Progress within a community often depends not on big institutions with one-size-fits-all solutions, but on local leaders who are responsive to residents and who can mobilize their neighbors to pursue a shared vision of meaningful change.  Inspired by many Waterbury leaders doing work that reflects the unique needs of their neighborhoods, in 2016 Connecticut Community Foundation established a grassroots leadership program to support Waterbury residents working to help the city and its people thrive.

The program began by offering small grants to individuals and small nonprofit organizations to support community events and learning opportunities that highlighted important issues and strengthened bonds among people with shared interests or experiences. Today, it also supports organizing, advocacy, and community building, and aims to grow equitable efforts that revitalize communities, influence local systems, and foster youth leadership.

Grassroots Grant applications are reviewed by a committee made up of Waterbury residents, who meet with each applicant to learn more about the goals of their work. In addition to grants, the program now offers training and networking opportunities to encourage leaders from across the city to share ideas, tools, and tactics.

Reflecting on the importance of fostering local leaders, Ruth Glasser, a Waterbury resident, Grassroots Grants inaugural and former committee member, and professor of Urban Planning at the University of Connecticut-Waterbury, says, “The people and organizations that have lived experience within a location are vital to the health of our communities because they are more likely to be personally invested in seeing that area thrive.”

Projects funded with Grassroots Grants have ranged from the creation of a community garden to programs that give parents tools to advocate for their children in the schools. One grant supported monthly meetings of the Bouley Manor Neighborhood Association to coordinate the beautification, clean up and maintenance of the Association’s various neighborhood Adopt-a-Spot locations, including the delivery of potted flowering plants to the front porches of home-bound neighbors. Another supported the organization of a Waterbury chapter of Girl Trek, which encourages African-American women to walk together not only as a means of healthy living, but also to mobilize community members around local issues.

Another grant helped Calvin Dunbar Jr. launch Destroying The Chains, a nonprofit that helps people with criminal records navigate the process of securing a free pardon, which can be critical to restoring employability following a conviction. Dunbar recalls hardship following his own incarceration and the help he received. He notes, “I want to give people the resources that I didn’t think I had. A lot of people are going to lawyers, spending thousands of dollars for help, but I do it for free. The most that they are spending is $100 and that’s just to get their records and fingerprints. … I want to show them that you can do it. You can get a job.”

Local leadership is a critical catalyst for more equitable, healthy, and resilient communities. Connecticut Community Foundation is proud to support Waterbury leaders as they shape their community, engage their neighbors, and make their voices heard.