Prioritizing Community Input


2021 Participatory Grantmaking Project grant reviewers, clockwise from bottom left: Vivian Mercer, Jeronda Hilton, Cynthia Smith, Leonard Edwards, and Beatrice Evans. Not pictured: Latoya Hackett.



Centering community voices is an integral part of the DC Bar Foundation’s efforts to transform the District’s civil legal aid network. One of the ways the Foundation seeks to do this is by involving District residents in a new participatory grantmaking process, one that I’d like to share with you today.

In August, the Foundation kicked off a participatory grantmaking project, a collaboration between the DC Bar Foundation and Bread for the City. This is a pilot project made possible by a $65,000 Momentum Fund grant from United Philanthropy.

Together, Bread for the City and the DC Bar Foundation hosted two community listening sessions with residents in Wards 7 and 8 who have experienced the process of trying to access civil legal aid in the District. Participants were given stipends for the valuable time they lent to our efforts. They shared their successes and challenges with accessing help from legal services providers, and they also shared insights on community priorities and issues facing their communities, including domestic violence, child support, child custody, and housing matters, to name just a few.

These listening sessions allowed us to hear directly from the people we seek to serve. Their voices and expertise are essential to identifying unmet needs and evaluating our grantmaking process to create a more equitable civil justice system in the District.

From those sessions, we offered the participants an opportunity to become grant reviewers, where they decided which neighborhood organizations would receive a total of $50,000 in grant funding. Grant reviewers Vivian Mercer, Jeronda Hilton, Cynthia Smith, Leonard Edwards, Beatrice Evans, and Latoya Hackett learned about several different organizations, reviewing their profiles, including their missions, the staff, comprehensive history, and background.


The reviewers ultimately decided to split the $50,000 between three organizations:

Activating a participatory grantmaking project was not just beneficial for the Foundation. It was helpful for the participants, too. In a post-project survey, our grant reviewers shared that they valued having their ideas and concerns considered, and they appreciated and learning about how funding decisions that impact their communities are made. As grant reviewer Vivian Mercer shared, she wanted to “participate in a very important process of providing valuable resources to organizations that help people in their communities.”


This project was an essential first venture for the Foundation into participatory grantmaking, and it will not be the last. We plan to expand our participatory grantmaking efforts in the coming year, and we look forward to joining other philanthropic leaders in our community who have already recognized the tremendous value of this process and have led in this work.


In so many ways, our neighbors in need of legal aid are the experts. We must value their needs and concerns as we build up our city’s thriving civil legal aid network so it can work for everyone.

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