Nona Evans, Whole Cities Foundation Executive Director

Whole Cities Foundation’s WHOLE approach to working with a community is different than that of 99% of nonprofits working in public health.  One of our big hairy audacious goals is to change that.


There are many things that make Whole Cities Foundation unique and they all start with our Community First Principles.  This set of common-sense ideals was born out of Whole Foods Market’s work that went into opening the store in Midtown Detroit. The Whole Cities mission centers around expanding healthy food access and nutrition education, and we think that changing philanthropy while we’re at it, makes great sense.


With the opening of the Detroit store, a new model for Whole Foods Market’s work was born. The approach is called Community First, which places a community’s self-determined goals at the center of any decision and respects local residents as leaders and co-creators. Whole Foods has a different heart than most corporations and it was imperative that it be clear and authentic to the community.  That process took nearly two years. During that time, community members consulted on everything from the layout of the store to the hiring practices to the murals on the storefront. By deeply engaging community members throughout the process, Whole Foods Market ensured the Detroit store represented the priorities of their shoppers and neighbors.


The Community First process in Detroit led to the establishment of the Whole Cities Foundation, a nonprofit committed to expanding access to fresh food and healthy eating education by supporting grassroots partnerships at the local level. The core of our community approach is squarely based on our Community First Principles.


One of my favorites of the Community First Principles is Seek to Understand Before Being Understood. As Dianna Purcell, Whole Cities’ fearless community program leader said recently, our Community First Principles are good guidelines for any relationship.  It just so happens that she applies them every day in relationships with locally-led organizations who understand best what homegrown solutions will work for their family and community members.


I’ve learned the deep meaning of the phrase community self-determined. It means the people experiencing a situation understand it the best and understand better than any outsider what the most effective solutions to their challenges are.  Hence our approach to anything we do starts with active, deep listening.


Community members know best.


In Englewood, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, Whole Cities Foundation has offered grants to organizations for the past three years.  What sets our work apart is that we focus on community-led solutions that provide easy, affordable access to fresh, healthy food.


A group of community leaders serve as our advisory board, reviewing grant applications submitted for project funding. That group decided to invite community members to vote on which organizations and projects should be funded.


This approach seems shocking to people who have experience working with a grant funder. The fear is that OUTCOMES are out of our hands.  Quite the opposite. Our experience is that when you put the outcome of selecting grant partners in the hands of the community, not only do you find the most effective ways to invest in change, but the community has an ownership stake in success. We’ve found that results are longer lasting and the community is strengthened.


Communities have the best understanding of their challenges and how to solve them.  So, why is it then, that change is so slow? We think the answer is simple: resources and support.


Whole Cities Foundation believes deeply in community self-determination.  That means listening carefully to community members, understanding their needs and supporting their visions.


In public health, the common approach involves the implementation of an intervention (an idea for how to solve a problem) and research to see if the idea was effective.  Too often it is assumed that an idea will work equally well in any setting. That’s just not our experience, especially if the intervention involved outside resources. Once gone, the results diminish. That’s why our work looks so very different in every community.


Newark, NJ, for example, has embraced urban agriculture for the last decade as its predominant solution for healthy food access.  Through our network of relationships, our community program leader, Dianna, heard a need to connect the dozens of organizations in the city.  They were so busy growing food, they didn’t know one another.  You wouldn’t think that throwing a party to create connections would be the kind of investment a nonprofit would make but again, that’s what makes Whole Cities unique. Together with community leaders, Dianna hosted The Dead of Winter Farmers’ Bash at the Hahne’s Building in February 2019 where Newark community leaders and organizations had the opportunity to connect. Newarkers who met at the event went on to join forces- sharing knowledge and resources with each other and bringing more growers into their network. Currently, about a dozen growers are collaborating on a proposal to purchase the leased land their gardens and farms are on. This will secure the sustainability of their operations, ensuring that all Newarkers have access to fresh, healthy food for the long-term. That bash was probably one of the highest returns on investments we’ve experienced!


You might be wondering, who I am to this work.  I have the privilege of being the Executive Director of Whole Cities Foundation but there’s more to the story. Click here to learn more about my journey and passion and how I came to Whole Cities Foundation.


Over the course of the next few months, we’re going to invite stakeholders to share with you what the Community First Principles mean to them. Join us and gain inspiration from the great work!


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