Typically, community grants go to nonprofits that deliver tangible services or projects, whether feeding the hungry or building playgrounds. The Aspen Institute’s new Weaver Awards are going to individuals who feed a community’s sense of belonging and build social trust.
Weave: The Social Fabric Project and M&T Bank are piloting the new microgrants this summer in Baltimore, Maryland. The program announced ten Weaver Awards in early August, with each recipient getting $7000 to complete a project that focuses primarily on building local connections and relationships.
The awardees include Audrey Carter of the Oliver neighborhood, who started the Team-up to Clean-up Project and will use the money to beautify the community, offer youth stipends, and start a farmers’ market to address the fresh food shortage. Danielle Battle of Cherry Hill founded RICH-Restoring Inner City Hope and will use the award for youth enrichment classes such as woodworking, STEM, conflict resolution, anti-bullying through improvisational comedy, mentoring, and photography. Duane “Shorty” Davis works throughout Baltimore on his project Good in the Hood, BBQ’ing to bring people together at family-friendly events so they can connect, share food and ideas.
“We use the word ‘weaver’ to describe these important people because they are trusted and give trust, weaving their communities together through relationships,” says Frederick J. Riley, executive director of Weave: The Social Fabric Project. “They are the people folks turn to when something happens or the community needs to act. They bring us together.”
“Growing up in Baltimore, I know how much these community Weavers meant in my life,” says Dan Porterfield, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. “They made us proud and inspired us to look out for each other.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks founded Weave in 2018 to address an American culture that was increasingly about “I” rather than “we.” A Pew Center survey late in that year found social trust in the US at an all-time low. Fielded before the pandemic and recent presidential election, the study found that 35% of Americans fell into a low-trust group on a range of measures, while 46% of young adults fell into the low-trust group. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans said low trust in the federal government makes it harder to solve many of the country’s problems. Another 70% believe low trust in each other makes it harder to solve problems.
Yet during a national listening tour, Weave found people in every community weaving the local social fabric by investing in relationships, making commitments to others, and creating connection across differences. They were rarely seen as formal leaders and worked with little recognition or support. Some of them might work at a mentoring program or in schools. Others are getting neighbors to talk about mental health and preventing teen suicides. Others simply people to create belonging or stop to listen when they see someone distraught.
The awards program breaks the mold of typical community grantmaking in three ways:
- It supports connecting people at a time when many Americans feel divided and isolated
- It gives resources to often-overlooked community leaders who might not have the time, experience, or non-profit status to apply for typical grants
- It aims to build a network of a region’s social weavers, whether or not they win grants, through an online community designed to offer long-term resources, skill workshops, peer support, and potential partnerships
Awardees will work on their projects over five months. They’ll have regular progress check-ins with staff members at Weave, but no formal reports or budgets to submit. On September 19, they will be honored at M&T Bank Stadium when the Ravens play the Kansas City Chiefs in a night game.
“M&T Bank knows trust is the growth engine behind our business and our communities,” says Augie Chiasera, M&T’s regional president for Greater Baltimore. “Through these awards, we are investing in the people who inspire all of us to be weavers of a strong, inclusive, and equitable Baltimore.”
M&T Bank and the Aspen Institute hope to offer another round of awards in Baltimore next year and expand the program to other cities.
This year’s Baltimore awardees are:
- Audrey Carter of the Oliver neighborhood who started the Team-up to Clean-up Project and will use the funds to beautify the community, offer youth stipends, and start a farmers’ market to address the fresh food shortage.
- Reverend Michele Ward who leads an association of block captains in the Greenmount West neighborhood. She is launching the Lights On Greenmount West campaign which allows 140 homeowners to get solar-powered outdoor lighting for their stoops and back alleys and inspires informal outdoor community gatherings.
- Rocky Brown who leads the Ellwood Park Project which aims to attract more homeowners to the neighborhood, and will use the award to rehabilitate the park pavilion, resurface the playground and expand sports camps and youth programs.
- Naimah Sharif who works in Belair-Edison and West Baltimore through her nonprofit NLife, creates programs and events to connect people and their neighborhoods, and hosts communal celebrations to promote social and physical wellness.
- Aida Medina of Highlandtown who leads Gallery Church Baltimore uses her bilingual skills to connect teen moms, newcomers, and families in need to free children’s clothes, diapers, and formula.
Elijah Miles who works with Tendea Family in McElderry Park and is starting the year-round Tendea’s Servant Leaders Program for teens with a paid summer learning institute.
- Danielle Battle of Cherry Hill who founded RICH-Restoring Inner City Hope and will use the award for youth enrichment classes such as woodworking, STEM, conflict resolution, anti-bullying through improvisational comedy, mentoring, and photography.
- Ashley Esposito who works for the State of Maryland and co-founded the Village of Violetville, Inc. to connect people and meet neighborhood needs from vaccinations to school supplies to beautification projects and community activities.
- Geraldine Taylor and Arica Gonzalez of the Panway neighborhood who work through Urban Oasis, a community-created organization, and will use the award to support start-up grassroots projects in minority communities.
- Duane “Shorty” Davis who works throughout Baltimore on his project Good in the Hood, BBQ’ing to bring people together at family-friendly events so they can connect, share food and ideas.