So, You Want to Collaborate in My Community?

When I started Coastal Women for Change, it wasn't my vision to run a nonprofit. If it had been, I would have done my research and learned how to manage one. I was thrown into this work after a devastation. I was a cosmetologist before Hurricane Katrina. I started speaking up for my community and reaching out to my neighbors when I saw how my community of East Biloxi was being left out of the recovery process (like so many predominantly Black and poor communities and neighborhoods across the Gulf Coast).

I would not change my direction or my position. I feel God has a plan for each of us. Our legacy must begin with the change we do for our community, and the whole Gulf Coast region.

Nearly eight years later, it's a struggle to keep our community work going. People are being laid off big time around here. Still, staff are being hired at other nonprofit organizations, but not in many grassroots groups with connections to the community. Funders give grants to nonprofits in Biloxi to collaborate on community work, and the collaboration sounds good on paper. But when you reach out, it stops there. People say "collaboration," but act like, "This is money for us. Let's not collaborate with them."

Photo: Sharon Hanshaw (left) and a Coastal Women for Change member at CWC's community garden in Biloxi. Courtesy of CWC. 

These collaborations are not supporting people like we need. It's about how the funders see grassroots organizations. It's about what skills are valued – community organizing is taken for granted. Organizations that have the expertise to write grants are the ones that secure the funding. These people come into the community to work. I live in the community. It's assumed grassroots organizations will do the outreach to the community without support or funding. A university gets money, and we're supposed to do all the outreach for free. That's not true collaboration.

Instead of giving more money, support, and skills to organizations that already have these resources, funding decisions and collaborations should be about sharing money, support, and skills with grassroots and community-based groups. And it takes more than a two-hour workshop on grant writing to get those technical skills. It takes relationships and partnerships based on trust and mutual respect, that develop over time.

Here are just two examples of Coastal Women for Change's work that is not supported through collaboration or big funders. We do a backpack giveaway every fall. We serve 1000 people in our community, giving away book bags and school supplies. The giveaway is also a way to assess how great the need is. We collect the names of everyone, and ask people, "What do you need to be sustainable?" We survey, call and follow-up. We build off of the giveaway – It is a way to support our community and engage people further in making changes locally.

This year for the giveaway, I reached out to other nonprofits to say, "Can we do this together? Can you help me with the fundraising effort? You can be on this committee, help me write this letter, contribute volunteers, donate some paper for the event, for example." But I just got no response. It's a dead-end. Emails don't get responded to.

Another part of CWC's day-to-day work is just doing what we can to help people in our community survive. For example, I recently wrote a reference letter to recommend a woman for a job – she was having trouble finding employment because she had been incarcerated. She told me, "I got out jail and am trying to get a job, but no one will hire me." She found employment, with the help of my letter. Those kind of those things – helping the people – are often overlooked by funders and nonprofit collaborations.

The people who live in Ward 2 in East Biloxi should know all these nonprofits and the people who work there by name. They know who I am – I live here, I walk the street here. My people are gone, displaced after Katrina, but I am visiting with new people here. I'm trying to help the ex-offenders, homeless people. People match my face with the organization, because I come to the door.
I don't see the grassroots people and the faith-based people who are walking the streets getting the respect needed so the people they're seeing get served. Those people are not at the table, and need to be at the table.

I recently heard Willie Baptist, author of Pedagogy of the Poor, speak about letting poor people be their own advocates. It really spoke to me and the kind of work we strive to do at Coastal Women for Change. We are trying to sustain the people that exist here, that are making under a living wage. How do you be sustainable in a world designed to keep you down? And how are nonprofit programs supposed to help if they replicate the same problems? We're at the meetings, we're the heads of the nonprofits, but where are the people we are talking about? They should be at these meeting. I recommend you read Pedagogy of the Poor.

If one of these nonprofits with technical skills, staff, and resources, asked "Sharon, what do you need?," here's what I would say: Lend me staff for a few hours a week. I could use a couple hours a week from one of your secretaries to help with my paperwork. 

Also, sit and look at what's been done, at our reports and photos. The proof is in the pictures of our work, the newspaper clippings. We had a childcare program, it ran out of funding.

Finally, reassess yourself. Revisit yourself. Ask yourself: Am I really for the people? Without the pay, would I still do it? What are my feelings towards fellow human beings? Are they my sisters and brothers? Is it genuine? How am I collaborating? Do I reach out to somebody who is doing the same thing, working in the same community?
I'm not going to build houses when I know my colleagues are building housing. I am going to focus on the youth and the seniors in the houses, or on a community garden – find the piece I can do, connect the dots. It takes all of us collectively to make a whole, and preserve our future.

You have to walk the talk, not just talk the talk.

Like Rosa Parks being recognized by Congress nearly 60 years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, how long do we have to wait to recognize something that should have been automatic? We are not respected in a way that suggests we have overcome. It's a challenge, teaching our kids, "you have to fight, you have to fight, you have to fight." But they that see our local municipalities don't even respect us, and think, "how are we going to make a difference?" They see racism all the time in school.

If our nonprofit organizations and funders cannot manage respectful and authentic collaboration, what kind of communities and movements are we building?

The change must begin with action, not talk. Show the community you care through action.

Sharon Hanshaw is Executive Director of Coastal Women for Change, in Biloxi, Mississippi. A native of Biloxi, Sharon worked as a cosmetologist for 21 years. She got involved in community organizing and activism after Hurricane Katrina, working to make sure that community members are decision makers in the recovery process. Coastal Women for Change (CWC) focuses on women's empowerment and community development through programs for the elderly and children.