Grassroots organizations are a cornerstone of communities across Washington, DC. As a stable and trusted presence, they provide day-to-day support and long-term investment in their neighborhoods. They are also the groups outside partners—such as researchers, government offices, and direct service providers—turn to when they need to engage effectively with community members but don’t have the relationships to do so. Despite community-based organizations’ importance, funders and research institutions often undervalue their expertise, meaning they often have limited access to the resources and supports needed to sustain long-term efforts.
But it is possible to disrupt this problematic pattern. In DC, the Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety (PASS) project understands that ensuring the lasting success of community change requires not only strong programs, but also investing in organizations and leaders that have built deep relationships in the community and will continue to serve their neighbors well into the future.
PASS is a community-engaged project where Urban worked with local partners on a curriculum about sexual health and safety for young people ages 14 to 19. To evaluate its effects, Urban researchers partnered with five community-based organizations, one of which used the PASS curriculum in five DC communities and four of which continued their youth-focused work as usual in another five communities (to serve as the comparison group). Their participation ensured the project could meet communities’ need for a trusted local presence, Urban’s need for effective community-engaged programming and research, and the organizations’ need for financial support to do their work and build their capacity for research and evaluation.
The PASS project shows how investing in both community-based organizations and community-based facilitators is integral to successful programming for young people and lasting change for communities. To learn more about their work, we talked with leaders of four grassroots organizations involved in PASS—the Kenilworth Rec Center, Sasha Bruce Youthwork, Brotha’s Huddle, and Exodus Treatment Center Inc.—and asked them all the same question:
Why is investing in trusted grassroots organizations crucial to implementing successful programs and sustaining strong communities?
William “Chic” Commodore, director of the Kenilworth Rec Center
“It's hard to go into other people's communities and try to set up a program because these kids, they’re very aware of what’s going on. If they don’t know you, they’ll ask a thousand questions: ‘Are you the police? FBI? Why did you come out here?’ But if I introduced a person to them and said, ‘This is so and so, she’s going to do this,’ then boom, she’s in the door. They know I'm not going to bring any harm out there to them, I won’t bring anybody to trick them into doing anything they don't want to do. And that’s because they know me. I’ve been in Kenilworth all my life. I grew up with these kids’ parents, and for some of the boys, I’m like a father figure because they don’t have a father in their life.
“Most of the people that come into our community now don't come in there to really help. They come in and they help themselves. And these kids are used to that. The people and organizations coming into our community have to do the work to gain our trust.”
Courtney Gibbs, program director at Sasha Bruce Youthwork
“Different programs come in with funding for a certain period, and sometimes, they leave and forget about the community after the funding ends. Our organization is known throughout this city not only for its many programs but as an agency that fosters a sense of trust. When implementing new programs, we are always thinking about program sustainability and what resources we want to leave the community with. In the past when we’ve started programs in new communities, people will ask, ‘What are you going to offer that's going to be different? What does sustainability look like?’ As an organization, it’s important that we build that trust, and one way we do that is by making sure we have a community ally, someone from that community who can speak on our behalf.
“When investing in communities, it’s important to make sure that in that funding, there are opportunities for the people who are already invested in their communities to be a part of it. You can have different organizations come in to do the implementation or oversee the program, but you also need people in the community to walk alongside you in doing that work. Because if you do that, even if the funding stops and that organization is no longer able to be there, you have people who live in that community who can still do the work.”
Pastor Gary B. Hill, founder of Exodus Treatment Center Inc.
“Developing trust has been a very slow and systematic process simply because the residents have had to deal with a lot of broken promises. We were consistent, compassionate, and understanding in terms of what the community was dealing with. I made sure I showed up, I listened, I was consistent with making sure that we delivered. And when we do that, people become more open and more honest. The work we’re doing reaches the deep core issues that the community is dealing with.
“It’s also important for us to have data about our communities that we can use, where we can look at it and see it from a different lens. Having data helps us understand exactly what our youth are challenged with, and how to get them the support they need. I would like to see more data-driven work, because it is an asset for other community-based organizations and nonprofits.”
Abdul Kareem Muhammad, CEO and cofounder of Brotha’s Huddle
“If you do not invest in grassroots organizations, you’re doing a disservice because we already have the relationships, we have the buy-in and the trust. For example, with illiteracy. If people don’t know you, they aren’t going to tell you they can’t read. It’s as simple as that. Grassroots organizations can transcend to greater heights because of our relationships. But it’s hard for us to compete with other organizations for grants when we can’t afford to pay grant writers, accountants, lawyers. That funding would make us even more successful as we strive to take our people to the next level.
“So many people and organizations have come in and taken from the community, or they have gotten the community's hopes up and then let them down. That's where our success came in because we fulfilled every promise that we vowed to fulfill. When we started out, we asked the community: ‘How can we best serve you?’ That opened up doors where we could fulfill those requests and build relationships. One of our youth we mentored, he not only finished school but, with the help of a financial literacy program, he bought his first house at 21. We come in with a spirit of servitude, and we follow through.”
This feature was funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services through the Administration on Children, Youth and Families. We are grateful to them and to all our funders, who make it possible for Urban to advance its mission. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and recommendations of our experts.
RESEARCH Elsa Falkenburger, Lauren Farrell, and Eona Harrison
DEVELOPMENT Jerry Ta
EDITING Zach VeShancey
PHOTOGRAPHY AND PHOTO EDITING Rhiannon Newman
WRITING Emily Peiffer
To learn more about the PASS project and for additional resources, visit our project page.