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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Greensboro’s Best-Kept Secrets: Fund 4 Democratic Communities nurtures the grassroots

The Fund 4 Democratic Communities (F4DC) is one of the most important resources for social justice and community action in the Greensboro area. Run by longtime organizers Marnie Thompson and Ed Whitfield, the F4DC plans to provide matching grants to local fundraising projects while simultaneously looking to longer-term economic alternatives for struggling communities. I met with Thompson recently to learn more about F4DC’s efforts. After a tour of her garden and the chickens she raised with her husband and neighbors, we sat down on her back porch for the interview.

What does the Fund 4 Democratic Communities stand for?

I think the key words for us are “authentic grassroots democracy.” The pinnacle of democracy for many people is voting every four years in an election. (F4DC tends) to think of democracy as a muscle, not a decorative feature. It’s a muscle that can make a community stronger, more nimble, and help that community work the way they want to.

We’re actually very concerned about what’s happening neighborhood-to-neighborhood, school-to-school, and block-to-block. The process of dialogue and decision-making that is required to do participatory, authentic grassroots democracy is not something (our society is) really good at. Our goal is to nurture and grow right alongside these grassroots movements.

What sort of projects or organizations do you fund?

We have backed a group of folks in Burnsville, North Carolina, (who are) mobile home owners finding fewer and fewer places that they are able to park their mobile homes. A lot of this older, semi-rural land is now being sold to developers. They worked together to figure out how to form a land trust and figure out how to buy the land that their homes were sitting on.

Half of these folks are Latino immigrants and the other half are poor Appalachian white folks. One of the things we were able to give them was a grant for a bilingual community organizer.

So is this primarily the work F4DC does?

What we’re most interested in these days is tied to that story in Burnsville. We’re noticing more and more the evidence of collapsing systems around us. One way to deal with that is to demand more from governments and agencies to provide a safety net. It’s an important part of the fight, to be pushing for a better distribution of social services, but it seems more important to me and Ed (Whitfield) to build up an alternative economy and way of life that is much more sustainable than what we get under capitalism.

We’re launching this project connected with folks at Project South and the Highlander Center. We’re looking for projects that are in that category and later this year we’ll be contacting folks involved in this work in the Southeast. We will learn and document what they are doing and see how we can build on it.

How much money do you have to work with?

Our finances changed substantially with the economic downturn. My father’s estate is the source of our financial resources. We thought we would be working with $400,000 a year. This year we’re prepared to spend between $150,000 and $200,000. We no longer have much overhead at all (because) we don’t have an office or a staff. We’re working it out of our houses and on the Web. How much money will we have next year? I have no idea.

I heard you’re providing matching grants as well.

We are continuing to make small grants in support of grassroots, authentic democratic efforts. We are making matching grants only because it helps leverage the amount of money we have further and it forces groups, to some extent, to connect with their neighbors and put their money where their mouth is. We’ve agreed to match dollar for dollar any (Greensboro) group’s grassroots-raised money to attend the U.S. Social Forum this summer (in Detroit).

How much of your time does this take up?

I probably spend five to 10 hours a week doing administrative stuff a week for F4DC. I think Ed probably spends five hours a week. But then when we’re into something like “Greensboro Goes to the U.S. Social Forum” it’s a lot more. If this alternative economics thing really takes off this could take up a heck of a lot of our time. Now that we have no staff, I don’t want to mount a big grant cycle. We both have too many other commitments. I bet you in a year we have a different approach to grant-making that is a synthesis of what we’ve learned over these past few years.

Do you have anything you want to add or that Guilford folks should know?

It’s people that make change, not the money that makes change. Money can help, but by itself money is often more problem than help. This is not a classic service agency by any stretch of the imagination. If your view is “I have plenty but I want to serve others,” go hang out with some people and build community to figure out what people want and need to do. Don’t (try to organize) by yourself; bring four people with you.

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