barred Rock Fund, a private foundation. While arts revivals are often initiated by artists from out of town seeking inexpensive rent, this is a homegrown effort by and for local artists. “This is an extraordinarily ambitious goal to create an arts district and arts identity for Chester and it’s going to take a wide range of skills. Not only does Devon have the skills but he’s been cultivating those skills among large groups in Chester.”

In 2015, Lacy and Walls created a partnership, New Day Chester, Inc., and to-date have acquired six properties on the Avenue of the States to create venues for Chester performers, painters, furniture makers, sculptors and clothing designers to develop their own businesses.

Using a relatively novel funding mechanism, Barra is providing a low-interest loan to the project which is too high-risk to attract traditional funders. The $250,000 loan to help complete renovations will potentially reassure future lenders that the project is financially viable—and it is an opportunity for Barra to model the use of Program-Related Investments (PRI) for other foundations.

A PRI is an emerging philanthropic tool that’s a hybrid of the investment and charitable functions of the foundation. It is an impact investment designed to advance a social cause aligned with the Foundation’s mission. New Day Chester was the perfect opportunity for Barra to not only advance innovation, but to model it as well.

So far, New Day Chester has rehabbed formerly vacant buildings into a 220 seat theater, an arts program center, a dance and photography studio, a community woodworking shop, and a soon to be opened coffee shop.

“Barra’s early support is giving other foundations the confidence to consider their own investments in Chester.” said Lacy. “As much as the investment, Barra’s continued engagement and connections made between Chester and regional foundations and expertise is making the difference.”

Lacy believes that Barra’s commitment and Wall’s devotion will enable a renaissance in Chester unlike others elsewhere. “Barra’s involvement is making local ownership possible,” Lacy said, “and local ownership is the key to long term community success.”

“My vision is to make this strip full of restaurants, galleries, living spaces, coffee shops, entertainment,” Walls said. “And then have people look at it and say, ‘If it could be done here, it could be done anywhere.’”

Acknowledging & Advancing Excellence

5/5/2017 |

Nonprofit organizations are indispensable pillars of our communities. In its third round, the Barra Awards aims to acknowledge and advance the work of exemplary organizations in the Greater Philadelphia region. This year, The Barra Foundation has awarded $2,150,000 to 43 exemplary organizations from across the field of Arts & Culture, Education, Health and Human Services.

In line with its mission to invest in innovation in the social sector, the Barra Awards provide $50,000 in unrestricted funding over a two-year period. Without unrestricted capital, nonprofit organizations have little margin for error or flexibility to innovate. In addition, awardee organizations’ leaders become members of a diverse network of entrepreneurial thinkers—their fellow awardees. This combination of flexible financial support and the opportunity to share ideas with other leaders from different disciplines and networks helps them discover new ideas and better solutions to problems.

To identify Awardees, Barra turns to the community. A new slate of nominators, selected each grant cycle from among previous awardees and other social sector leaders, recommends up to three organizations. Eligible nominated organizations are invited to apply and, ultimately, Awardees are approved by Barra’s Board of Directors.

Congratulations to the Awardees:

Go play outside! Doctor’s orders.

12/19/2016 |

Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education

Featuring a tot lot with a dinosaur slide, climbing equipment for older kids, wide pavements with room for bikes and scooters, and an open, grassy field, Clark Park, in the middle of a busy West Philadelphia neighborhood, is just what the doctor ordered.

Walking around the nine-acre park, Chris Renjilian, a physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), points out the varied opportunities for young people in the area to get outside and get active – a prescription, he says, for healthier living.

“What we have known forever intuitively – that being physically active and being outdoors is good for you – now has a lot of research behind it to prove it,” Renjilian says. “It’s an easy idea to sell, we now just need to make it happen.”

In partnership with the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, the City of Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Commission and the United States Forest Service, Renjilian and his CHOP colleagues are about to do just that. With support from The Barra Foundation, Nature Rx will launch this spring at four of the hospital’s clinics around the city. Doctors will begin prescribing outdoor recreation to thousands of young patients and their families, using newly created tools, resources and incentives designed to make getting outside easy and fun.

“The simple idea,” says Gail Farmer, former director of education at the project’s lead sponsor, the Schuylkill Center, “is to put resources in the hands of physicians and also patients, parents and caregivers so they are motivated about outdoor play and see it as accessible, easy and safe.”

Studies show that children spend only one percent of their free time outdoors, and an average of seven and a half hours a day in front of screens. The rise of such a sedentary lifestyle among young people, health experts say, has contributed heavily to the country’s increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, asthma and depression.

“Childhood has retreated indoors,” says Farmer. “With Nature Rx, we want to help turn that around.”

Key to the effort is training and empowering doctors, who have limited time to cover a lot of ground during patient visits, to optimize how they counsel patients on outdoor play. With Nature Rx, clinicians will be prompted through an online system — called the Electronic Health Record (EHR), which they already use to guide them through appointment protocols — to talk about the medical and therapeutic benefits of spending time outdoors. Loaded into the EHR will also be a fully searchable database of all of Philadelphia’s parks, trails and other green spaces, allowing doctors, patients and their families to create a personalized plan to get outside. In each patient’s end-of-visit paperwork will be a printout on the parks that meet their needs, and a written “prescription” outlining goals for visits and activities.

As a follow-up to the doctor visits, Nature Rx will dispatch so-called Nature Navigators to work one-on-one with families to bring down barriers, such as time constraints or safety concerns, some may face in trying to meet their prescribed goals. Incentives, like an online rewards system, are also in the works to encourage families to stick to their activity plans.

For the idea to grow beyond the first four sites, the program’s evaluation needs to demonstrate value to time-crunched clinicians. Built into the program will be studies of the impact of its intervention model on the behavior of doctors and patients and on measures of health and wellness.

Along with promoting health and wellness, Nature Rx is expected to produce other benefits, such as introducing families to their local parks, which in turn is likely to increase community engagement and neighborhood involvement.  And connecting young people to nature, organizers say, may help grow a future generation interested in preserving outdoor public spaces.

The Nature Rx website and database will also be valuable resources for any city resident looking for ways to get outside. Based on a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind audit of Philadelphia’s outdoor assets, the database will include visitor information about each location, such as distance to public transportation, access to restrooms and whether it is stroller-friendly. It will also allow users to filter searches according to dozens of criteria, including what types of playground equipment and activities, like swimming or ice skating, are offered on site. Additional available information will include visitor comments and a live data feed displaying upcoming park events and programs. For Clark Park that will likely mean information will be posted about the farmers’ market held there once or twice a week, depending on the season.

Renjilian used to live near the park, so he is familiar with the goings on there, but he can’t wait to learn about other green spaces around the city and to share the Nature Rx database with his patients. He says that not knowing where to direct interested patients has been a challenge to helping them follow through on his recommendations to get active.

“I’ve always encouraged them to do physical activity, but I wouldn’t know specifics about their neighborhoods and interests,” he says. “Now we’ll all have this great resource, which means we can talk about getting kids and families outside, and do it in a way that is specific, local, customized and achievable.”

Food is Medicine

11/16/2016 |


Bruce Palmisano’s wounds wouldn’t heal. The wheelchair-bound Vietnam era vet took medication and nutritional supplements month after month, and still the burns on his feet – from scorching water in a foot massager – wouldn’t heal. Then Palmisano found MANNA, a Philadelphia nonprofit which provides medically appropriate meals to people like Palmisano struggling with chronic or acute illness.

Within a short time, Palmisano was fully recovered. “The program is wonderful,” he said. “Ever since I’ve been on MANNA, for the last four months, my feet healed up 100 percent.’’

MANNA provided Palmisano three high-protein meals a day, designed for wound recovery; it’s one of 11 menus developed by MANNA dieticians for clients with illnesses ranging from diabetes to cancer to kidney failure.

The organization feeds 1,000 people three meals a day, every day. Meals are free to clients. MANNA pays for those meals the way most nonprofits pay for services: they fundraise. MANNA has built an impressive network of individual donors, foundations and corporate sponsors and they organize big, creative fundraisers, like Pie in the Sky.

Palmisano’s case is cited by Ann Hoskins-Brown, MANNA’s director of Policy and Institutional Affairs, as evidence that food can be as necessary as medicine in restoring health. In MANNA’s vision for the future, doctors will write prescriptions for meals and insurance companies will pay for them. “We want medically-appropriate meals to be a standard part of healthcare, much like hospice care is available to everyone who needs it,” she said.

They knew it would be difficult to convince medical professionals and health insurance companies that food should be treated—and paid for—like medicine. In order to demonstrate their work’s true value, they invested in research. The report, published in the Journal of Primary Care and Community Health, showed that Medical Nutrition Therapy—which includes nutritional assessment and one-on-one counseling—coupled with medically tailored, home-delivered meals improves health, reduces costs and increases quality of life.

“The average savings was between $10,000 and $12,000 per person per month,” Hoskins-Brown said. “People weren’t going into the hospital as frequently and when they did, they stayed for a shorter period of time. And when they were released, they went directly home rather than to sub-acute care.”

The findings led directly to a remarkable reimbursement pilot in which a local health insurance company is providing coverage for MANNA’s comprehensive nutrition services for up to 200 of its members at any given time.

To market themselves to insurers beyond the pilot, MANNA’s next hurdle was to modernize MANNA’s data system. Nicole Laverty, nutrition and client services manager explained that this would not only allow MANNA to make systemic observations and improvements for their clients, but customers like health insurance companies expect quantifiable demonstration of impact. With support from The Barra Foundation, new software will replace 20-year-old technology that’s inflexible and cumbersome.

Technology will help MANNA transform their business model, but their ability to track data will also have a positive impact beyond the organization’s walls. If, for instance, MANNA can track the return of former clients—which it can’t do now because the program overwrites new intake information on old forms—it can potentially identify failures in other parts of the social safety net that can be improved.

Investments in research and technology paid off. MANNA’s new insurance company customers will enable the organization to reach thousands more clients through their health insurance providers. But above all else, simply: “It’s about serving our clients better,” Laverty said.

Showing What You Know

8/31/2016 |

Drexel University

Jermaine Brown, a 27-year-old Philadelphia resident, knew he was a skilled house painter. He had helped his uncle on plenty of jobs here and there, learning different techniques to mix and apply paint. But because he was never officially employed as a painter, he didn’t have proof of his experience. The construction company he began working for a couple years ago kept him on clean-up crews for nearly a year before they gave him a chance to paint, a job that offered higher pay and more hours than cleaning.

“I had to build a relationship with them for a long time before they finally asked, didn’t you say you could paint?”

Now, as Brown readies himself for a new career path in landscaping or environmental stewardship, he is confident he will no longer have to wait around to get the jobs he deserves. That’s because he is participating in a pioneering program that provides evidence of accomplishments, aptitude and abilities that may be learned outside of a classroom or other formal education or employment settings.

Through an effort organized by Drexel University, Brown and hundreds of other young people participating this summer in pilot programs across the city are earning what are called digital badges—shareable digital credentials that demonstrate and verify competencies.

Like Girl Scout badges pinned to a sash, digital badges are meant to display experience and document skills for wider audiences.

“The power of digital badging is that it allows people to provide an evidence-based record of what they have learned and what they can do,” says Joanne Ferroni, Director of Drexel’s University and Community Partnerships, “and it provides employers and higher-education institutions with a way to see and assess those skills.”

Ferroni’s office manages a network of 13 Philadelphia agencies and employers aiming to use technology to boost their job training and workforce development efforts. The group, called Digital On-Ramps, created an electronic portfolio system where students and job seekers can store and share their resumes, transcripts and other documents and media often needed to unlock career and educational opportunities. Developing digital badges—which can be showcased in the e-portfolio—was an obvious and exciting next step for the group, Ferroni says.

So earlier this year, Digital On-Ramps joined initiatives in about a dozen other U.S. cities working with a new web-based and mobile platform, LRNG, that offers in-school, out-of-school, work-based and online learning opportunities organized into playlists. When participants complete all the activities, exams or assignments in a playlist, they earn a digital badge issued by the program or educational provider.

With backing from a Barra Foundation grant, Digital On-Ramps committed to introducing 1,000 young people to LRNG’s digital-badging system this summer.

Among the efforts is one by collaborative member Philadelphia Academies, Inc. (PAI), which runs a program for high school students interning in the daycare industry. PAI created two playlists related to early childhood education, both directly aligned with a nationally recognized entry-level credential in the field. The playlists are meant to teach students skills and knowledge that they can put into practice during their internships and to prepare them, if they choose, to move along in the credentialing process.

The playlists, for example, include lessons on proper hand-washing protocols (with an assignment to make an informational poster) and on the importance of developing preschoolers’ fine and gross motor skills (with an assignment to create a PowerPoint presentation). Once all the assignments in a playlist are completed, uploaded and vetted, students earn a badge.

Zykiia Bryant, a new high school graduate who will start college in the fall to study early childhood education and criminal justice, is working hard this summer to earn her badges. She appreciates that the digital credentials are verifiable—“anyone can click through and see my assignments,” she says—and will travel with her.

“When I apply for my master’s, I’ll be able to pull up the badges I earned this summer,” says Bryant, pointing to her cell-phone screen, “and say, ‘Look, here’s proof I’ve been learning and dedicated to this for a long time.’”

Jermaine Brown expects the badges he’ll earn this summer through PowerCorpsPHL, a local AmeriCorps initiative focused on the environment, will give him a leg up too. A badge about tree care, for example, could signal to future employers that he’d be ready for independent landscaping projects from day one, he says. And he plans to check out other playlists on the LRNG website that might not be directly related to his chosen field, but that offer him new skill sets.

Reshaping a Community by Design

7/25/2016 |

Tiny WPA

Tiarra Bell hunches over a long wooden board, carefully spreading bonding glue while a table saw whines in the background, sawdust permeates the air, and other reassuring workshop sounds hum around her.

Tiarra, 18, is working in the basement of the new Tiny WPA headquarters on Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia. She’s making a mailbox for the location.

It’s a place that has transformed Tiarra’s life. And her experience with Tiny WPA’s Building Hero Project embodies the vision of the program’s co-creators, design expert Alex Gilliam and his partner Renee Schacht. Together, they’ve built a program for youth and adults to learn tools, create functional products to sell on the internet, and improve their neighborhoods and schools through hands-on design and building – all while learning teamwork and developing leadership.

“The Building Hero Project is a community design leadership curriculum where the training tools are projects,” Alex explained. “It’s kind of shop class on steroids!”

Participants perform their tasks in a visible location – on the sidewalk or in the storefront window, for instance – so passersby become intrigued.

“When people see what we’re building, they want to get involved,” Alex said. “And there’s no more powerful tool for stimulating or inspiring community engagement than Tiarra with a circular saw. When people see a teenage girl doing that, it’s like, ‘If she can do it, why can’t I?’”

A grant from The Barra Foundation will enable Alex and Renee to formalize the Building Hero Project, and offer three eight-week Building Hero training programs throughout the year. Participants of all ages and walks of life will learn how to make functional items—from cell phone amplifiers to desktop organizers—that will be sold on Etsy, an internet site for hand-made arts and crafts, with the money split between the program and the creators.

Brody Bauman, 16, has already earned $800 from desktop organizers that he made and sold on Etsy. He and Tiarra and other students have made this shop an impromptu after-school program, coming by to work on their skills in a comfortable, nurturing environment. “I just showed up one day and I never left,” he said.

Meanwhile, from time to time, neighbors drop by, asking Alex and Renee to help them make counter tops or front porch planters or a dog house. PhillyCAM, a local nonprofit, asked for help with a radio station console. When they can, they do it. The effort fits into their bigger dream, to use the Building Hero model to inspire students and residents to take up tools and help improve their neighborhood. Alex and Renee also hope to collaborate with the regional fabrication and design community, to create partnerships and mentoring opportunities. Furniture companies have already begun reaching out to them, seeking skilled individuals. “We want to weave the Building Hero Project into the design and fabrication life of this city,” Alex said.

A year and a half ago, Tiarra, a student at Science Leadership Academy, supported a group called ‘Random Acts of Kindness’, created by 9th grade girls at the Science Leadership Academy’s Beeber campus. There, working with Public Workshop—an affiliate of Tiny WPA, she helped them design and create ‘hang-out’ pods where students could sit and socialize. Tiarra enjoyed the process so much that she got involved in and became an integral part of the Building Hero Project. She has had a tremendous impact on Tiny WPA and Public Workshop’s work and her future has likewise been reshaped by the experience.

In near disbelief at how bored she would be had she pursued her original goal of studying to be a paleontologist, Tiarra changed her future plans and was accepted to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design as a furniture design major. She was among 819 students, out of 12,000 applicants, to be recognized by the National Young Arts Foundation and will receive a cash award, professional mentoring, and program opportunities. Tiarra was also the only person under the age of 25 invited to a recent national convening of experts organized by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Surdna Foundation on ‘community engaged design.’

“Designing and building is an outlet for me. After a stressful day at school… or a normal day, I look forward to coming to 4017 Lancaster Avenue and working with Tiny WPA,” said Tiarra. “It’s kinda my motivation for waking up in the morning.”

New Heights for Home Repair

5/23/2016 |


What’s it like to feel unsafe in your own home? To go to bed worrying that a cracked window won’t weather a storm? To hurry through a shower, scared that the buckling bathroom floor will collapse from the weight of the water? Mary Johnson, 61, lives it every day in a badly deteriorated home in West Philadelphia, once her mother’s home, on a block where other family members live, too.

Karen Black estimates that hundreds of thousands of people live in the same dire circumstances in rowhouses across Philadelphia. But help only trickles in. For instance, there are 4,150 homeowners on the waiting list for the city’s Basic System Repair Program. That means a four-year wait while a house slips into ruin—a small roof leak becomes saturated walls, buckling floors, ruined wiring. And costs escalate.

“There are fantastic organizations devoted to helping low-income families repair their homes, but due to limited funding and a model that relies upon volunteers, only a small number can be helped.”

That bottleneck is why Black, a lawyer, and Kiki Bolender, an architect, cofounded the Healthy Rowhouse Project. With multi-sector partners weighing in on the design, they have begun to devise a new, citywide infrastructure that will repair thousands rather than hundreds of damaged rowhouses each year.

“We have this incredible affordable housing stock of iconic rowhomes in Philadelphia and as they deteriorate they’re literally making their occupants sick,” Black said. “And then they’re lost forever and we can’t afford to build all new houses. It costs $190,000 to build a new rowhouse; we can save them for $10,000 to $15,000.”

The plan to increase Philadelphia’s low-income home repairs from approximately 150 to 5,000 is very ambitious, but the problem is urgent, evidence is mounting, and the solution is long overdue. When the nonprofit Rebuilding Together Philadelphia inspected the Mantua home of Jennifer Harris they discovered a slow carbon monoxide leak—right beneath the room where her daughter sleeps. Contractors fixed it immediately. “If they hadn’t come—I can’t imagine what could have happened,” Harris said.

Stories like Harris’ combined with recent research help propel the project’s many stakeholders to keep driving towards a solution. For instance, the link between health, education and home repair has been dramatically illustrated in recent research, including a 2014 pilot between the City of Philadelphia and St. Christopher’s Hospital. Homes were remediated to remove conditions such as mold and mildew that aggravate asthma—leading to a 70 percent drop in emergency room visits and more than 50 percent drop in missed school days.

Philadelphia is not alone in this struggle. While some lessons can be culled from peers, the Philadelphia model will be unlike anything in the country. With support from the Oak Foundation and The Barra Foundation, Healthy Rowhouse Project will work with partners to create and implement a collaborative, multi-sector service delivery model. They will determine which types of repairs will provide the greatest financial returns and positive health outcomes and weave that research into the program design. They will also need a creative financing structure, one that will engage an array of investors such as property owners, foundations and healthcare organizations.

“This is the moment in time we think we can have huge results,” Black said. “The research is there—healthcare organizations are beginning to care about these underlying causes and the funding community is looking to invest in things that bring measurable results,” Black said.

The Healthy Rowhouse team will work quickly, but in the meantime, Rebuilding Together Philadelphia will make necessary repairs to Mary Johnson’s house so she doesn’t have to abandon her family home like others on the block have. Despite the fear she lives with, she finds the notion of leaving the house unthinkable. “I’ve lived here all of my life,” she said.

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