At the core of ZSR's Strengthening Democracy portfolio is the belief that the quality of life of the people of North Carolina depends, in large part, on how well its government and democratic processes function. The Foundation believes those processes function best when citizens are informed and engaged, and the nonprofit sector can play an important role in facilitating public participation in civic life. That's why the Foundation’s Strengthening Democracy portfolio places emphasis on building the capacity of North Carolina nonprofits to: 1) communicate information about issues of public interest; 2) organize communities around important issues that they have identified; and 3) develop leaders who can champion community engagement.
While the portfolio funds a number of statewide initiatives, the Foundation also seeks to invest in local and regional efforts to strengthen democracy. ZSR does not select communities in which to invest; rather, our grantmaking responds to needs identified by North Carolina communities. Within this portfolio, there are three grantees based in Asheville and Buncombe County that represent a cross-section of these strategies to strengthen democracy at the local level. The examples below provide models for public interest advocacy, community engagement and leadership development, respectively.
- Carolina Public Press: A nonprofit, online news service, Carolina Public Press (CPP) provides unbiased, in-depth reporting for residents of the 18 counties of Western North Carolina. At a time when many newspapers are losing reporters and beats, CPP offers unique expertise in public interest, investigative journalism. For example, during the summer of 2014, CPP spearheaded an unprecedented public records request by Asheville news outlets for an audit of the Asheville police department's evidence room. As a result of CPP's successful efforts to make the audit's findings public, the department's evidence room manager was found guilty of mismanagement and the issue helped define last year's local elections. CPP also endeavors to share its expertise. It regularly offers trainings on open records laws, investigative reporting tips, and other related topics for journalists and the general public, with plans to serve an estimated 300 journalists by spring 2016. With a growing reader base – more than 73,000 unique viewers in the first six months of last year alone – CPP helps fulfill the Strengthening Democracy portfolio's interest in funding communications strategies that can help ensure a well-informed populace.
- Children First/Communities in Schools of Buncombe County: Children First/Communities in Schools of Buncombe County (CF/CIS) focuses on raising awareness of local children’s issues to ensure the needs of all children are well met. It does so by working to empower children and families from across the community through education, organization and advocacy. Since 2010, ZSR has supported CF/CIS's "Success Equation" project, through which more than 150 community members have developed a plan to advocate for early childhood care and learning, family supports, and economic stability and asset building. Two pilot projects have already emerged from these efforts: a weekly grocery store shuttle for low-income communities, and a cooperative childcare program in a public housing neighborhood. CF/CIS also annually hosts a Faith Summit for 100 faith leaders and a Child Watch Tour of child-serving agencies for community members. Committed to public participation and devoted to the priorities of Buncombe County's young and low-income communities, CF/CIS plays a strong role in helping people come together for a common purpose.
- City of Asheville: The City of Asheville is currently engaged in a leadership development and public participation process that may serve as a model for other communities. As part of the "Building Neighborhood Capacity and Leadership across Race and Class" project, City staff, outside consultants, and public housing residents are working to transform the way public housing communities engage in decision-making processes and represent their interests to the wider Asheville community. Six of Asheville's 11 public housing resident associations have been trained in the Dynamic Governance/Circle Forward model, which relies on cooperation and shared leadership to create a more effective, vibrant, and inclusive system for decision-making. Residents and City employees involved believe strongly in the transformative power of this new approach. As the project expands, they expect that public housing residents will be better equipped to set the agenda for how the City and area nonprofits engage with their neighborhoods. With its focus on leadership development, this project aligns well with the Democracy portfolio’s goal to remove barriers that prevent civic participation among traditionally underrepresented populations.
Each of these organizations has a strong commitment to ensuring that all people have a voice in their communities, with particular attention to the quality of life for those most frequently left out of public decisions. Creating ways for the public to be more engaged in important issues enhances the democratic processes of our State. Whether they are out in front or behind the scenes, in the news or breaking it, these organizations are valued partners in the Strengthening Democracy portfolio. We look forward to continuing to learn from their efforts.