Spaces of Opportunity: Empowerment Through Land Cultivation

Spaces of Opportunity: Empowerment Through Land Cultivation

  • Collaboration Type: Alliances & Networks
  • Region: ATIF
  • Social Issue: Workforce Development, Philanthropy
  • Size of Organizations: >$10 mil
  • BIPOC Leaders: Yes
  • Successful: Yes

Spaces of Opportunity began as a grassroots network of five organizations working to revitalize a 19-acre vacant lot in South Phoenix. The organizations partnered with the community to create a community hub that includes incubator urban farming businesses, a community gardening project, an outdoor play space, and a vibrant farmers market. This case details the challenges of moving from a successful grassroots network to a more formalized network structure.

Best Practices for Social Impact Organizations:

  1. Involve the community that you are supporting in the visioning of the project – an additional collaboration partner.
  2. Use scenario planning to stress test decision-making and financial plans as the network becomes more formal.

Outcomes:

  1. FY2020-2021, 50,000 pounds of produce was distributed.
  2. A vibrant space with more than 1000 visitors a month.

Best Practices for Funders:

  1. Support the productive struggle that collaborative partners go through before normalizing their partnership.
  2. Collaborations naturally evolve and need resources at specific inflection points.

Social impact organizations and philanthropy often focus on neighborhoods and communities that experience outsized challenges. Many of these communities have assets just waiting to be seen and developed. They include unused land and a strong commitment of community members to the places where they live.

Spaces of Opportunity, a sustained collaboration initiative in South Phoenix, began by focusing on one community asset – 19 acres of vacant land. It was situated near three community schools, right in the center of the community. In 2015, about 15 organizations came together to brainstorm how this asset could benefit the community. After a lot of discussion, the group decided to pursue urban farming to bring business development, fresh food, and information about sustainable environments to the community.

Once the goal was identified, five organizations committed to the project: Tiger Mountain, the Desert Botanical Garden, Orchard Community Learning Center, the Roosevelt School District, and Unlimited Potential. The group identified the community as the “6th collaborator.” John Wann-Angeles of Orchard Community Learning Center explains that to turn “an urban desert into productive agricultural land – it means collaborations. There are just literally hundreds of people that need to collaborate to make this work.” The work was grassroots and required hours of manual labor to clear the lot of rubbish, balance the pH of the soil, and develop irrigation needed for the desert climate. In 2018, the first crops went into the ground.

A Space for Everyone

Over time, Spaces of Opportunity has turned what was a vacant lot into a community resource. Executive Director of Unlimited Potential, Emma Viera described it as a “place of healing” regardless of a person’s circumstances. Darren Chapman of Tiger Mountain Foundation described it as a space where “folks from all over the world are doing farming of different kinds and starting businesses.”

In the pandemic, the farm took on more responsibility, producing more and more. In 2020, it produced 50,000 pounds of produce. The space included an incubator farm, community garden, and farmer’s market. It included a nature play area for young children. It became a hub for food distribution during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of visitors speaks for themselves. In the 2020-2021 academic year, there were an average of 1019 monthly visitors to the 19 acres. The farmers market hosted, on average, 30 vendors, 14 farmers, and seven growers from the incubator farms on site.

Formalizing the Collaboration

In many ways, Spaces of Opportunity was a huge success. It had taken a vacant lot and, through community partnership, transformed it into a real community asset. But the five-year-old alliance was beginning to feel strained. All the funding for Space of Opportunity was project-based. Each organization was contributing cash and in-kind donations to cover the overhead, which, by this point, was about $2 million. Viera described the situation:

“The five organizations were working very well together. It is interesting because each of us has different skills and assets that we bring to the collaboration, and it works almost organically in the sense that we are like an orchestra. You come together, and you play different instruments. And suddenly, that beautiful music comes. But we didn’t have a conductor.”

In 2020, the group applied to the Arizona Together for Impact fund for an exploratory grant to formalize their relationship and secure it long-term. The grant’s goals included formal and operational agreements among the partner organizations, long-term goals, underlying principles for all the functions in the space, and policies and procedures for the management of the shared space. They received both the grant and a matching grant from Sprouts Corporation to begin the work.

They hired Cassie Breecher of Beyond Strategy Consulting to lead them through the discussions. Although the group initially described the work as a strategic plan, Breecher quickly realized that more fundamental issues were at play.

“There was a challenge around identity, where the distinction lived between their individual organizations and the collective whole. The second challenge was agreement about how they were going to operate together to get from where they were in that moment to their future ideal. Now, their future ideal, as we got into it, didn’t actually exist. Then, there was a specific budget and funding allocation question.”

At the end of the exploratory grant, the group had worked through some difficult conversations. They created a new theory of change with five pillars of work aimed at a singular goal: to work with the community to “ensure that South Phoenix residents are creating the environment where they want to live, work, and play by breaking down systemic barriers to holistic well-being that have existed for generations.”

Perhaps even more importantly, the group decided that they needed a conductor, someone whose full-time job would be to manage the collaboration and space. They applied again to the Arizona Together for Impact fund, this time for an implementation grant. The goals included establishing Spaces of Opportunity as a legal entity and hiring its first executive director. Each of the partner organizations would have a seat on the board.

Many grassroots alliances move to more formalized arrangements. The move is never without controversy. Creating a backbone organization means creating more overhead for the network. And it means that many of the power relationships among organizations get rearranged. Breecher, who continued through the implementation phase, tried to raise many of these issues through their joint work.

“A lot of the work that I did was working them through scenarios that were sort of the like yucky case scenarios: when we disagree, when there’s a financial crisis. What if? And in doing that, it kicked up a lot of dust along the way. In full truth, not all of that dust settled on all the things. But what it resulted in was essentially like a version of bylaws or of operating agreements that really detailed out not just in great times, but in those times when nobody wants to get into.”

Some of the dust that didn’t settle was how the groups would work together. Darren Chapman, founder and CEO of Tiger Mountain, worried that Spaces of Opportunity wasn’t taking advantage of the assets of the organizations that make it up. While Tiger Mountain has a national reputation, as do some other partners, Spaces of Opportunity is new. He opined,

“Well, if it’s done the way that it, I feel it should be done, it would look like a lease where Tiger Mountain Foundation is actually the lead organization with its partner, the 501(c)3. However, they’re angling to get out of that, and that’s too bad. But for me, point blank, if you just did it fairly, that’s what it would look like because then you would be genuine in your attempt to all of a sudden embrace the community.”

Others in the group are more enthusiastic about the recent developments. Wann-Angeles of Orchard Community Learning Center explains that it’s “something I have a big passion about because, even though the Orchard entered into a lease for Spaces in 2016. I’ve never wanted us to be the organization running spaces. I’ve wanted to be a placeholder until that collaboration came together under its own roof.”

Networks often include leaders with contrasting views. Whenever groups of organizations come together, maintaining their autonomy but finding ways to work together, there will always be tensions. And these tensions never go away. They are network dilemmas that are managed but never resolved. And with management, sustained collaboration can take the form of an ongoing network of independent organizations. Hannah of the Arizona Together for Impact fund explains:

“This is a great example of how you don’t have to merge to be highly collaborative and highly integrated with another organization. They are contingent and dependent on each other for their future success. But it doesn’t require you to fully integrate or give up your autonomy. It just requires that you lean into this relationship.”

Categories

  • Alliances and Networks