When Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency (Wayne Metro) launched the Detroit Residents First Fund (DRFF), a historic partnership with Ford Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Community Development Advocates of Detroit, Skillman Foundation and Erb Family Foundation, the goal was clear: help Detroit-based grassroots nonprofit organizations led by Black, indigenous or other persons of color with the least access to power and social capital who are working to transform Detroit’s neighborhoods.
The People’s Waterboard Coalition was among the first organizations to receive funding through the DRFF. Using a participatory grantmaking model – the first of its kind in Detroit – the Fund ensures nonprofit and community leaders partner with foundation representatives to determine how dollars are distributed.
“Grassroots organizations – many who have never received funding directly from a foundation – need access to funding for philanthropy to be truly equitable,” said Daija Butler, assistant director of planning for Wayne Metro who oversees the DRFF.
The People’s Water Board Coalition (PWBC) is a volunteer-led alliance comprised of more than three dozen grassroots organizations advocating for the human right to water and proper sanitation in the city of Detroit. The coalition works to ensure low-income, underserved residents have equitable access and affordability to both, by advocating for water security and spreading awareness to the community about available resources. This includes working to prevent unethical shut-offs and campaigning for government responses through policies and programs.
“The grant from the DRFF has been tremendous,” said Sylvia Orduño, a Detroit resident and activist with the PWBC. “It’s made such a difference for us in not only having the flexibility in how we can use resources that are available to us and how we can have a voice in the process, but also, there are often so many hurdles and so many administrative responsibilities put upon us. With groups like ours that are all volunteer-led, it’s difficult to manage the responsibilities on top of the work we’re trying to do.
One of the goals of the DRFF is to eliminate the barriers in place for nonprofit organizations like this to receive funding.
“The DRFF has been tremendous in helping us have the space to work effectively while building our capacity, and without typical funder burdens,” Orduño said. “They’ve been flexible and understand we’ve all had to shift during the pandemic, change our strategies and provide information in different ways as well. It’s been great to have that opportunity and understanding of the challenges that exist for grassroots organizations like us and the pressures we have to be effective when that’s not always the way the funding world works.”
In its fight for clean, affordable, accessible water and sanitation, the coalition works to support thousands of Detroiters who struggle with unaffordable bills and the risks of shutoffs by working alongside residents for equitable responses and outcomes. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, low-income households experienced daily struggles without essential water for drinking, bathing, cooking, cleaning and basic sanitation. The events over the last year-and-a-half only made things more dire for people in need, and the PWBC has been hard at work to alleviate some of those struggles.
“We are strong voice for those who have had to go without,” Orduño said. “With backing from the Detroit Residents First Fund, we have been going door-to-door and connecting with more than 12,000 Detroit residents in the last year to check on them, provide information about water resources, and offer reassurance that they are not alone and that they merit this fundamental human right.”