Gates Foundation Grand Challenge Award

November 8, 2020

June 10, 2020 – Twenty-eight organizations from 18 states and the District of Columbia will  elevate diverse voices and broaden the national conversation about poverty and economic mobility at a critical moment in our nation’s history as recipients of $100,000 grants in the Voices for Economic Opportunity Grand Challenge, sponsored by a group of eight philanthropic organizations.


In light of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic early this year and the outrage against racial injustice that is gripping our nation, the effort to change the narrative around poverty and opportunity is now more important than ever. With tens of millions of people newly unemployed, many of them people of color, and many facing racism and othering each day, there is an even greater need to break down the dominant perceptions about poverty and to replace them with more accurate ones.


The purpose of the Grand Challenge, launched in September 2019, is to establish ways to offer alternatives to confusing, conflicting, and just plain inaccurate accounts about what poverty is, why it happens, to whom it happens, and how to address it. Key partners on the project have included the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, James Irvine Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Omidyar Network, Raikes Foundation, Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and the Schultz Family Foundation. 


“Equitable access to opportunity will not be possible until we address misconceptions, racial bias, racism, and stereotypes and move to action guided by shared values, history, systemic solutions, racial equity and human dignity,” said Ryan Rippel, Director of the Economic Mobility and Opportunity program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We don’t think that this work is by itself going to solve either racism or poverty in America. Far from it. But we will not change complex systems if decision makers are not following the voice and insight of those facing marginalization and victimization as a result of our economy and our institutions. One way to accomplish this is by ensuring that the actual stories of those who experience poverty are front and center with the goal of compelling new levels of action.”  


The Grand Challenge is part of a multi-funder, multiyear plan to examine economic mobility and opportunity in this country, to create tools to help everyone better understand the systemic factors that lead to the presence of greater economic mobility in their own neighborhoods, and to craft and test strategies for changing the outlook for people experiencing poverty.


Research shows that our country’s history of structural racism spanning generations denies economic opportunity to entire communities and subsequently robs them of their health,” said Jennifer Ng’andu, Managing Director, Program at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “In particular, Black and Latino Americans often live in conditions that move them further from opportunity and into the position where they are forced to make impossible choices about basic needs like food and shelter. This has become most apparent as the COVID-19 epidemic plays out, where families are negotiating between their family’s well-being and jobs with inadequate protections and pay.  To finally create conditions where everyone can thrive, we need to come to grips with this longstanding disinvestment in communities — and move towards the solutions that support the caregivers who are striving every day to take care of their families. What’s happening today in America is a wakeup call for all of us and shows us we need to hear people’s stories, understand their challenges, and let them show us the way to confront head-on the systems and policies that hold them down.”   

The grantees will gather over the next 18 months as a cohort to collaborate and learn from one another; receive access to research, coaching and other technical support; and incubate their individual projects, with an eye toward production and distribution of prototypes by the fall of 2021. The incubation effort will be led by Purpose, a social impact agency and public benefit corporation that uses public mobilization and storytelling to build and support movements to advance the fight for an open, just, and habitable world. 


Grantees were selected from 1,225 submissions made last fall and represent a broad cross-section of geographies, cultures, media and scope of ideas. Each of those submissions was reviewed to determine whether they met the published eligibility criteria. The remaining applications were then reviewed and rated by a panel of more than 30 external experts with experience in film and media, social movements and non-profits, narrative and culture change, philanthropy, economics and social science. Their recommendations were then presented to the partners for final grantee selections.


The following is a list of the grantee organizations, their projects, and location. More information about the Voices for Economic Opportunity Grand Challenge can be found at the Grand Challenges web site.


Strengthen ND Minot, ND

Through the Threads of Homesteading 


Strengthen ND in the U.S. will encourage North Dakotans experiencing poverty to take up the rich local tradition of homesteading by using stories to connect the diverse populations of new residents and longtime rural residents. Homesteading was the original mode of economic mobility for European migrants in the 19th and 20th centuries. The recent energy boom brought in more families from around the world, including from refugee camps, creating a more diverse population not fully sufficient in terms of opportunities for economic growth. This community now suffers from misconceptions and stereotypes, making it even harder for them to improve their economic status. In an effort to change that, new residents will be invited to incorporate their stories of seeking opportunity with those of the homesteading families connected to longtime residents in order to spark a statewide conversation between residents and stakeholders to promote acceptance. 

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