< Back to all episodes

Native Women Lead, New Mexico Community Capital, Communities United and JUST Community

Systemic change requires bold solutions

This episode of Impact Audio features partners from the Bold Solutions Network sharing how support from Lever for Change enables them to make long-term, systemic progress.

Systemic change requires bold solutions

69:19 MIN

Partners from the Bold Solutions Network sit down with Sam Caplan to share how support from Lever for Change enables them to make long-term, systemic progress.



Lever for Change has embraced a challenge model, which allows them to give big dollar prizes to community organizations. In addition to the funding, they’ve created the Bold Solutions Network which provides ongoing support to the winners and finalists from their challenges. 

Representatives from four different organizations within the Bold Solutions Network join us to share how Lever for Change’s holistic approach has unlocked their most transformational work.

This episode covers how to: 

  • Redefine the funder-grantee relationship

  • Integrate multiple world views

  • Lift up and co-create with the community

  • Build programs around systemic change 


Picture of your guest, Native Women Lead

Native Women Lead

Jamie Gloshay is co-founder and co-director of Native Women Lead, whose mission is to revolutionize systems and inspire innovation by investing in Native Women in business.

Picture of your guest, New Mexico Community Capital

New Mexico Community Capital

Liz Gamboa is executive director of New Mexico Community Capital, whose mission is to give rise to a more equitable future by providing culturally appropriate tools for success to emerging Native American-owned businesses, Native families, and tribal enterprises.

Picture of your guest, Communities United

Communities United

Jennifer Arwade and Raul Botello are co-executive directors at Communities United. Communities United (CU) is a survivor-led, intergenerational racial justice organization in Chicago. At the heart of CU’s organizing is the development of grassroots leadership to build collective power to achieve racial justice and transformative social change.

Picture of your guest, JUST Community

JUST Community

JUST is a nonprofit financial platform working to close the racial wealth gap by investing in ambitious Texas women through capital, peer coaching & community. Steve Wanta is president and CEO; Rashidah Alshams is community growth and partner manager.


Episode notes:


Philanthropy is in the business of solving problems, big problems.

And those big problems require big solutions. But maybe it's not philanthropy's role to come up with those solutions. Maybe the bold solutions we're looking for already exist, and philanthropy's role is to find them, test them, and fund them. Because if you look at what really blocks meaningful progress it's not the lack of good ideas, it's what comes next.


Welcome to Impact Audio. I'm Sam Caplan, vice president of social impact at Submittable. When I talked to Kristin Merlino, vice president of program strategy and learning at Lever for Change, I was struck by how they built their organization around finding the best ideas and then doing everything needed to get those ideas off the ground.

They've embraced a challenge model. Each challenge is an open call for proposals that have the potential to make a big impact. Through these challenges, Lever for Change awards a transformational amount of money, millions of dollars per organization. For nonprofits that are used to chasing $50,000 grants, this support can unlock a whole lot of untapped potential.

In episode 6 of this season, I sat down with Kristin to learn about Lever for Change's approach. If you haven't listened to it, do yourself a favor and add it to your queue. The conversation inspired us to go deeper. So we got in touch with three different organizations in Lever for Changes Bold Solutions Network to learn how the challenges have shaped their work.

First, we talked to Jamie Gloshay of Native Women Lead, and Liz Gamboa from New Mexico Community Capital. These two organizations teamed up for Lever for Changes equality can't wait challenge and were awarded $10 million for their proposal titled The Future is Indigenous Women. To help orient their work, Jamie starts by naming some of the systemic forces at play.

Within the financial system, there's a lot of distrust and harm that has been caused by essentially economic exclusion of Indigenous Black and Brown folks, and how that then gets institutionalized in the very frameworks and underwriting process that finance utilizes to determine who's worthy of risk and who's worthy of investment and money. In Indigenous communities it's very different because we are a unique political body of a demographic, I guess, of people because we were here prior to colonization, prior to the establishment of the United States. We have a very unique nation and nation government to government relationship.

And as citizens of those nations, it's just a really different, I think, I don't know, reality to live in. We don't own our land. So entrepreneurs that live on tribal lands cannot leverage land as an asset.

Banks cannot collateralize it because the land is held in trust by the federal government. Because we're in systems of reservation economies that have now existed many Indigenous folks have to live outside of their homelands to economically survive and thrive, self included. And yeah, there's a number of other things, but I think really understanding how people navigate those systems and structures and institutional failures is now how we're trying to revolutionize and change and challenge systems while we're in it and problem solve.

Understanding the way systemic forces impact individuals is really important. But Jamie sees the work going a step further.

If we're really interested in supporting the self-determination of Indigenous people Indigenous women, then we have to respect what they view and see as success. And in the finance world we're hitting up worldviews there as well. So yeah, we could talk about wealth building and asset building strategies.

But money is not the only thing that people value, people value access to culture and language and their homelands and clean water, clean drinking system, safety is a big deal for Indigenous women especially with the missing murdered Indigenous relatives epidemic that's happening in our communities. We're trying to challenge all of that. Who defines success and how is that valued?

When Lever for Change introduced the equality can't wait challenge, it aligned the work Native Women Lead were trying to do in the community. But the organization wasn't in a position to apply on their own.

So Native Women Lead was identified by a couple of funder partners, et cetera in the community and they were like, have you heard of this, this is like right up your way. So we had a bunch of people telling us you guys need to apply, you need to apply.

And at that time we weren't legally structured and we were still with working with NMCC as our fiscal. So we asked our fiscal, just made so much sense because we were already woven in the work, we were already partners, it was just so such an easy decision. But the way it was structured in which we were building out our prospectus, we had some support along the way. That was I want to say like six months to a year journey and really developing out a thoughtful prospectus and that I think really then solidified our working relationship.

The partnership with New Mexico Community Capital or NMCC was key for Native Women Lead. Jamie explains how the relationship functioned.

We see New Mexico community capital as our Houston or our NASA.

We're the rocket ship.

So it's a great relationship when we first started meeting and convening NMCC offered their classroom space for us to have a place to meet. And it was just really neat to step into this circle of women entrepreneurs and leaders and folks that we're trying to support them to really think about and look at one another and say, well, what makes us different and that was our biggest primary question. And the big thing that came out of that is one, is our identities are shaped by our culture and the way we see the world and how we interact with the world.

And we also have a huge social, I don't know, cultural commitment to our families and our communities and who we are as Indigenous people and those stories. So that was the two big things that came out of that, and we wanted to make sure to be able to hold space for that and to honor that. And the relationship has grown in such a beautiful way because we have that trust and that commitment to native entrepreneurs and of course, is very much gender lens focus.

One of the unique things about the challenge model is that Lever for Change lends their support to help organizations develop their ideas into strong proposals. Liz from New Mexico City Capital speaks to this hands on approach.

I feel like Lever for Change was really the most benevolent supportive, advisor, guy, mentor. They were so kind. We worked with Jenna and spoke with her every week, every other week, something like that.

So we had check-ins for months. So if anything came up and sometimes we didn't have to meet and which was fine. But at least it was an opportunity for us to ask questions.

And I will say that they never tried all the way along the line. They didn't try and alter our ideas of what we wanted to do and the outcomes that we had. We really were given full freedom of expression to be who we are, to represent our cultures to make sure that we're talking about not only, and this is a Native Woman Lead saying, but not we're not only the breadwinners but the bread makers. So it's like family and business.

So they allowed that and supported 100% that narrative. So I feel like when you have that hands on support, it makes a big difference and it just helps you open up more or I don't know. I mean, we do a lot of technical assistance and mentorship, and there's a way that you approach coming to or working with someone. You want to know where they're from, who they are.

What are their--

I don't know, what scares them. What are their true goals. It's not like what society states to you. It's what is important to them.

With Lever for Changes support, Liz, Jamie, and their teams were able to really dig into the work they wanted to do. Jamie explains how the process opened the door for new ways of thinking about systems change.

Really fun though, to be able to name our passions, our body of work, and then to put it together. And I think what was part of the process in getting some support from a contractor. There was that push as well to really articulate the vision. And one thing that we noticed in the articulation of this vision is that we would be articulating Indigenous worldview to folks that were Western academia trained and probably don't identify with that.

So there was a definite moment of tension or stickiness or how do we do that translation so that our work is seen and validated and heard and uplifted and supported. And that's where the water cycle came in. Really essentially wanted to show a logic model in a nonlinear fashion but mirror it to what we were seeing in nature and what a lot of Indigenous people do in worldview and systems thinking. We're just looking at what's relative to us and what's in front of us. And nature is used as a big teacher of how to be in harmony and balance.

So we used the water cycle to demonstrate our logic model and to show how the work fits together to build a healthy essentially waterway. We don't--

in finance we hear, what's the pipeline. What's the deal flow. But we were like, no, pipelines are actually very harmful in Indigenous communities. And what would a healthy waterway look like?

Framing the proposal around an Indigenous worldview meant that outcomes themselves could be defined by the community rather than imposed upon them. Jamie speaks to how Native women lead to find their desired outcomes.

We did put in some really interesting things. From the waterway we identified these like Ripple effects, these like outputs, outcomes, long term. And we looked at concepts around agency, healing, safety, sovereignty, rematriation, economic empowerment, economic advancement.

So those are the things that we are looking at tracking because I use the safety one as an example all the time. It's like if we do this work and Indigenous women are able to access not only economic safety in their own agency over their lives, and then that ripples out or yields personal safety, safety of their bodies, their spirits, their beings. That to me is enormous.

Developing the proposal with support from lever for change unlocked a lot of big thinking for Native Women Lead and New Mexico Community Capital. And as transformational as that front end work was, they were eager to hear the results of that challenge. Liz talks through what it was like to get the call telling them that they'd been awarded $10 million.

We're all sitting in different rooms, we were not in the same room. I guess we were all having our own experience. We were under the same roof but we were in our office in different rooms. And Yeah, she gave us the news.

I mean, I can't even describe to you--

I want it--

I even choked up there for a second.

It was incredible. It was incredible. And I'm sure we all cried and we all hugged.

And it was such a big deal. So I don't even know that I can put more words to it than that. It was huge.

For Jamie, news that they had won meant a lot for the future of the community, and it also meant a lot in the context of their past.

Being seen uplifted for the work, for the worldview, for the value you bring, it was just huge and monumental for us. I often talk about invisibility. And we put this in the prospectus as well that

Indigenous women represent less than 1.5% of the population because of essentially attempted genocide. And just to have that visibility and we were even--

we even sat with that to like, what's the impact you all have if you're only a small portion of the population? And it was really from the stance of equity that we took I think our power and said, well, if you can do this for those most vulnerable and visible then you can do this for others. And that's how we can demonstrate. So it was just a huge phenomenal moment of being seen and uplifted and supported, and just feeling like there was justice in some way at that time too.

And we were in that moment to witness that and to celebrate it.

Compared to the average grant, $10 million is a lot. It's the money that can transform how an organization thinks about and fulfills its mission.

It is life changing money, life changing grant dollars. And all the time we put into building this whole system then there are five strategy tables, there's technical assistance, there's community table building, there's actually a rematriating economies apprenticeship. I know that Native Women Lead is in the process of launching the Revolutionary Fund. They've already launched two lone funds prior to that early on the start of this.

So it's one thing to plan it, to see it, to visualize it. It's another thing to actually do it.

Winning the Equality Can't Wait Challenge helped Native Women Lead and New Mexico Community Capital tap into a broader network of support. Liz shares some of the opportunities that opened up after the challenge.

We were able to share and this was offered through Lever for Change a swift grant which just helped to build on the work that we were doing because when you think you have everything covered at the beginning of an application, you forget things. So we went through it, went through it. And then we realized after we won that we didn't leave or have any funds devoted to storytelling, which is a critical piece of what we're doing.

I mean, it's true we're still going to do what we do. But to have someone highlight and create videos and tell people stories just so there is representation, so other entrepreneurs maybe are inspired or know that there's others out there like them, so that was--

yeah, I think that was a piece of it. And I've had some great calls.

We were able to submit a congressional funding request and we were approved for that to support the creating economies apprenticeship. So that supported perhaps the start of a new cohort.

I mean, the thing about this big money, which is amazing is you build this after five years and then you have to continue it. You have to continue, hopefully we'll be able to continue this work.

After five years, we're going to serve 3,000 women. That's what we said in our prospectus. And we're on our way. And it takes money to do that.

The work that was born out of this prospectus is truly transformational for these communities. But Jamie is thinking bigger. She wants to see broader change in how funders value the lived experience of community members.

There's such a huge need to ensure that the community is centered from the get go. I think that's one thing that's been magical about Native Women Lead. Is not only are we representative of the community we serve but also we try to uplift that and co-create with that. Because that's a continued I think validation of the work and continued establishment of trust and it's I think really honoring people at that grassroots level, but how that can then impact systems change level work.

So that feels really important to just hold that, I guess, that identity and that centering and that despite what funders philanthropy or other ecosystems may look like or how they may change for that lived experience is actually incredibly valuable. And those voices and perspective matters and should be seen and heard.

So yeah, that's for me one of the things. And also I know in the nonprofit world, in finance, there's a huge issue with especially with communities of color who have been in survival mode. There's a huge element of financial trauma that affects us as individuals but then also at systems level work. And that's what I'm trying to dismantle myself and bring awareness around is that--

in the nonprofit sector we often operate in this survival scarcity mode.

And then in the philanthropic sector there's other things that come up with access to wealth. So there's just an interesting tension point that's happening that we need a name and just be honest about the power dynamics that exist, the structures that exist as a result of having to fund C3s.

We had to work with NMCC just because of the tax structure. And just naming that is that really fair to the work and the justice we seek in the world are those systems the only systems that can make this change.

Next, we spoke to Jenny Arwade and Raul Botello from Communities United, a Chicago-based community organization. In 2022 they were awarded $10 million from the WK Kellogg Foundation through Lever for Changes Racial Equity 2030 Challenge for their work on healing through justice. Jenny shares what's at the heart of their work.

So Communities United is a community-based organization and it's survivor-led. And so by that what we mean is that all of our staff, as well as our board of directors that come from the community and our constituents youth and family members from across the city of Chicago identify as survivors. And that could be having dealt with issues of family separation, issues of community violence, issues of gender-based violence, all the connection between all of us is that we've all faced some trauma in our lives, that was a direct result of systemic racism.

And so Communities United's mission is really to focus on what we call our healing through justice model, which is a really transformative approach to youth and community-led healing that's rooted in culture, it's rooted in community, and it's rooted in developing a next generation of young leaders who are leading change to create more just policies, more just systems so that the harms that we've all experienced don't get perpetuated. And so young people, again, are the heart of our organization. So they've been working to dismantle the school to prison pipeline for over the past 10 years working to transform health systems, working on immigration laws, and more.

Raul digs deeper into what it means for the organization to be survivor-led.

Part of our work is to listen to the narratives of individuals, that's one of our main objectives and how we do the work and then how we do the work. So how do we mend and how do we create hope and optimism around addressing systems of harm. Harm that has either divided families, has continued to disproportionately impact communities of color, young people, people with disabilities.

So when we describe survivor-led, it means really looking at the narratives of the trauma or the harm that has come to you is part of your own narrative but that in itself is not the end road of where we would like to be. And so that is the hope and optimism that whether it's someone coming home from prison or a family, we have a lot of asylees currently in the city of Chicago, basically moving from their countries to a new land. And so the opportunity to bring different narratives around this common thread of being survivor-led is where we are situated and create really these incredible opportunities for collective action.

And it's in the action that provides a lot of the healing, a lot of the restoration of humanity in many ways in such that a lot of the young people that we get involved early on attribute their involvement through this very unique approach that we have in our engagement is that many ways they say this work saved my life. And seeing how elders support young people and vice versa it's pretty incredible. And that in many ways is really--

that's why we get up every morning. It feels like every morning is a new day for creating these new narratives of hope and optimism.

Along with being survivor-led, Communities United is a youth-led organization. Jenny explains why they've taken this approach and what it means for community members.

Our organization just like the communities that we work with are intergenerational. And so while young people are the living, breathing heart and soul of a lot of the work we do, we believe very strongly in intergenerational relationships, intergenerational decision making and processes in the community. And so when we talk about youth leadership and work being youth-led, what we really mean is that we focus very intentionally on first, outreaching to young people who have been most marginalized by the systems at hand in our case in the city of Chicago. So over the years it's been young people who have been struggling, pushed out of school, had experience with the juvenile justice system, et cetera.

And through our healing through justice approach to youth-led and intergenerational social change, we really take young people through a process of really understanding not only their own personal narratives but how that connects to root causes and also their power to actually change conditions in the world around them. And so many times when we come across young people for the first time, they might come to a meeting and see another youth who's been involved with a program facilitating, leading community agreements, developing some strategy with other youth around a campaign we're working on.

And when they see another person who looks like them, who's around their age taking that leadership they're like Oh, my gosh, how can I get that. And it creates this beautiful process where healing becomes almost a ripple effect. And then as that individual gets more involved they want to get other young people involved to experience the same thing.

And so many times when we, again, we meet young people they believe that they and their families are at fault for the challenges that they've experienced in their lives, and that leads to a lot of challenges. Specifically we deal with young people who have a lot of mental health challenges along with challenges that they face every day at their homes and their communities. And when they're able to see more clearly how systems function and specifically the systemic inequalities that exist and how that's led to many of the challenges that they've experienced, it's almost like not only does a light bulb go off but it's really like this new pathway of healing opens up where they can shed some of this burden they've been carrying and many times this feeling of shame, and actually being able to see not only do other people share these types of lived experiences but now that we see clearly what the actual problem is now we can actually do something about it in a way that builds our community and in a way that basically part of the healing is, again, not just about how I can improve things for myself but how can I make sure other people don't experience the same thing.

So it's really quite a rich process of skill building but also weaving of lived experiences and narrative, taking action. Young people are always the spokespeople on all the issues they're working on. So it's quite a dynamic process.

The racial equity 2030 challenge that Lever for Change ran was an open call for bold solutions to drive equitable futures for children, families, and communities. Communities United partnered with the Ann and Robert H Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago to submit a proposal. Raul talks about how transformative the application process was.

But during the pandemic this came across our desk and we had a small discussion with the youth and of course, it was apply definitely because it's more resources. And at that point we were doing everything was virtual. So we were doing a lot of mutual aid supporting the young people and their families with some economic and housing support.

The process that we took was probably the most instrumental process that we've ever undertaken as both organizationally and with the partnership at the same time, let alone like generally before you apply for an opportunity it's you in your own. But this time we applied as a partnership with Lurie Children's, so that in itself is even a more complicated. But I think that and it's unfortunate that out of crisis has come opportunities out of George Floyd created a lot of listening for institutions, communities, and just the general country.

And so this happened to be at this--

happening at the same time. And so I think the call was very much in response to a lot of the racial reckoning that the country has been undertaking for the last 30 40, 50 years if not 100 years.

So for us really this was the most rich intense process that was further supported by foundation. And so the structure for it was anything like we've never ever experienced before in such that we at certain point I think--

well, in the beginning we said we have nothing to lose, the young people wanted to apply--

let us apply. So we have nothing to lose.

But then right halfway through the process we're like, even if we don't get it we are much better off because this basically the template for this process is to focus on yourself and how you want to grow this theory and practice that you have been doing for many years. So for us, we're like, even if we don't get it we're going to be better off because we're documenting everything, we're having these intentional conversations that young people are really involved in looking at the model and how we can scale it. And so for us it was a win-win for everybody.

A big reason the planning process itself was so fruitful for Communities United was because lever for change provided a $1 million planning grant. Jenny speaks to how that funding gave them the ability to think long term and ensure that the planning process itself was equitable.

Our organization had been about a $2 million budget because we had really stayed focused on our mission of community organizing and specifically didn't intentionally grow out a larger budget with a lot of other types of government funding because we wanted to really remain independent. And so when we got the million dollar planning grant, it really, I think, was pivotal because having that type of resources to be able to work with around really the central tenet of it was focused on how can you do really game changing work, set a strong foundation, set a strong infrastructure that has deep community and youth involvement to really achieve a vision that you have over the next 10 years.

And we have a lot of wonderful funding partners but we had never had that sizable resources to work with where it was around an actual 10 or in this case 11 year vision usually funding works in if you're lucky three year cycles usually one or two year cycles. And so what it allowed us to do is to really rethink and reimagine how we were structuring and operating ourselves so that we could really hold on to that longer term strategic vision and make sure that all the work that we were doing day to day and month by month was really lining up with that. And it relieved some of the pressure of some of those really short term deliverables sometimes that you have to meet that sometimes get in the way of what you're trying to achieve over the longer term.

So for us that was really exciting. And part of the reason, like Raul was saying, it was so much work because not only was it a lot of collaborative meetings, a lot of visioning, a huge amount of writing to be able to put together the prospectus that we developed, but youth were involved in every single step. So we had to use steering committee who was really guiding the process, who was leading events with Lurie Children's Hospital to engage their broader staff around health and racial equity. And then whenever we had drafts of the vision that came out, we would post it up in big post-its around the room and the young people would go, they would write their ideas, they would give their feedback.

So part of the reason we really loved it is because it really allows us to fill that vision of a really participatory and inclusive process that we believe is game changing because a lot of folks talk about racial equity are concerned about racial equity but sometimes folks get so hung up on the outcome that they forget the process that's needed. And then the folks who are most directly impacted actually maybe sometimes intentionally get left out of those discussions. So I think that's been the most exciting part to us is that it not only allows us to do important work, it allows us to do really what we believe are game changing processes that are really rooted in community.

Lever for Change has built their funding process around trust. That shows just in the sheer amount of money they funneled to community organizations. But it goes beyond that. Trust is a core tenet of how they build relationships. Jenny shares what it means for a funder to operate with that level of trust.

With the planning grant, they awarded us $1 million planning grant to be able to create this work plan for our 10 year vision for change. And we didn't even have to provide a budget for it. They trusted that we had the expertise, that we had the track record, that we wouldn't be doing this unless we really wanted to--

We really wanted to do something good with it. And that provided a lot of flexibility because if you're doing something that hasn't been done before, being overly prescriptive on the front end actually puts unnecessary and artificial barriers in the way. And so the fact that we not only had all these resources to work with but could really learn as we went and allocate resources accordingly I thought was just remarkable how they designed it and something that definitely we'd love to be replicated further in the field.

By nature, the community work Jenny and Raoul do requires a lot of deep daily engagement. This challenge created the space they needed to connect that daily work to a longer term vision.

The young people we work with are hopeful, optimistic, creating amazing changes in their communities. At the same time, a lot of young people that we work with are really living day by day and are dealing with deep challenges on a daily basis. And so the work is in many ways very, very joyful, very fulfilling, but it can also be very draining because we're just dealing with a lot of heavy stuff on a regular basis.

And so with the racial equity 2030 challenge, it really gave us that freedom of just taking a step back and really reflecting on the work that we've been doing over the past 20 years. And what we've learned from that we feel could really chart a different path forward for young people in our city over the next 10 years. So that freedom of just being able to step back and think about it and again, even if we are so happy we got the award, even if we didn't we feel like that process would have made us a lot stronger because then we still would have used our proposal we created as our roadmap. So regardless of what happened, we were going to somehow figure out how to make all that work happen.

The award process is not the only way Lever for Change provides support. They also provide guidance and resources throughout the process. Raul speaks to what it means to have a funder willing to show up in that way.

There were times when we were be in a pickle and didn't know which way to go and we would pick up the phone and/or email them and say, can do you have time. And they would call us right back. And they would also check in with us to see how we were doing periodically.

And that is really the truest sense of a relationship that you know that they're dependable but also they have some technical and some wisdom that they could provide and guide us through the process where we felt that we had additional staff at our disposal without paying for them. And that is invaluable, having key individuals to provide additional support we felt like--

in having that relationship we felt very confident in our proposal because they were there and it was like, they not only were they a soundboard but also they were critical organization, we call them critical incidents where there's a moment that decisions get made, that different paths are placed. And so there were--

through the proposal there were some critical incident pieces, questions about how to approach it, and then we would obviously ask for the support, and they were very instrumental in giving guidance from their perspective. And so that to us we felt incredibly confident with that level of support

Hi. I'm Keriann Strickland, CMO at Submittable. We're three short weeks away from our Impact Studio event. This year, five CSR experts are coming together to explore how they're reshaping the work to create a more equitable future.

We dig into how to provide holistic support to communities, spur climate innovation, harness technology in an ethical way, adopt trust-based practices, and put today's CSR into historical context. We hope you can join us. Register now at submittable.com/impact. Now, back to the episode.

The team at Lever for Change knows that money isn't the only thing community organizations need. Raul explains how the challenge gave them access to additional resources and experts.

Beautiful thing about what Lever for Change did with the Kellogg Racial Equity 2030 is that they provided not just the resources but consultants that would help you in our view for free and they're there at your disposal. So why take advantage of those opportunities because then you go from mastering something, a discipline, to projecting and being able to attempt to scale in other communities.

This is a really unique approach to funding. Lever for Change is trying to empower organizations and make them stronger for the long-term. They see their role as a collaborative one.

At Communities United, this mirrors the way they see themselves operating. They want to empower community members and provide the support needed to make real change.

What happens when a young person sees another young person facilitate a meeting because we're taking and we engage young people that come from survivorship where much of their decision making a lot of their discovery is about trying to empower themselves. And sometimes unfortunately they try to empower themselves with certain paths that might not be in the best interest.

So with this work, the foundation and particularly Lever for Change I think they provided this opportunity for us to become experts, for us to begin to document the work that we're trying to do in a way that facilitates a lot of product, meaning a lot of documents and a lot of tools and a lot of that. In many ways you would pay consultants thousands of dollars and outsource that.

In many ways we did it together collectively. And providing that funding to do that usually is not done through normal channels of foundations. This was transformative on so many levels and generally grants and foundations are transactional, and in their way they operate.

This is a different approach to funding that becomes transformative. And there's so many outcomes that come out of this that go beyond the transactional between a funder and a grantee that in many way benefits us.

Obviously the funding is incredible. But it is the processes that they lay out in that structure that we benefited from.

Part of the power of Lever for Change is challenge model lies in the process itself. We were curious what that meant for organizations who did the work to apply but didn't take home the full award amount. We spoke to Steve Wanta and Rashidah Alshams from JUST Community, a Texas based nonprofit and CDFI, which stands for Community Development Financial Institution.

JUST is working to close the wealth gap for underserved communities, particularly women of color through capital, peer coaching, and community.

They were finalists in Lever for Change's Lone Star prize challenge in 2021 for their proposal to remove barriers for low income Texans to build wealth. Though they didn't win, the application process had a big impact on their team. To start, Steve explains the ethos of the organization.

My job for 10 years was finding funding in some cases, starting new microfinance institutions all over the world.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. So I saw from the world's best guys that won the Nobel Peace Prize, people that had been knighted by the Queen of England that you could give small loans to some of the poorest people in the world primarily women and you get that money back. Through that 10 years, I also saw it was more about the transaction of money. And in the United States there was an absence of money for Black and Brown female entrepreneurs in places like Detroit, New Orleans where I had traveled with the foundation.

So we said, hey, could we reimagine that work from all over the world for the US and at the same time focus on better outcomes, focus on transformation, and seeing money as an important part of the solution but not the purpose for being. So it's been really a journey of discovery for the last seven years and maybe forever more because I think at the end of the day wealth stress, these things that are absent from or profoundly part of people's lives are challenges we get to work on for the rest of our life.

Steve finds that one of the biggest blockers of progress when it comes to closing the racial wealth gap is the binary that's baked into the financial system.

Oftentimes in this country right now, particularly it feels like there's Black or white there's yes or no, there's either/ or. And our approach is really one of and. The traditional financial industry CDFIs included banks are really formal. Credit scores, collateral, how long you've been in business, they want to make sure you're taking the right amount of money. That's good. And there's a lot of people in this country that don't meet those requirements. That is a massive amount of untapped economic potential, untapped human potential.

Part of JUST work is stepping outside of the traditional framework for how institutions make decisions about risk. Steve explains.

Someone really intelligent said, innovation is just the repackaging of things that already exist. And what we saw was won that money in the US is a critical resource missing from so many communities. Our financial system in the US is awesome at saying no, credit scores, collateral, show me your past and I will say no to your future.

What I saw from all over the world was that doesn't have to be the case. You can give people that have nothing, you can give them money and you get it back. Where I went and looked for inspiration were other things that are nonfinancial.

Alcoholics Anonymous, Weight Watchers, so I went to Weight Watchers for a month. Lost 5 pounds looking real good.

I can't tell on a podcast but you can imagine. And through that I saw people coming together in community to help each other tackle really hard problems.

So what we've been trying to do is bring that same essence of community as a tool for transformation to financial services. And a big thing that we discovered was the community's ability to lead itself. And there are a lot of the devil's in the details stuff.

But the short version is we made a small but profound tweak to the traditional microcredit model from the emerging market, and that is the JETA. Not the Star Wars Jedi, but the just entrepreneur trust agent. And that is how Rashidah came to JUST and what she's leading within our expansion in the Black female entrepreneurs.

Before Rashidah worked for JUST, she was one of their clients. She gives a glimpse of what it was like to find the organization organically and what it meant for her business and personal journey.

I was working in banking in DC, and had the great idea to quit my job and come back home to Texas and start a business, started yoga business actually. And was looking for funding. I was doing OK. I had some savings.

I didn't have any income coming in because I quit my job. But I had some savings I was going to be able to fund it. But then I was like, this isn't going to be sustainable.

So I went to a few places, SBA, couple of other organizations around town, and was asking and I was, they were going to give me a loan or I was going to be able to apply for a loan of $5,000. And I was like, you know what, that's too much and it's not going to be responsible of me to take this $5,000 loan. I don't know necessarily if I should even take it.

And then someone was like, there's this organization called JETA.

They only work with Latino women entrepreneurs right now but I think they want to do work with Black women. Just try. I was like, OK.

So I tried and had a fantastic meeting with a couple of the JUST employees and I was like Oh, my God, I can't believe this model like you said, trust me and that's all it is. And there's no credit or anything. And my loan amount was going to be something manageable.

It wasn't going to be a $5,000. It was going to be $750, which in my mind was like that's all I need. I just need some yoga mats and some cleaner and some fliers around town. I don't need anything else. And that made me feel way more comfortable.

And the other side of that I had to find women who I trusted, who were also entrepreneurs to be a part of support. And we will go through this journey together. And I was like, you know what, I trust my sister. I know where she lives. I know where she works.

Found out that I couldn't use her. She couldn't be a part of my group.

But that was also a blessing because it made me really think about other women who were in my same--

in my same circle who I hadn't considered.

Also needed something else, something different to push their businesses to the next level. So I reached out to two friends and we formed our circle and formed our journey from there.

The community aspect of this work is really important. It's what makes systemic change possible. Steve describes what this approach looks like in practice for JUST.

There is a realization today that we must do new things to address the systemic racism, the generations of challenges and barriers facing communities. And it's really exciting to see people leading the charge on alternative forms of ownership. So there's a motion towards shared ownership of not just real estate but companies, the idea that one of the things that keeps us safe is wealth, and wealth is assets, and assets means equity and equity means ownership and ownership for us at its start means agency.

And that circle doesn't go back around. If you have more agency you don't necessarily have more financial wealth. So we're excited to see people push in new ways to open up access to owning productive assets. So that's the train we're on.

And from our perspective, which I think is unique, it starts with relationships, with people that have been excluded for potentially generations. And therefore, we have to do some different things to rebuild those relationships. We think JUST is one answer.

Lever for Change is Lone Star prize came at an interesting time for JUST. Steve talks about what it was like to do this big picture thinking in a time of crisis.

It's important to put the Lone Star Prize in context of the time. So it was in the middle of the pandemic, 2020 when this came out, just is and continues to be a place-based human community model where people historically have all been in person. So it was a tremendously difficult moment for the world and for us as well and in our model.

And at the very beginning of the pandemic, we said two things, we must help our community survive--

help our organization survive, do whatever necessary. So typically we lend money. We had moments where we were giving away money. So we did these radical things that were unexpected.

The other commitment we made was to be radically better on the other side of this whole terrible thing. So in that process we really looked deep into ourselves and the problems facing our community. At the time we had 800 female entrepreneurs mainly in Central Texas.

And we made some really important decisions prior to the Lone Star Prize. One of them was this problem is massive across our country of the racial wealth gap but also access to opportunity, the financial system is great, and so many ways and it leaves out so many more people, how might we be a bridge to better.

So we set a couple really important things. One, we are going to focus on Texas. Our vision is just Texas.

Enter Lone Star Prize. And if you guys aren't aware, Texans love Texas thus the grand challenge for Texas. So it was right down the fairway for JUST.

And in that it gave us a space to dream big where we couldn't roll up our sleeves and help in the way we're normally accustomed to. By being in community, we got together as a team and said, what would better look like? Not just a little bit better but significantly change lives, realize dreams better.

And it wasn't going to be another small loan. It was going to be access to buying a house. It was going to be not just education to how to buy a house but it was going to be money.

So our vision was that $10 million was awesome. And we think the people that deserve that money are our clients.

We can get into all the details of what the proposal was. But the headline was it allowed us, it gave us permission as an organization to dream and dream big. So that has set us on a course to actually take steps towards that dream even though we didn't win.

Though they didn't ultimately win, as a finalist, JUST got unique support to develop their proposal. Steve shares what it means to be part of Lever for Changes Bold Solutions Network.

Lever for change in the process itself was great. They did a couple really special things as a funder and a process for grant making. One is they gave us money to dig deeper into what the plan would be our prospectus.

So they gave us a planning grant. And then from there we had amazing support from the Boston Consulting Group as part of the process which helped us refine really important elements of our pitch. So having a third party, ask really smart questions, helping us connect with other people that were seeing things similarly was a really key part of us coming up with not just a better proposal but also laying the groundwork for the learning that would unfold afterwards.

And they continue to check in with us. They've made some great introductions. They've really taken a holistic approach to creating a network of both opportunities for grantees and access to more and better resources. So yeah, we're really thankful for the ongoing support.

The beautiful thing about Lever for Change is that they really encourage organizations to run after big audacious goals. As Steve and his team found out, sometimes that process reveals some important truths about the strategy.

Our growth plan, how we're going to open new markets wasn't right. It wasn't accurate. We didn't know what it was. We didn't know what we didn't know. Now we actually know how to get 70 women that don't know us but should into a room in El Paso eight hours from Austin on a Tuesday.

There is some magic that has been discovered through the effort to grow. And then the other part of it, the other side of this journey for us one, is finding clients and expanding across the state. The other is getting them to wealth. We want to create generational wealth in years not generations.

Currently, we are running a pilot funded by Schmidt Futures to take that big vision and test a small part of it. That small part we're testing is how our leaders, our JETAs can become owners of real estate. Instead of buying their own house, they're buying a piece of houses across the country and it's JUST that's making the investment.

They are getting the income and the potential appreciation on the investment. We're creating a patchwork to get them to their dreams because right now, especially as cities around the country, especially places like Austin are becoming more and more unaffordable, we're going to have to find other ways that create wealth that we are in control of outside of the market.

As the first time the team applied for an award of this size, there was a bit of a learning curve. Steve explains what they would do differently next time they're in this position.

Truth is a lot of this work for the Lone Star Prize was done with a small team. Inside of JUST, we did not involve our entrepreneurs in a meaningful way outside of listening to them. We were concerned we wouldn't win. We were concerned we would make a big promise that we couldn't fulfill. So we needed to insulate the idea from the community because we couldn't compromise the potential trust that we'd worked so hard to build and not follow through on something so potentially generation changing.

And next time we'll have made progress on that. We have already started to build this journey with our clients.

We've launched our wealth club which is a manifestation of the Lone Star prize. So we would actually incorporate them in the co-design process like we weren't able to the first time.

Through the application process, the JUST team learned how important collaboration with the community is. Rashidah speaks to what that really means in practice.

We need to actually listen to our clients and figure out what they want because essentially it's all to serve them. So it starts with listening and seeing what it is that they actually want, how they would like to receive it because we in our minds sometimes have ideas about what can serve other people. But until we actually figure out and ask the questions and get the answers that they say, then we're not actually serving them.

Community collaboration is not just about conversations. Steve digs into the ways they've built their organization to make listening a practice.

For me there's some practical tools to center the conversation around the clients you serve. One of them is hire from the community. So the first thing we did was hire as part of listening better, as part of asking smarter questions, as part of being more aligned with priorities of the community we hire the community.

At the same time, we had really clear values that we came back to and then we try to simplify them for ourselves. And one example is the value of trust that we hold near and dear to you see it as a two way street. We ask ourselves a simple question, does this build trust?

And that became a thematic question we would ask ourselves internally as we were making decisions. And I think all of us should and need to be committed to building trust in this world today, whether it's a stated value of yours or not, and though that commitment gets you closer to the community that you're trying to serve.

The work that JUST does has big impacts for the individual but they're always looking to move the needle at a systemic level.

A lot of us talk about supporting Black and Brown female entrepreneurs.

A lot of us are trying to figure out new ways to unlock opportunity. And I think there needs to be so many more. And my question is always are we doing in a way that can meaningfully either change the conversation or unlock systemic opportunities?

So the question of are we serving enough people.

But beyond serving people, is the individual meaningfully impacted for a better life, less stress more joy. And we have created so many barriers in this country. It's going to take twice as many of us working on creating new pathways. So just hope that we can see new more and better solutions happening faster.

Applying for the Lone Star Prize unlocked some big thinking for JUST. But as an organization, they need to figure out how that systems level work fits into their mission. Steve explains how it's a bit of a balancing act.

We are committed to doing big thinking. On a regular basis, the challenge is it could come off as distracting or lacking focus. We know to ever execute. We've got to do these thing in front of us amazingly.

And that is tension leaders have to hold. How do you think big and do the first thing first? How do you execute so that you have the right to try and tackle that big idea?

In that I think what we're missing right now is time. We're missing time to demonstrate. We've earned the right to try to tackle this next big idea.

And the thing that I think we do have in place is a clear vision with amazing values that our team has created that we live. So those always become our filter and our tools to make better decisions, and be more clear on that big vision while executing today.

The application process was somewhat of a stress test for JUST innovative ideas. When they had to really map out how they'd put their plans into practice, they got to see the gaps in their strategy. Steve speaks to how the challenge shaped their broader vision.

Our vision is more refined today. I would like to see that there's clarity as a group that goes through this. When can we apply to something even bigger, bolder the next time? It would be great to run it back again. And I think our message would be tighter.

We need to do this big thinking every few years.

So having money associated with it is really helpful. It's a forcing mechanism to make sure we're doing our due-diligence. But the truth is this is the next time we would do it differently internally.

JUST trust-based ethos is unique for the financial industry. For Rashidah, one big part of moving this economic justice work forward is being more of an advocate in this space.

I was asked a question recently, how do CDFI, how do people find out about this space, and how do we make sure that we get traditional banks to do their part and understanding us. And I was like, well, we have to be louder about it. I feel like nonprofits and CDFIs sometimes are very humble and we're--

this is what we're doing. This is how we're doing it. We're very gracious, which is wonderful. I love that.


I'm a yoga teacher by trade so that's like my middle name.

But also I think that this work deserves to be like screamed from the mountaintops. And we tell people like what we're doing and how we're doing it. And as many places as I can, I'm always telling people about JUST, and how we do it and who we do it for because it's been so instrumental in my life.

So I do think that others are looking at us as we're getting more attention. But I think it's also up to us to make sure that we tell people. And that the conversations we have don't stay in the room that we're in but it's spread to everyone else.

And I do feel like in my opinion that JUST is leading the way, just because trust is something that not a lot of people do. Everything is usually based in the traditional model of credit scores and collateral, et cetera. So it's something that's scary but it's also very different. And it's also very rewarding.

Once you go on the other side and you see just how--

when you lend trust what that can get back.

JUST is setting an example for how other organizations could reshape their work. Steve is excited about the possibility of creating some momentum.

More organizations could incorporate this type of activity into their work. The truth is, it's actually quite simple. It's not easy, but it is quite simple.

We this year, JUST will do on the order of 5,000 small loans will lend. Right now we've lent over $3 million this year. We've disbursed $500,000 this week.

So as we grow, we would expect to disburse 6 million plus this year with very limited staff. Really four people on operations that span the state. So we would love for other people to start thinking about how they can get to yes without the baggage of people's past.

Thanks for listening. We hope this inspires you to find ways to support the bold solutions that we need to make true systemic change. To hear more conversations like this, be sure to subscribe to Impact Audio.

And join us for our Impact Studio event this September. Register at submittable.com/impact. Until next time.

Additional Resources

Season 3 , Episode 6| 30:03 Min

The challenge model: How to flip the philanthropy script

Photo of Kristen Molyneaux

Kristen Molyneaux

Photo of Sam Caplan

Sam Caplan

Season 3 , Episode 2| 26 Min

Breakthroughs in Social Impact: How Integrated CSR Unlocks Innovation

Photo of Erin Baudo Felter

Erin Baudo Felter

Photo of Sam Caplan

Sam Caplan

Season 3 , Episode 7| 27:10 Min

What is the ‘S’ in ESG, and how do you measure it?

Photo of Carmen Perez

Carmen Perez

Photo of Sam Caplan

Sam Caplan

Subscribe to Impact Audio

Impact Audio features short conversations (and a few longer ones) with social impact experts and practitioners. We cover the world of philanthropy, nonprofits, corporate citizenship, and social change.