Microgrants empower community to make small changes that have big impact in San Jose, Calif.

communities / Article

Bilingual "Dichos" books paid for by a Somos Mayfair microgrant provide students with suggested activities. Photo courtesy Somos Mayfair.

A nonprofit in San Jose is handing out grants to local residents for projects that benefit the city’s Mayfair neighborhood. The program is modeled after awards made by the Awesome Foundation, which has chapters across the country that make no-strings-attached grants.

Somos Mayfair works to address problems of the working poor and immigrants in Mayfair – a community predominately made up of people from Mexico, Central America, Vietnam and Cambodia. Knight Foundation supports Somos Mayfair in its efforts to provide $1,000 to $2,000 microgrants for creative ideas that help the community.

“We believe [the] community, they know their problems best, and given the tools, they also know their solutions,” said Jessica Paz-Cedillos, Somos Mayfair’s director of resource development.

Somos Mayfair has been advocating for participatory budgeting where the public helps decide how to spend government dollars, and the microgrants align with that goal by empowering the community, Paz-Cedillos said. Two projects have been funded and completed this fall.

The first grant went to a group of mothers who are volunteers at local elementary schools in Mayfair; they purchased three sets of bilingual books – called “Dichos” – that tell stories that are culturally relevant to the Latino community. The volunteers wanted the books because they regularly read to children at the schools. The second grant funded a local screening of a movie about civil rights leader Cesar Chavez and how the Latino population became involved in the 1950s labor movement.

In May, the third grant will fund a maker fair for students at San Jose’s Mathson Middle School to create small-scale models of how to enliven the neighborhood’s Sunset Bridge – which has experienced a lot of criminal activity. The goal is for students to develop ways to change the visual identity of the bridge and think of how crime could be deterred in that area. The models they create will use craft materials such as cardboard, pipe cleaners, fabric and LED lights. Later, community events may showcase the students’ work.

Applications for Somos Mayfair’s microgrants are now available in English, Spanish or Vietnamese. Grants will be given out through June 2016 on a rolling basis.

“We want community members to engage with each other, to connect with each other, and so any project that will bring community together, that’s what we want to fund,” Paz-Cedillos said.

The grants must benefit the Mayfair community, so money won’t be given out for personal purchases, projects outside Mayfair, travel expenses, maintenance fees for established charities or foundations, or vague causes. If an idea doesn’t get funded, Paz-Cedillos said staff would meet with the applicant to discuss why.

To spread the word about this opportunity, Somos Mayfair has been distributing publicity materials all over the neighborhood to encourage residents to be creative.

The community is “trying to think more outside of the box because we’ve been encouraging that,” said Christina Pham, Somos Mayfair’s resource development associate.

Vignesh Ramachandran is a Bay Area-based freelance journalist. He can be reached via email at [email protected].

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