In 2021, the Steelcase Foundation partnered with Grandville Avenue Arts + Humanities (GAAH) through a three-year $150,000 grant to uplift the voices of the students and families it serves through the Cook Library After School program. GAAH’s mission is to create environments of curiosity and creativity with its neighbors through an equitable lens. Its Cook Library After School program serves neighborhood K-12 youth providing homework help, specialized tutoring, youth and adult literacy activities, and engaging clubs and classes in an environment centered on care and belonging.
Through our three-year partnership, GAAH is working in partnership with parents and teens, asking for insights on the programs and services it offers, seeking insights into how they want to provide feedback and get involved, whether it be sitting on committees, participating in interviews for new staff, updating the organization’s theory of change, or other big picture activities. The organization contracts a parent to work as an observer and evaluator for its Youth Program Quality Assessment, to understand both how they evaluate the effectiveness of programming, but also to affirm whether the results of the survey resonate with the parent’s experience as someone with a child in the program.
Executive Director Steff Rosalez has been excited to see parents and teens want to share their ideas and skills with the organization. “So often nonprofit culture is to serve and focused on the idea that we have something to give, instead of building community. GAAH’s systems work has been about building relationships, and once we get to know people, asking them to engage in activities to help us further our work.”
Through these efforts, Steff has seen the benefit of keeping things simple and meeting people where they are. In doing that, she notes, “People will show you and share with you what they have to offer and what they want and need, but if you’re getting into the weeds instead of focusing on the relationship, it makes it so much harder than it needs to be. When you slow down and focus on relationships, that’s where things have time to grow and blossom.”
She hopes this work will plant the seed for people to show up as their true selves and feel liberated and empowered in GAAH’s spaces and for others to share their perspectives and ideas, building strong leaders and communities. “Institutions are so stuck in their ways and it’s hard to convince people its ok to do things differently and then actually try something new. It’s surprising sometimes how deep-seeded culture can be, and what it takes to really make change both in our own institution and with partners and philanthropy. Having philanthropic partners who have been open to doing things differently has allowed us to lean in and try new things in partnership with our families. Slowly, we’ve seen a shift where it’s no longer we’re doing it for the grant, but the grant is doing it for us because they believe in our work. So much of the work we do with parents and youth informs how we talk to philanthropy. It’s our responsibility as institutional leaders to share people’s experiences and wants and how they are treated to understand how things we’re doing at the systems level are creating these outcomes and experiences, and how we can make changes to fix them.”
For the teens engaged in this work, Steff hopes that they feel liberated and empowered to be who they are and know how amazing they are. She sees them balancing the stress of school, cultural expectations, and things at home and hopes they take time to share their joy and talents with others. And, she secretly hopes someday one of them will want to come back and take her job as CEO. After 12 years with the organization, Steff can’t see herself anywhere other than GAAH. “If we say flexible and listen, we can make a lot of things happen, and being a place where you can see things come to fruition is really special. The more kids and families see GAAH make things happen and learn about how the system and institutional work happens, it creates a space of “what if” that makes me really excited about the work here.”