Community Building Doesn’t Happen at Your Desk

Building bridges: exerting ingenuity and creativity to make the places we call home better

As Baltimore continues to solidify its role as one of the nation’s leaders in civic and social innovation, many are taking note of the region’s entrepreneurial advances and are looking to adopt philanthropic and economic development practices that could be successfully applied in their own cities. Similarly, Baltimore innovators are continuously seeking new approaches tried elsewhere to bring in and build upon. In this spirit of sharing knowledge, we recently welcomed Eric Avner, CEO of People’s Liberty and VP and Senior Program Manager at the Haile Foundation and Brandon Black, a People’s Liberty fellow for a series of conversations with leading Baltimore funders, innovators, and social entrepreneurs. Between visiting Exit the Apple, Impact Hub Baltimore, Motor House, Single Carrot Theatre, and Touchpoint Baltimore, Eric and Brandon had the opportunity to sit down with representatives from local foundations and startup founders to share their respective experiences of creating and benefiting from a willingness to tinker with tradition and push the boundaries of conventional philanthropic practices.

The Genesis of People’s Liberty

In collaboration with The Johnson Foundation, People’s Liberty was conceived as a philanthropic lab that serves as an outpost of The Haile Foundation and a civic succession plan for the Greater Cincinnati community. Designed to challenge existing philanthropic practices, People’s Liberty “invests directly in individuals through funding and mentorship,” creating remarkable waves of positivity throughout their region and beyond. Noting the necessity of being visible and available to community, People’s Liberty planted themselves just thirteen blocks away from the foundation’s headquarters, redeveloping a former furniture store. The 8,000 sq ft street-accessible space has a capacity of about 130 people and was remodeled with a flexible design and modern minimalist aesthetic. “We couldn’t just do this on a website, it took a physical space for people to see what we were talking about.” Giving funders and grantees the ability to work side by side, the space is a cornerstone in People’s Liberty’s formula.

“Community building doesn’t happen at your desk.”
The Globe Building

Things are different at People’s Liberty. For starters, they have only a five-year lifetime as of now, allotting just enough time for them to experiment and determine what does and what doesn’t work. The funding model is different; they give grants to individuals rather than organizations. After pursuing a ruling from the IRS allowing them to fund individuals rather than organizations, People’s Liberty engaged members of the community to lead the decision making process in awarding grants. These community juries provide locals the power to support the projects and people that align with their priorities- a role that individuals outside of philanthropic institutions rarely, if ever, get to take on. Such a strategy allows People’s Liberty to be inclusive in their grantmaking, to bypass potential implicit biases, and elevate leaders connected to and backed by their own community. The method behind their grantmaking approach, dubbed as the “People’s Process,” is used both by applicants and the foundation as they bring new ideas into practice.

With their focus on individuals, People’s Liberty funds initiatives Cincinnati community through four primary channels: The Haile Fellowship, Globe Grants, Project Grants, and a design residency program known as The Society of Mad Philanthropists. The Haile Fellowship allows two Cincinnatians to take a year-long “civic sabbatical.” Globe Grants provide artists with opportunities to reconstruct People’s Liberty’s storefront into a stimulating experience. Project Grants fund sixteen community development projects in Greater Cincinnati.

People’s Liberty 2015 Project Locations in Cincinnati

The Society of Mad Philanthropists provides opportunities for emerging leaders to sharpen their skills, gain access to a network of local and national connections, and take on real-world projects to help them build their portfolios. Drawing creatives from outside the region, it is the only one of People’s Liberty’s programs that isn’t geographically focused on Cincinnati. Residents work as in-house designers for three months at a rate of $15/hr and are matched with a nonprofit at the end of their residency. Grantees are inducted into People’s Liberty extensive network and granted lifetime access to their office. As Eric passed around collateral created by resident alumni of The Society of Mad Philanthropists, he pinpointed the principles outlined in their handbook and recounted how they altered their fellowship application process in the middle of interviews.

(L to R) Brandon Black, Pierre Bennu, Jermaine Bell, Eric Avner, Rodney Foxworth at Exit the Apple Art Space
The application period had ended and Eric and his team were beginning to conduct interviews with potential grantees. Simultaneously, People’s Liberty was welcoming experts from all over the country to Cincinnati to discuss their institutions’ fellowship programs. In the midst of this gathering, Eric and his partners realized they were “doing everything wrong.” They needed to completely scrap everything and start over, and they did. “Even if it works perfectly, we’ll probably break it again on purpose to see if we can make it better,” Eric proclaimed, stressing the laboratory nature of the institution. Taking an incredible risk, Eric posted a letter on the People’s Liberty website, informing the public that the fellowship had been put on hold. After revamping the program and shortening the timeline to apply, they received twice the number of applicants in half the time.

Brandon, who is nearing the end of his fellowship, is seeking to connect new homebuyers, particularly millennials, with seasoned professionals to ultimately strengthen neighborhoods by fortifying the home, empowering homeowners and cultivating meaningful relationships. Brandon’s intergenerational project, Retire + Repair, closes gaps between old and young, and creates opportunities for wealth building and a number economic and social advancements. Brandon has had a support system of four mentors as well as a production team with him documenting his entire experience. Leveraging the power of storytelling, People’s Liberty pairs all fellows with production teams/videographers who are also embarking on their own journey as design residents. Democratizing their connections and building systems of support around fellows and grantees, People’s Liberty is successfully making difference in a place by making a difference in people.

“At the end of the day, what we’re actually doing is quite simple, not that radical and, now more than ever, what we should all be doing as a human race — lifting each other up, building bridges and exerting our ingenuity and creativity to make the places we call home better.”

Quietly developing YouShouldApply.org, a platform listing additional resources for social entrepreneurs, People’s Liberty illustrates their commitment to empowering civic doers beyond funding them themselves. Through collaborative philanthropy, experimenting, risk-taking, deep learning, and a mixture of human, social, and financial capital, People’s Liberty creates opportunities for individuals that meets them where they are. Collectively, these elements disrupt traditional grantmaking processes and provide the well-rounded support that makes creating impact and effecting change possible. Actively engaging more than 50 neighborhoods, People’s Liberty is creating, stabilizing, and supporting a healthy environment for entrepreneurship and innovation. “At the end of the day, what we’re actually doing is quite simple, not that radical and, more than ever, what we should all be doing as a human race — lifting each other up, building bridges and exerting our ingenuity and creativity to make the places we call home better.”


Eric and Brandon joined the Invested Impact team for a tour of East and West Baltimore, visiting sites including Exit the Apple Art Space, Impact Hub Baltimore, The Motorhouse, Open Works, and the Station North Tool Library, we assessed the impact and sustainability of each of the spaces, taking special note of their place-making principles. Check out the map of our tour around the city.

Thibault Manekin, co-founder of Seawall Development, one of the leading developers in Remington, guided a tour of the East Baltimore neighborhood. Making stops at the newly constructed Miller’s Court, R House and Remington Row, Eric and Brandon were able to get a first-hand view of recent economic advancement in the midst of the city’s deteriorating neighborhoods.

(L to R) Remington Row, Charmington’s at Miller’s Court in East Baltimore
(L to R) Center for Urban Families: based in West Baltimore, its one of the five nonprofit organizations the Corporation for Enterprise Development’s (CFED) Racial Wealth Divide Initiative is working with to address racial economic inequality and promote financial literacy and wealth building, The Arch Social Club: safe space for Black men
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