Category: working groups

How funders can advance equity in and through the arts

By Rebekah Seder
Senior Program Manager
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

As the United States undergoes dramatic demographic shifts, there is a growing urgency for addressing historic racial inequities within our society. This is no different in the sphere of arts and culture. Research showing that more than half of the total philanthropic dollars for the arts flow to institutions with budgets of over $5 million – organizations predominantly focused on Western European artistic traditions and that often primarily serve white, wealthy audiences– reveal a need for a more equitable approach to funding the arts. This is an issue that funders nationally and here in our region are increasingly prioritizing.

Recently, local public and private arts grantmakers, gathering under WRAG’s Arts and Humanities Working Group, considered their own efforts to support the arts among diverse communities across the region. A number of strategies for addressing inequities rose to the top:

Reconsider application and report format: Extensive application and reporting processes can be an extra burden on organizations with few staff and resources. Allowing performances, events, portfolios, etc., to replace traditional written reports can help make the grant process more accessible to small organizations and for those that don’t have a lot of experience working with institutional funders.

Don’t get stuck on quantitative measures of impact: Impact is always a tricky question in the arts, and using typical metrics might not tell you much about how effectively an organization engages its audience or serves its community. For instance, a show at a big, sold-out venue might entertain a lot of people, but a performance in a more intimate setting might deeply impact a small audience. Getting out in the community and seeing organizations in action is a good way to witness impact first hand. (The importance of qualitative assessment will be further explored by David Grant, author of the Social Profit Handbook, at WRAG’s next Brightest Minds event on March 10.)

Be intentional about language: Words matter. Being intentional about the language used in application forms can help make funding opportunities more inclusive. If funding is limited to a particular jurisdiction, consider, for instance, the difference in meaning between “resident” and “citizen:” one of those words is much more exclusive than the other. Terms like “underresourced,” “underrepresented,” and “underserved” are often used to define communities that funders are seeking to support, but those descriptors don’t necessarily resonate with individuals in those communities.

Provide support beyond dollars (and project grants): General operating, capacity building, and multi-year support are critical for enabling organizations to grow and thrive. Besides providing financial support, however, funders can be of service to arts organizations as thought partners and as catalysts for new collaborations and partnerships.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways that philanthropy can support more diverse artistic communities and cultural practices – indeed, they are really just starting points for creating a more equitable arts ecosystem that reflects the incredible cultural diversity of our region.

Advancing a more equitable arts sector for a better region

By Rebekah Seder
Senior Program Manager
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

A vibrant arts sector helps create a vibrant region. The arts spur economic growth and neighborhood development; improve educational outcomes and promote creative problem-solving skills; they give voice to issues of social justice; and they generally make cities better places to live. The evidence of this is clear in the Greater Washington region, which is increasingly seen as a cultural hub. Just recently, the National Center for Arts Research ranked the Washington area first in a list of the most “vibrant” regions in the country.

For those who support the arts – and those whose mission it is to support underserved communities – ensuring that people in all parts of our region, and from all walks of life, have the opportunity to experience and participate in the arts is important. As our region, along with the rest of the country, undergoes dramatic demographic changes, ensuring that the arts reach everyone is both more urgent and more challenging.

At a recent gathering of WRAG’s Arts & Humanities Working Group, funders considered some of these challenges. The conversation, framed by Clay Lord and Abe Flores from Americans for the Arts (AFTA), prompted more questions than it answered about how to advance diversity and equity in the cultural sector in our region, a place marked by inequities that frequently play out along racial lines.

Demographic shifts have real implications for arts organizations. Data show that “traditional” arts organizations (museums, orchestras, opera, etc ) serve predominantly whiter, older, and more affluent than average audiences – and the composition of their staffs, boards, artists, and donors frequently mirror those trends. Big arts institutions, which often attract significant funding, aren’t always accessible to diverse audiences, while small neighborhood-based organizations that serve local communities sometimes lack the professional capacity to attract major funding. Just as some neighborhoods are “food deserts,” there are parts of our region that could be viewed as “art deserts” too, particularly in terms of the level of philanthropic support flowing to those areas.

These trends easily lead into discussions of big systemic inequities in our society, like the pervasive lack of high quality arts education, especially in low-income schools; funding practices that privilege established organizations with professional staff and experience with institutional funders; and organizational hiring and governance practices that perpetuate exclusivity. These obstacles can seem insurmountable, but arts leaders throughout the country are addressing them in new ways.

Locally, arts organizations and grantmakers have been grappling with this for some time. Currently, local arts agencies in six jurisdictions are taking on small-scale approaches to tackling these issues, through AFTA’s Greater DC Diversity Pilot Initiative.

While public arts agencies have a major role to play in ensuring a thriving, diverse arts ecosystem throughout the region, private philanthropy can support these efforts as well. Arts funders can encourage their grantees to consider ways to reach new audiences, by providing support for leadership development; fundraising, marketing, and community outreach; and capacity building to learn how to become more diverse, implement those plans, and develop metrics for success. Finally, funders can consider and address the ways that their own grantmaking and evaluation practices and priorities might exclude smaller, more diverse organizations from successfully applying for funding.

Click here to learn more about WRAG’s Arts & Humanities Working Group or contact Rebekah Seder.

Street Art Gives Voice to the Community on Low-Income Housing

The following article was written by Ken Grossinger, chair of the CrossCurrents Foundation and a member of WRAG’s Arts & Humanities Working Group. The article was first published in the Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, Vol 25. No 1, Winter 2014. Reprinted by permission.

We wanted to share the article with our readers because it demonstrates the power of the arts to effect social change.

WRAG members: The next meeting of the Arts & Humanities Working Group is April 24. More information here.

Wall Hunters — a public arts project — is playing a catalytic role in shaping the urban Baltimore landscape. Young muralists are creating popular street art with a message. Joined at the hip with a savvy housing organizer and a website that packs a wallop, the Wall Hunters Slumlord Project generated enough political heat in 2013 that it led to the demolition of dilapidated vacant homes in the city’s grittiest neighborhoods. This project may have helped speed up the city’s commitment to addressing some of the worst urban blight in America. Art is shaping urban design.

Street art has seen a resurgence of practitioners since Banksy became a household name. Banksy’s work won acclaim in the UK for its sharp social commentary. Originally vilified as a pariah and sought by the police (he remains elusive), Banksy gave popular expression to societal grievances. His street art caught fire throughout the UK, Europe, and the Middle East, as well as most recently during a one-month residency in New York City. A meteoric breakout of public art followed on Banksy’s heels, including Shepard Fairey’s now well-known Obama poster that helped nurture activism for the president’s election in 2008. In 2011, gallerist Jeffrey Deitch, then director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, curated a show of street artists from around the world that drew record attendance to the museum. And when Trayvon Martin was killed, Nether, a street artist in Baltimore, stenciled onto the side of a run-down building the image of an empty hoodie with a Skittles packet, which became ubiquitous throughout the George Zimmerman trial. The blank black space where the face should have been evoked both the tragic loss of this young man and the unseeing eye of prejudice that sees blackness before it does the humanity of a person. It was in this context, at the intersection of art and social justice, that Nether’s next idea — using public art to draw attention to Baltimore’s vacant neighborhood buildings — took hold.

Baltimore is among the few East Coast cities where entire city blocks upon blocks of homes sit vacant and uninhabitable, often putting residents who live next to these structures at risk for serious public health and safety hazards. The official city count of blighted buildings puts the number at 16,000, although the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University put the number above 40,000. (The discrepancy may be explained by the method the city uses to count buildings: it relies on vacant building notices.)

Nether reached out to internationally known street artists, asking them if they would work with him to wheatpaste or paint murals on the walls of these vacant buildings — one in each of Baltimore’s fourteen city council districts — so that people would take notice. He wanted to draw attention to the vacant buildings and petition the city for a remedy. Fifteen street artists participated from as far away as Venezuela, although most artists came from a half-dozen cities across the United States.

The murals are strong and catch the eye instantly. On some of these desolate streets they are the only things that really stand out. But it is not just the imagery and colorful art that capture public attention. At the bottom of each mural Nether has pasted a QR (Quick Response) code that, when scanned, takes the reader to In turn, this website identifies the building owners by name, and provides their contact information along with the names of the elected officials in whose districts the buildings sit.

The research for the website was done by Carol Ott, a housing advocate who talked to neighborhood residents and scoured public records to identify the slumlords. The website contains no explicit message, but a call to action is implied. And the website has fast become well known. In its first two months it received 50,000 hits. The landlords began to roar, and the city and artists began responding.

Each of the murals depicts narratives about housing and slumlords, Baltimore and dreams, those of the artists and the community. The first mural to go up was of a large purple, black, and gold raven. The Raven is the Baltimore football’s team mascot, and perhaps not coincidentally, it is also the name of a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, formerly a Baltimore resident.

In the mural the Raven is building a nest — wood slats gripped in its claws, caution tape hanging from its beak. It symbolizes a determination to rebuild from rubble. Nether tells the story of how he found the mural’s QR code ripped down several days after it went up. And after replacing the QR code, demolition signs quickly followed. Within two weeks the building was demolished!

The headline of a local blog’s story about the project read: “Art aimed to Shame”and an ABC 2 News headline read: “Illegal street art calls out owners of Baltimore’s vacant properties.”

Community residents who were interviewed for news stories about the demolition lamented that these properties needed to be torn down. They argued that the former homes could have been renovated had the landlords or city taken action years earlier, before or even shortly after the buildings were condemned. But their eventual deterioration left the structures too shaky to rehabilitate. Moreover, these “vacants” created problems related to the structural integrity of adjacent properties.

Political tension surrounding the Wall Hunters project heightened with the creation of a mural by a street artist known as Gaia. He described his mural as depicting the “crown of King Tut with the visage replaced by a cotton field. . . . A normal suburban home with eagle wings floats above the words Exodus in Hebrew and English. Rather than vilify an individual who could fairly be labeled a slumlord, this piece visualizes the connection between the Jewish and African American experience with migration.”

The Baltimore Sun, the city’s primary daily newspaper, then reported that the alleged landlord (as revealed through the QR code) of that building denied he owned it. Moreover, the landlord’s spokesman accused the street artist of using anti-Semitic images to perpetuate the idea that Jews were slumlords who oppress African Americans.

Gaia and the Slumlord Project immediately challenged the denial of ownership, and described the landlord’s attack as politically motivated — designed to detract attention from his responsibilities for the building. According to Wall Hunters, this particular landlord was well known, having been cited for maintaining 500 lead-paint-contaminated houses in their inventory.

Importantly, the weekly City Paper also challenged the landlord’s claim by running a comprehensive story detailing their own independent research that may put to rest any assertion by the landlord that the properties were not in his control.

The public press attention served Wall Hunters well. It compelled the city to respond, not to the details of the interaction between the rival papers but rather to the overarching housing problem and the city’s failure to deal with the thousands of uninhabitable buildings that line city blocks.

Combining art with old-fashioned shoe leather organizing, the Slumlord Project then distributed flyers asking residents to report on dangerous properties in their community. And with each new mural that went up, more press ensued.

Shortly after the dustup involving the artist Gaia, the community, the landlord, and the press, a new Baltimore Sun headline appeared: “City to raze hundreds of vacant houses in stepped-up plan.” The article reported that the city had increased its $2.5 million demolition budget to $22 million to “tear down 1,500 abandoned houses.”

This was just the beginning. In two months Wall Hunters had achieved much with their first project. Their work led directly to the demolition of two crumbling buildings, and it appeared to substantially influence the city’s decision to raze many more. They built alliances with community residents to identify homes in need of renovation that could become the basis for future collaboration. Indeed, one community resident, Shawnee, began to introduce the Wall Hunters to her neighbors and was mobilizing them to file complaints about their surrounding buildings.

Wall Hunters bridges a historic gap between community organizers working on an issue and artists working separately in the same space. These two groupings have more often than not worked on parallel tracks rather than together. There is nothing inherently wrong with that except in situations where one group could maximize its impact if it were joined with the other.

Bringing activists and artists together is no small feat. Visual artists in general tend to be less conventional in their approach to issue work. Organizations, on the other hand, are usually more hidebound and tied to tried-and-true methods. They are limited by tight IRS constraints on their activities and pay particular attention to conforming to a set of rules that govern their work. That has sometimes led to these organizations becoming frustrated with many artists who by their nature tend to be nonconformist. On the other hand, visual artists tend to be frustrated with organizations that rarely think outside the box.

Through their practice Wall Hunters is succeeding in bridging the art world with both the organizing community and with residents. These street artists work collaboratively with a housing advocate and their community partners to achieve their goals. It is particularly interesting to note that Nether, a twenty-something male, liberal street artist, and Carol Ott, a midforties Republican who created the Slumlord Watch website and does the research for it, are the driving forces behind this unique collaboration. Their unlikely alliance forged over their common interest has helped shape its work.

Social media are also proving to be effective ways for Wall Hunters to accomplish its goals. The QR code and website are critical tools for pressuring the city and landlords to take action. With more than 50,000 initial hits to the Slumlord Project website, Wall Hunters was able to deepen the engagement of a large number of people who otherwise would have seen the murals but would have had no other immediate mechanism to look further. Even this minimal amount of activity generated by the murals — scanning the QR Code — works because the pressure on slumlords and the city to address the issues associated with those properties grows greater with each person who sees the names of the building owners. And even without any organized campaign to lobby elected officials in those districts, these pols feel the heat by being associated with the targeted properties.

Nether recently incorporated Wall Hunters into a 501(c)(3) organization so that he can continue to bring together artists and activists working on social justice issues.

The next phase of the Wall Hunters project is a documentary that Tarek Turkey and Julia Pitch are producing about their work. The documentary brings viewers into direct dialogue with community residents in the neighborhoods where the artists made the murals. It features interviews with the artists, housing advocate Carol Ott, Wall Hunters founder Nether, academics, and public officials. This penetrating short film will enable viewers to see Baltimore’s neighborhoods through the eyes of the camera and by doing so virtually catapults them into the story. To see their trailer go to!film/c1l27.

A renewed focus on the arts and humanities

By Rebekah Seder, Program Manager

At WRAG, we keep finding ourselves discussing how the problems and the assets of the Greater Washington region are often overshadowed by the fact that we’re the home of the federal government.

It’s a blessing and a curse. As the nation’s capital, D.C. and the surrounding area are often seen as synonymous with the Capitol, and our unique character is invisible. When it comes to arts and culture, we are fortunate to be the home of world-class cultural institutions like the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, but smaller arts organizations that do amazing work are often left scrambling for funding. As we wrote in last year’s edition of “Our Region, Our Giving,” our local industry – the federal government – doesn’t generate the kind of major wealth that leads to homegrown philanthropic giants like those in other major cities. And while institutions like the Smithsonian attract (deservedly) massive levels of philanthropic support from both inside and outside our region, there’s considerably less philanthropic investment in locally focused organizations.

Late last month, arts and humanities funders convened to re-launch the Arts & Humanities Working Group (perhaps best remembered to date as the group that initiated the process of bringing the Cultural Data Project to D.C. back in 2011). This group of funders is committed to raising the profile of the arts and humanities in our region and making sure that the broad range of arts nonprofits that serve local audiences aren’t forgotten by other funders.

The working group is diverse, representing private foundations and public arts funding agencies, community, family, and corporate foundations. The group’s express goal is to strengthen the local arts and humanities sector in our region and to increase public and private philanthropic investment in the sector. The Arts & Humanities Working Group aims to help other funders understand that the arts, in addition to their inherent artistic value, are important tools for improving the quality of life in our region by promoting economic growth and community development, and serving as vehicles for education, youth development, and social justice.

The arts are part of what makes the Greater Washington region a great place to live – and, by celebrating, nurturing, and ensuring the long-term sustainability of our creative sector, the region will just keep getting better.

Funders interested in the Arts and Humanities Working Group should contact Rebekah Seder at

Funders focus on disconnected youth in the District

By Rebekah Seder, Program Manager

At the last Children, Youth, and Families Working Group meeting, members focused on the mental health needs of teens – particularly youth in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems, parenting teens, and youth otherwise disconnected from their families, schools, or needed services. Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, Dr. Lee Beers, director of the Healthy Generations Program at Children’s National Medical Center, and Mark Sweeney, executive director of the Capital Region Children’s Center, discussed the critical need for high quality mental health services for youth, the gaps in service in D.C., and the role the philanthropic community can play in improving the system.

The Healthy Generations Program at Children’s National Medical Center, which provides integrated and comprehensive medical, mental health, and social work services for teen parents and their children, and Capital Region Children’s Center, which provides mental health wraparound services to children and families, are recognized as providing high quality, evidence-based services with positive outcomes for their clients. However, due to funding limitations, their reach is limited to hundreds of families rather than the thousands of District children and families in need.

All three speakers emphasized the importance of early intervention in treating mental health issues, and the positive impact that quality, community-based treatment can have on the life of young adults. Unfortunately, of the estimated 11,000 kids in D.C. in need of mental health services, little more than half receive any services at all. Moreover, existing Medicaid reimbursement guidelines do not allow for services to be delivered in the evidence-based manner that is most effective for teens – for instance, through home visits or by providing mental health services in the same location and at the same time as medical services.

According to the speakers, there is a clear role for the philanthropic community to play in reforming the children’s mental health system in D.C. One of the biggest challenges facing the medical and nonprofit providers supporting disconnected youth is the sheer complexity of the bureaucracy of the city’s Medicaid program, which covers over 75 percent of children in D.C. While there are a number of strong and replicable programs already serving youth, there is a dearth of quality service providers, and far too many young people go without needed services.

Large scale impact requires an increase in public, in addition to private, funding, and this can’t be achieved without systemic reform of the Medicaid system in D.C. Many of the bureaucratic barriers are technicalities that with sufficient political will could be changed. By lending its support to advocacy efforts for reform, the philanthropic community would have a much greater impact on improving the lives of youth in the District.

WRAG members: Summaries of past meetings on children’s mental health are available here.

Quality Jobs/Quality Care: Examining the potential for a regional direct care workforce

Last month funders and representatives from local governments and nonprofit organizations got an inside look at the complex challenges facing the direct care workforce in our region, particularly around the issues of worker regulation, and the potential opportunities to move toward building a truly “regional” workforce that better meets the needs of the region’s aging population.

Judith Levy of the D.C. Coalition on Long Term Care, discussing credentialing of direct care workers, described how these health workers are often inadequately trained, as most states’ training requirements do not meet recommended national standards. Moreover, the certification requirements, as well as job responsibilities, for home health aides, personal care aides, and similar positions vary across D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. This often makes it hard for workers to move across borders in our region, even if they have the necessary knowledge needed for a job in another jurisdiction.

Karen Scipio-Skinner, Executive Director of the D.C. Board of Nursing, Pamela Ambush-Burris, Director of Education and Licensure of the Maryland Board of Nursing, and Brenda Krohn, Deputy Executive Director of the Virginia Board of Nursing, joined the conversation to discuss the ins and outs of the credentialing regulations in their respective jurisdictions. The take away? It’s a complicated system.

Since certification requirements vary in both states and the District, a person who is qualified to serve as a home health aide in D.C. would have to receive a certified nursing assistant (CNA) credential to take the same job in Maryland. For a D.C. resident who lives close to Prince George’s County, this could reduce their ability to find employment without completing an additional – and often costly – training program. In another case, Maryland requires CNAs who work in nursing homes to attain an additional certification of Geriatric Nursing Assistant, while Virginia and D.C. do not require this. In addition, the varying oversight structures across jurisdictions make it hard to create regional change.

As previous Quality Jobs/Quality Care programs have discussed, there is a need for better pathways for direct care workers to advance in their careers. But companies that hire direct care workers are under little pressure to pay higher wages for employees with more experience or higher levels of certification, since the labor pool is so large. Employees, then, have little incentive to obtain advanced training or to get an additional certification to work in different jurisdictions if there is no financial incentive to do so, making it hard to create a more highly skilled workforce.

There are reasons to be optimistic. Opportunities exist for the Boards of Nursing in our region to better align their regulatory requirements so that credentials can be carried from one jurisdiction to the next. This has already happened with CNA certifications, as each jurisdiction endorses the certifications of the other, making it simpler for CNAs to obtain employment in a different jurisdiction.

Philanthropy can have an impact on these issues in our region by:

  • Supporting consumer education programs so seniors know what to consider when hiring direct care workers, as well as advocacy organizations that work on regional direct care workforce issues
  • Working with the region’s Area Agencies on Aging to reach families of seniors so they know what resources are available to assist them when their loved one needs services at home
  • Getting involved with WRAG’s Working Group on Aging to continue its research and serve as a coordinator to advance this work

Earlier Quality Jobs/Quality Care programs focused on the growing demand for direct care workers in our region, and the region’s direct care training programs and the challenges they face in building a skilled workforce. The final program in the series will be held on February 23, 2012. 

Quality Jobs/Quality Care is sponsored by WRAG’s Working Group on Aging, the Community Foundation’s Greater Washington Workforce Development Collaborative, the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Funders meet with Dr. Joshua Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools

By Rebekah Seder, Program Coordinator

While Montgomery County has a reputation of being a homogeneous and wealthy jurisdiction, in reality the county is rapidly changing.  In the words of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Superintendent Dr. Joshua Starr, who recently spoke with members of the Public Education Working Group, “we are no longer the image people think we are.” The county is now marked by changing demographics, increasing poverty, and a student body growing by 3,000 students each year. To Dr. Starr, however, these issues are not challenges to be “dealt with,” but opportunities for Montgomery County to continue to lead the country in providing quality public education to all.

Dr. Starr, who started in his position this past July, outlined some of the areas he has been focusing on during his transition, including:

  • Curriculum 2.0: With funds from a federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant, MCPS has launched a new curriculum that is focused on developing the “whole student,” by integrating core academics with arts, social sciences, and humanities. Based on internationally-driven standards, Curriculum 2.0 is being introduced in grades K-2, with the expectation that it will be integrated into additional grades over time, and as funding allows.
  • Professional development: In Dr. Starr’s words, variability in student performance is not always a “student learning problem, but an adult learning problem.” For this reason, providing ample opportunities for teachers to engage in effective professional development plays an integral role in creating a “21st century culture” of continuous learning and information sharing.
  • Issues of race and equity: Putting issues of race and equity on the table and dealing with them frankly is central to Dr. Starr’s efforts to improve the achievement levels of all students in the school system. Dr. Starr spoke about the achievement disparities between white, Hispanic, and African American students not as an “achievement gap,” but rather an “education debt” that has accrued over time due to structural barriers that have impacted achievement for decades. MCPS will take a comprehensive and integrated approach to improving the achievement of all students, by honing the processes by which schools intervene to provide supportive services to students and families, ensuring differentiated instruction to address the individual learning needs of each student, and partnering with community agencies to facilitate parental engagement.

Recognizing that MCPS is already one of the strongest school systems in the country, Dr. Starr is determined to build on MCPS’s solid foundation to continue strengthening schools, and avoid the risk of stagnation. There are many opportunities for local funders to help ensure MCPS’s continued improvement. At a big picture level, Dr. Starr emphasized his hope to partner with the philanthropic community to look deeply at what works in education reform and to serve as a thought partner on strategically aligning all aspects of the MCPS system to be as effective as possible.  Dr. Starr also highlighted the potential for philanthropic support of smaller projects as well, such as a mobile outreach van that could provide basic medical care, bilingual counseling, and other services to promote community engagement in the public education system.

This was the second in a series of Public Education Working Group meetings focusing on education throughout the region. In June, funders met with Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker and Superintendent William Hite. Later this fall, funders will meet with school officials from Northern Virginia.

Funders explore early childhood mental health

By Rebekah Seder, Program Coordinator

This month, the Children, Youth, and Families Working Group dove deeper into its children’s mental health agenda, with a discussion of issues surrounding the mental health of children from birth to age three and their primary caregivers, and the services and supports needed to help families create a healthy environment for themselves and their young children.

Tamara Halle, a child psychologist and researcher with Child Trends, gave an overview of research into the impact of early childhood years on an individual’s social and emotional competency throughout life, emphasizing that the bonds between children and their parents or other caregivers set the stage for later social interactions. For this reason, problems that affect the bonds between children and their caregivers, such as poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, or maternal mental health issues, can have a significant impact on children’s emotional well-being.

Maria Gomez, founder and CEO of Mary’s Center, discussed the relationship between poverty, maternal depression, and children’s mental health, and the critical importance of very early assessment and intervention in mitigating the impact of mental health issues in young children and their mothers. In her experience, addressing a woman’s mental health before her child is born is the best way to ensure that children don’t develop similar issues of their own in later years. Mary’s Center, which does mental health assessments on all of its clients, has found that almost 100% of pregnant women they serve show signs of depression, and that 80% of mental health issues are related to poverty. This highlights the interrelated nature of mental health and economic security: as Gomez noted, if parents are healthy and feel good about themselves, they are stronger parents and better able to move their families out of poverty. Gomez strongly believes that all publicly funded health centers should include basic mental health assessments as a component of the medical services they provide.

Members also heard from Marti Worshtil, Executive Director of the Prince George’s Child Resource Center, about the Center’s simple, but highly effective, intervention program for young children in childcare settings who display behavioral issues. The program provides a social worker to do an assessment of the child and their childcare provider, works directly with the child and family, trains their childcare providers on how to more effectively engage the child, and provides referrals to community agencies. The program has succeeded in reducing the preschool expulsion rate from six to 1.2 children out of 1,000, and its biggest obstacle moving forward is the very high demand for its services.

There is an important role for philanthropy in promoting children’s mental health in the region. As Gomez emphasized, there is a need for greater outreach services to engage people in the community who need mental health services, as well as workforce training and improvement of mental health workers. In addition, philanthropy can play a key role in advocating for systemic integration of health, mental health, and other services to ensure that people can easily receive the support that they need.

Funders focus on health care reform and the community

By Rebekah Seder, Program Coordinator

“Successful health reform is a participant sport.”

This was George Mason University’s Director of the Center for Health Policy Research Dr. Len Nichols’ message to funders at a recent briefing about how the health care reform law will impact areas beyond health insurance coverage and the delivery of health care to consumers. He pointed out that successfully implementing health reform to reduce costs and improve outcomes for everyone requires a focus on the whole community and depends on effectively engaging community stakeholders, from patients and doctors, to employers, business leaders, and public officials.

Dr. Nichols outlined the elements of the law that affect areas beyond what are traditionally considered to be in the realm of medical care , particularly through its emphasis on strengthening community health and wellness programs. The legislation includes $15 billion to create the Prevention and Public Health Fund to augment community efforts to promote health and well-being through preventing illness and better managing chronic diseases.

The law also recognizes the role that communities play in improving public health through the National Prevention and Health Promotion Strategy, which outlines how diverse community stakeholders can develop prevention and wellness programs in order to be better catalysts for health.

According to Dr. Nichols, members of the philanthropic community have an opportunity to impact the success of health care reform particularly in their role as conveners. Funders and others in influential positions in their communities can engage with stakeholders, such as hospitals, consumers, and the business community, to share information and ideas; counter misinformation about health reform; and advocate for local health departments to apply for federal funding.

Funders should also remember that many of their grantees are, in fact, small businesses which will have to make decisions about how to address various aspects of the law. When it comes to improving health, preventing chronic disease, and lowering health care costs, communities will either thrive as a collective unit – or they won’t at all.

Dr. Nichols’ presentation can be found in its entirety here.

Prince George’s County officials brief funders on public education reform

By Rebekah Seder, Program Coordinator

Last week WRAG members got an in-depth look at education reform efforts underway in Prince George’s County. County Executive Rushern Baker and Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) Superintendent Dr. William Hite discussed the county’s achievements over the past three years in reforming public education, despite the impact of the economic recession.

Due to the school system’s collaborative relationship with the teachers’ union – which has allowed the county to work toward improving teacher effectiveness throughout the system – PGCPS has seen significant gains in student achievement over the last three years, including the largest improvement in reading scores in the state of Maryland over the past year. During the same three year period, budget cuts have necessitated cutting 2500 PGCPS positions and implementing further salary reductions and furloughs.

Dr. Hite outlined his top education priorities, beginning with improving teacher effectiveness through a commitment to accountability, effective evaluation processes, and the provision of ample professional development opportunities. The county is already on its way to reforming teacher compensation practices after receiving a 2007 Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grant of $18 million from the U.S. Department of Education, which has allowed the county to implement a pay-for-performance model for teacher compensation.

During the meeting Dr. Hite also announced the PGCPS had shortly before been notified of a $15 million grant from the Wallace Foundation for developing school leadership. Improving teacher and principal effectiveness is of the utmost importance; as Dr. Hite noted, “we must be intentional about who we have standing in front of our students.”

Another key reform is aimed at developing rigorous standards for high schools, then applying these reforms to middle and elementary schools. Dr. Hite also discussed efforts to engage the business community through a program that exposes students to real-life jobs relevant to the county, and through substantive summer youth employment options. In addition, PGCPS is promoting parental engagement by working with community- and faith-based organizations that host parent advocacy centers that help parents navigate the school system.

County Executive Baker, highlighting his commitment to having a long-term impact on education reform in the county despite any short-term political risks, emphasized how having a strong public education system promotes economic growth. Excellent schools attract business and investment to the county, which provide jobs and grow the commercial tax base.

Finally, noting that 54 percent of students in the school system qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, Mr. Baker and Dr. Hite discussed their efforts to address the impact of poverty on educational achievement by taking an interagency approach toward providing effective wraparound services for students and ensuring the holistic development of every students in PGCPS.