The Power of Social Enterprise to Fix Our Broken Food System

poverty in dc

Food equity and racial equity are very connected in the communities located east of the Anacostia River in Washington, DC. Julie Kirkwood, Founder of non-profit organization DC UrbanGreens, is working to change that. Founded in 2012, DC UrbanGreens focuses on creation of neighborhood farms on small pieces of under-utilized, urban land to create access to healthy, nutritious foods. The program initially piloted this approach in Southeast DC. This place, where 98% of the population is African American and over 40% of the children are living in poverty, is also designated as by the USDA as a Food Desert—an area where healthy food is not readily available or sold to its residents. For DC residents, this inequity is not just wrong, it is life threatening and is a major contributor to the region’s rates of obesity. Obesity in DC has been strongly linked to racial disparities: 8% of white D.C. residents are obese compared to 31% of African-Americans. This issue is particularly acute for the District’s youth—the youth obesity rate in DC is the highest in the country.

Community gardens are a growing movement in urban areas, but poor communities deserve to walk into a store and purchase healthy food just as easily as their more affluent counterparts east of the River. Nearly a quarter of the District’s residents live in Southeast DC, but 85% of the City’s food retailers are located outside of this region. In 2012, Anacostia’s only supermarket was sold and closed. To reach a grocery store selling healthy foods, residents travel on busses with carts of groceries and children in tow.

In 2013, we helped DC UrbanGreens break ground in Ward 7 to create a unique hyper-local farm. They are now selling food year round exclusively to communities that need it, stocking corner markets east of the Anacostia River with fresh, healthy food, and have doubled the size of farming operations. Julie’s vision is to use community-based farms to fix broken elements of the urban food system and recognize the role that purchasing power can play in transforming poor communities. Her goal is to establish micro-enterprises that can efficiently grow, distribute, and sell healthy food within the poorest communities to poor communities. Every sale she makes is an act of social justice.

We are thrilled to have been part of Julie’s success story to date. Please share our infographic to celebrate the seeds of success we have been able to sow with your support.


New Grantees, Little Bets & Big Challenges

We were thrilled to celebrate the newest additions to the DC Social Innovation Project family last week at our new grantee reception. And by this, I most definitely mean an all-star new class of grantees. But I also mean one of the most impressive gatherings of up-and-coming probono consultants you will likely find in the DC metro area. And I include our supporters and a new circle of friends of DC Social Innovation into this growing family. Together, we are taking the first small bites to tackle some of the biggest challenges in poverty.

  • The Paper Project is supporting middle school engagement and empowerment by launching student-run newspapers in low-income schools. Wise Young Builders is using carpentry to build math skills and confidence among DC’s poorest children. These programs matter because DC’s high school dropout rates are the highest in the nation– 40% of all students don’t graduate and low-income middle school engagement is increasingly emerging among experts as a critical intervention opportunity to reverse this trend.
  • Street Sense’s Digital Hope project is creating new digital careers for DC’s homeless with a goal of doubling the income that its vendors currently make selling its paper. This is critically important to their mission because entry-level, minimum wage jobs are no longer enough to pull DC’s homeless population out of poverty. DC families would have to work 132 hours per week, 52 weeks a year at the minimum wage just to afford rent for standard 2-bedroom apartment in DC.

Our role at DC Social Innovation Project is to empower bootstrapped entrepreneurs that are working to strengthen communities. Our grantees provide tools to shift DC residents from survival mode to success mode with full embrace of their power and agency. Building up communities from the inside-out is a highly effective strategy to empower communities and foster long-term success that sticks. It is about dignity and hope.

We believe that ideas and creativity are the building blocks of social change. Block by block and program by program we are taking little bets to transform communities who struggle daily to find access to food, jobs, and housing. We are thrilled to continue the journey of innovation with these new grantees and look forward to sharing our discoveries with you!

In Partnership,

Melissa Ehrenreich, Executive Director

p.s. Help us give more grants of hope and transformation by signing up today as a Community Investor, your small, monthly donation can make a world of difference to DC residents!

Elevating Voices on Poverty Issues: A Q&A with Digital Hope

It begins tomorrow- the official launch of our consulting projects for our newest cohort of grantees. Get to know all of our grantees better! Street Sense is not new to the DC social innovation scene, but their new marketing professionals program is. We are proud to include Digital Hope ( formerly Street Sense Digital Marketing Certification Program) as part of our newest cohort of grantees.

Participants in the Street Sense Digital Hope Program meet for class

Participants in the Street Sense Digital Hope Program meet for class

Describe your professional background and current job.

Brian Carome has served as executive director of Street Sense, DC’s street newspaper, since November 2011. He has over 30 years of senior management experience at non-profit homeless service and child welfare agencies in the Washington, DC metro area. Previously he served as Executive Director at Housing Opportunities for Women, Project Northstar and A-SPAN. Additionally he worked at New Hope Housing, Sasha Bruce Youthwork, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and the Father McKenna Center. Brian helped design and implement several innovative transitional and permanent supportive housing programs in partnership with local and federal agencies, including the National Institute of Mental Health, and the US Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services. He has lectured on homelessness and at risk populations at the Catholic University of America’s School of Social Service and Georgetown University Law School. He holds a BA from Boston College and an Executive Certificate in Non-profit Leadership from Georgetown University’s Center for Public and Non-profit Leadership.

Tell us about your program that received support from DCSIP: what does your program do and what are its goals?

Digital Hope, part of our growing media center, is a new marketing professionals program that trains a small class of veteran writers from our newspaper to hone their skills in order to write blogs commercially.

Providing and refining digital skills is necessary for anyone to enter today’s workforce. Learning how to leverage these skills independently and online goes a step further to remove other employment barriers individuals may face, such as the expectation of a certain appearance or a spotless past.

What accomplishments has your program made so far?

The group has already completed work for a California health clinic and used lessons from that work to inform the class’ structure. Work for a new client began January 29, 2015.

Any specific success story of a participant in your program that you’d like to share?

Ibn Hipps became a Street Sense vendor soon after his release from a prolonged prison sentence. In his late 40s, upon release from prison, Ibn was both homeless and unemployed. Seeking a better life for himself, and eager to begin contributing to the upbringing of his children, he found his way to Street Sense and began taking advantage of the opportunities the organization offers.

Ibn begins his work day well before 9 AM, during the morning commuter rush hour, distributing the paper. He also began making time to write for the paper during breaks from his work. It was through his writing that he came to the attention of Adam Motiwala, the workshop’s creator. Late last year, Ibn cleared of parole after five years.  In speaking about his work with the Street Sense Digital Hope program, Ibn says, “When you talk about making money you have to talk about commitment. This isn’t just for me, it’s for my kids.”

So many people see a problem in their community but don’t do anything about it; what motivated you to actually do something?

Street Sense has been changing the story of homelessness for over 11 years. We understand that the men and women living outside in our community desperately want opportunities to work and to contribute. Ours is a simple model. We harness the talents, aspirations and willingness to work hard of men and women who’ve become homeless and have been left behind by the economy. Through our work we’ve had the privilege to discover that these men and women when given the chance can be defined by their talents and their character rather than their housing situation.

What did winning the early support from DCSIP mean to you personally?

Receipt of the DCSIP grant helped confirm that we are on the right track with this new project.

What impact did DCSIP and the support you received have on your program? Did it help attract more resources or help your program grow in some way?

In addition to providing the materials necessary to expand the program, DCSIP and the match funding, and the technical assistance that comes with it, will be used test the sustainability and scalability of the project. In the meantime, it will provide a clear avenue for participants in 2015 to pull themselves out of poverty.

Read more about Digital Hope here and find them on their website.

Social Entrepreneurs Come in All Ages: Q&A with The Paper Project

As we continue the countdown to the official launch of our consulting projects for our newest cohort of grantees, we invite you to get to know our grantees better (both old and new)! Next up a Q&A featuring Claire Parker of The Paper Project, one of our newest grantees.

Cesar Chavez Public Charter School Student participates in The Paper Project

Cesar Chavez Public Charter School student participates in The Paper Project

Describe your professional background and current job.

I am a high school student at Woodrow Wilson High School in Tenleytown.

Tell us about your program that received support from DCSIP: what does your program do and what are its goals?

The Paper Project is a program I started in my sophomore year. We launch student newspapers and mentor students through journalism at DC public middle schools. We aim to help students find their voices, become more engaged in their communities, and learn to harness the power of words.

What accomplishments has your program made so far?

In the spring of 2013, we started a student newspaper, The Eagle, at Cesar Chavez Prep Public Charter School in Columbia Heights. We’ve worked with over 35 students to publish eight issues of The Eagle over the past two years. We’ve seen our students become better writers and photographers in the process. We’ve developed community partnerships with neighborhood businesses like Pete’s Pizza, and received grants and recognition from organizations like, Youth Service America, The Student Voice Project, and now, DC Social Innovation Project.

Any specific success story of a participant in your program that you’d like to share?

When we began working with our student Shayna in the spring of 2013, she was a shy seventh grader who was nervous about expressing her opinions and projecting her voice on to paper. Over the past year and a half, we’ve seen her grow into a mature, confident, opinionated ninth grader who is always eager to take on new projects and share her wisdom about life and middle school through her writing. She has become a leader among her peers, and she will serve as our Senior Editor for The Eagle this year.

So many people see a problem in their community but don’t do anything about it; what motivated you to actually do something?

I’ve been interested in journalism since I was in elementary school. I joined the student newspaper at Wilson my freshman year, and it was such a great experience for me. It gave me a community, a way to get my writing out into the world and improve every month, and a way to spur change in and engage with many aspects of my school. So when I heard at the beginning of my sophomore year that very few DC public schools have student newspapers, I was shocked and disappointed. I began thinking about ways I could change that. From there, starting The Paper Project was sort of a natural thing; student journalism was something I cared about and was interested in, I knew the DC public school system pretty well, and I’d seen other teenagers take action and start successful community initiatives, so why not start this?

What did winning the early support from DCSIP mean to you personally?

Winning the early support from DCSIP validated what I had done with The Paper Project so far, and encouraged me to continue my efforts to make the program sustainable and eventually expand it to other schools. It meant so much to me that DCSIP took me and The Paper Project seriously, and was willing to believe in and support a project run by high school students.

What impact did DCSIP and the support you received have on your program? Did it help attract more resources or help your program grow in some way?

Our relationship with DCSIP just started, but already DCSIP has begun to help me plan for the future of The Paper Project. I’m confident that with DCSIP’s support and guidance, The Paper Project can become a sustainable program implemented at more than one DC middle school.

Read more about The Paper Project here and visit them on their website.

I’m a Social Architect: A Q&A with Wise Young Buiders

This week, we officially kickoff the consulting projects for our newest cohort of grantees. As we prepare, we invite you to get to know our grantees better (both old and new)! We start with a Q&A featuring Elijah Moses of Wise Young Builders, one of our newest grantees.

Wise Young Builder student at work

Wise Young Builder student at work

Describe your professional background and current job.

I have a colorful employment background. I started out working in marketing and promotions with a few start-ups in early 2000. Subsequently, I left to work in construction for about 5 years. Around 2005 I took an opportunity at the University of Buffalo and worked with youth helping them complete high school and enter college. Since leaving Buffalo in 2008 for DC, I have mostly worked in the trifecta of workforce development, education and construction all combined. 

Tell us about your program that received support from DCSIP: what does your program do and what are its goals?

Wise Young Builders (WYB) is a unique enrichment program for youth ages 8-12. WYB uses carpentry to strengthen participant’s math skills. The program serves as a constant reminder to youth that they should be working to obtain knowledge and skills and visualizing their worth in life.

What accomplishments has your program made so far?

Wow. We’ve made a lot! We’ve been able to run our program for five years with no major funding, taught students to build carpentry projects from scratch, won several small grants, and negotiated development agreements for four spaces (Ward 8, Ward 5 and soon a summer camp space with a local college).

Any specific success story of a participant in your program that you’d like to share?

There are so many. We have one particular student, Zahir, who was so excited that he had built his first bookshelf. He placed it in the living room to show his father, darted upstairs to grab all of his books, and rushed downstairs to place them on the shelf. He was so happy. He’s also twelve years of age and taking algebra. We can’t totally take all the credit for that one though!

So many people see a problem in their community but don’t do anything about it; what motivated you to actually do something?

I love building and label myself a Social Architect. After teaching so many adults who have so many complications, a Frederick Douglass quote really helped enliven my vision: “It is easier to build strong boys, than to repair broken men.” Also, my mother convinced me that I could do anything as a child. I’ve never been an inert individual.

What did winning the early support from DCSIP mean to you personally?

It meant a lot. It meant that others were really taking us seriously and that we were well prepared for the opportunity. I remember the presentation day. I brought my son, who has been a part of the program for years. I think it meant a lot to me that he was able to see the efforts of hard work pay off.

What impact did DCSIP and the support you received have on your program? Did it help attract more resources or help your program grow in some way?

Since we’ve just gotten started, it remains to tell. I know that it is really going to help bolster our resources. Sometimes people support those who they know others support. We’ve been getting a lot of hits off of twitter.  

Read more about Wise Young Builders’ program here and visit them on their website.

A Love Letter

It’s almost Valentine’s Day and we love our Innovation Family here at DC Social Innovation Project. We can’t imagine more amazing people on the planet than these wonderful folks who are helping to empower DC communities to see themselves and their future through a new lens of hope and agency. For this holiday weekend, some people like chocolate, but we prefer creativity.

Grantee, Press Pass Mentors visits the White House

Grantee, Press Pass Mentors visits the White House

In big doses! And we really love when hope, creativity, AND the White House happen in one place.

We want to say thank you for supporting us, believing in the power of our grantees and share with you a “love letter” that just has us swooning from our former grantee, Press Pass Mentors. Since we first met them, they have come a long way right up to the White House.

Read on and share the love by sending this note to someone you want to bowl over this Valentine’s Day.

Dear Darius,

Great to see the continued success you are having at DCSIP. Eli and I will forever be grateful to you and the team at DCSIP for your early support for Press Pass Mentors and I wanted to send you a brief update on our progress.

Last month, we welcomed our fourth class of high school students, our largest group yet. We also added two program directors, former mentors Rick Maese and Robert Samuels, who are volunteering to help us reach more students than ever before. We now have 18 high school students currently enrolled in Press Pass, most of who are working to become the first in their families to attend college. And 13 alumni on college campuses around the country.

In addition to getting bigger, our program is also getting better. Our last student event was a private tour of the White House led by the president’s speechwriters. Our mentors are more prepared than ever. One hundred percent of our graduates have been accepted to college. We are working to launch partnerships with universities.

Building this program has been difficult, rewarding work. Eli and I had no experience in non-profits when we started four years ago. We didn’t know quite how this would fit in our lives or where it would go. You have helped ensure the program’s success. Each year at this time, you make Press Pass feel like a community venture. In every way, we are fueled by your support.


Louis and Eli

On This MLK Day, Make It Thunder

This weekend, hundreds of organizations, including DC Social Innovation Project, will be rolling up our sleeves to make a difference in our community through the power of service. On Saturday, we’ll be partnering with IMPACT and our grantee DC UrbanGreens to direct our volunteer muscle to build mobile farms for Ward 7 in the shadow of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall. And on Monday, we’ll be partnering with the Meridian International Center to provide aspiring entrepreneurs with pro-bono coaching to help their ideas lift off. We invite you to come join us or check out the dozens of volunteer opportunities throughout the city over at Serve DC.

But no matter what you find yourselves doing this holiday weekend, we hope you will join with us to tell everyone you know that service and Dr. King’s message is about more than just a weekend–its the beginning of a powerful commitment that can last a lifetime. We’re starting a thunderclap  to raise our virtual hands to celebrate the power of service with a message that will reach all across the Internet. We hope you’ll join with us in a single act of solidarity to proudly stand up for the importance of service by taking 30 seconds to sign up for our thunderclap and reach thousands. Together, we can send a message that we hold the power to change communities in our hands.

This MLK Day, let’s make the Internet thunder with the power of social innovation.

Melissa Ehrenreich
Executive Director