Adam Barr is an excellent example of someone who has done great work while pushing his own limits. Adam is president and co-founder of Grassroots Education Project, one of two organizations he has established since 2007. The Grassroots Education Project empowers communities to serve their local schools by putting residents to work on the most pressing school needs. The organization logged more than 16,500 volunteer hours in its first three years at Tubman Elementary. Adam’s other organization, DC for Obama, was a grassroots political organizing group that grew to 21,000 members during the 2008 election. Both organizations have been successful, but both have required substantial community investment.
Adam grew up in Los Angeles but moved to D.C. soon after college. He began working at the Institute for Responsible Citizenship and then moved to several campaigns, Deloitte Consulting, GreatSchools and, most recently, Democracy Builders. I interviewed Adam about community organizing, Grassroots Education Project and its struggles, and his dad. Check out more below.
We started the Grassroots Education Project without really knowing how effective it would be. It turned out to be very effective.
In Columbia Heights, where we piloted, there were tons of people who wanted to help their local school. For a couple years, we had more people who wanted to help than students. Other people, including some at District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), were always saying that they wanted to replicate our model. We would advise them, but it never took off. So we started thinking that maybe we were the ones that needed to replicate the model. We started thinking that if this is going to go beyond the one school we’re at, we’re going to have to do it ourselves. That’s what I set out to do. We were working on getting Grassroots Education Project to the point where we could have a full-time executive director.
But that was the struggle. What we found is that there are not many funders who are interested in funding the type of organizing that Grassroots Education Project does. When you’re funding organizing work, ultimately you’re investing in people who go out and organize communities. The value of your investment is realized in the hours that volunteers put forward. In the education space, there just aren’t a lot of funders that are looking to make that kind of investment. They’re too concerned about staff salaries as a share of the overall budget.
Our theory is that if we have more people who are invested in schools, we could change the conversation about what it’s going to take to have better outcomes for students. If we have people who recognize what teachers and school leaders are doing on a regular basis, the challenges that they’re facing, and how difficult that work is, we can have a completely different conversation about the commitment it’s going to take to help student achievement.
It’s not as direct as most funders would like, and it’s not a short-term fix. That’s a systemic investment, and to be able to really see the benefits of that you have to be in it for the long haul. Unfortunately ,not enough funders take that view when it comes to funding organizations.
What about the communities Grassroots Education Project partners with? How have they reacted to your work? Have you gotten any pushback from the community at-large or the school community because you’re not a parent or because you don’t have teaching experience?
I think people are naturally skeptical of people who don’t have kids of their own who are working in education and who are trying to organize families. But the organizing we’ve done has always been from the perspective of reaching out on behalf of the school. For every person who might have an issue with us, there are four other people who have the exact opposite reaction. They say, “You don’t even have kids of your own, but you’re out here trying to make sure my kid has the best possible chance of success in life.”
If anything, I think there’s an institutional bias toward seeing families as the only stakeholders. That’s a flaw in the system that DCPS sees but not one that they’ve done enough to fix. You’re ignored for the 10 years you’ve lived in the neighborhood, but then your voice is worth hearing as soon as you’ve had a baby? That sends the wrong message.
What advice do you have for people looking to start an organization in D.C.?
My track has always been less about starting organizations and more about doing good work—or doing work that I hope is good. It’s less about the title or the organization name and more about what you’re doing.
Too often we see people create organizations because they want to be a creator or a founder. We wouldn’t have created the Grassroots Education Project if there weren’t a void. My advice is that to make sure that you aren’t being duplicative and to focus on the work that you’re doing rather than the status.
That sounds elementary, but I see it far too often—whether it’s running for office or running an organization. It doesn’t have as much value as it should.
And then be patient! Because it takes time. It always takes more time than you think it’s going to take.
What’s the worst thing about running an organization in D.C.?
I’m sure this goes for businesses and isn’t unique to D.C., but there’s no one-stop guide, no toolkit for starting and running a nonprofit—and there should be.
If you don't have a ton of time, or you’re not a good researcher, or you’re not a lawyer, it can be hard to navigate all the things you have to do to get off the ground. It’s not so much that there are burdensome regulations; it’s just that it can be difficult to find all the things that you need to be doing at any given time.
This sounds like a need. Are you planning on starting a third organization?
Last question. Is there anyone or anything in particular that you would attribute to who you are today?
Probably my dad. My parents separated when I was 10. With the exception of a year, I lived with my dad, so I was raised in a single-parent household with a father, which isn’t really the norm. We clashed a lot. He's probably had the biggest impact on my personality.
He never went to college, but he's been a lifelong learner. He’s an independent paralegal in Inglewood. He dedicated his life to running a business that primarily helps low-income people access legal services. He doesn't care so much about the money; he does what he does because he thinks it’s important. He could have made a lot more money working at a law firm, but then his customers wouldn’t be able to afford his services. In a lot of ways, I think my passion for making sure that children—particularly low-income children—have access to a good education comes from that value set I got from him.
Ashley Mitchel is an analyst with Bellwether Education Partners, and her Q&As with local education leaders are a regular Recess feature. Reach her via email or Twitter.