Quietly, Kellogg Foundation Aims To Transform Mich. Communities

By Jonathan Weisman — December 11, 1991 13 min read

ISHPEMING, MICH.--After five years on the job, Ed Sansom had grown tired of new students crying over class changes, teachers complaining about working with as many as 160 children a week, and the national school-improvement movement quietly passing this remote mining town in the Upper Peninsula by.

So the principal of C.L. Phelps Middle School fired off a grant proposal to a foundation in the Lower Peninsula that three years earlier had pledged to support the region for the next 20 years. It was a pledge that residents accustomed to being forgotten by their more cosmopolitan cousins downstate had greeted incredulously. What he received from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation last year made a believer of Mr. Sansom: $167,000 to revamp his school’s scheduling, regroup and overhaul its pedagogy, and expose his entire staff to the wide world beyond his isolated peninsula.

“I didn’t realize the magnitude of Kellogg’s commitment and what an amazing opportunity they had given myself and my staff to get immersed in a whole movement overnight,” Mr. Sansom said. “It is the most incredible contribution to education I have ever seen.”

The Kellogg Youth Initiative Program that has earned Mr. Sansom’s admiration and gratitude exemplifies a growing trend in philanthropic programming, according to Mary K. Leonard, the director of precollegiate education programs for the Council on Foundations. Grant-makers who once waited patiently for attractive proposals to cross their desks increasingly are setting their own program agendas and geographic targets, and then going out to cultivate projects.

Now, slowly, quietly, and deliberately, the Kellogg Foundation is making its presence known here in the Upper Peninsula’s Marquette and Alger counties as well as in its two other focus areas--the community around Detroit’s Northern High School and the Calhoun County Intermediate School District, in which the foundation’s home of Battle Creek is located.

Four years ago, when the foundation announced that it would target these diverse communities for comprehensive projects aimed at improving every aspect of children’s lives, officials spoke of a 10-year commitment. That soon stretched to 15 years, then 20.

Today, the foundation relies on a more flexible, but equally impressive, time limit: a generation.

The Quiet Benefactor

While part of a larger trend in philanthropy, the Kellogg effort is an extraordinary one, observers agree.

“A lot of people look to Kellogg for leadership,” Ms. Leonard said. “This [project] will be closely watched.”

Like a community foundation, Kellogg has always been true to its home state, city, and county, and has always favored funding grassroots projects directly, rather than through organizations and community agencies.

But unlike such foundations, Kellogg’s resources are enormous.

While foundations like Rockefeller, Ford, and the Carnegie Corporation have become major power brokers, Kellogg has deliberately remained low key, quietly blossoming into the fourth-largest grantmaker in the United States, according to the most recent reports of the Foundation Center in New York.

For Kellogg’s targeted regions, that modesty has had both advantages and disadvantages.

Kellogg has avoided the limelight to ensure that the youth programming it funds is not imposed from above but instead emerges from the community, thus giving local people a sense of ownership and empowerment. But its low-key approach has also kept some community members from fully realizing the breadth of the Kellogg initiative.

In the past four years, the foundation has awarded a total of $20.9 million to 74 projects. But with the effort now swinging into high gear, new projects are being funded weekly, and an exact total is difficult to ascertain.

The efforts range from parent volunteer programs to Mr. Sansom’s effort, which seeks to become a middle-school reform model using consultants from across the nation.

“The understanding [of Kellogg’s commitment] isn’t as pervasive at this point as I would have liked,” admitted Tyrone Baines, the initiative’s program director, who once flirted with the idea of erecting billboards in the target areas to announce the foundation’s arrival.

Nevertheless, he added, the nascent awareness in the target communities suggests that the project may avoid the pitfalls that have befallen similar efforts, such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s five year, $50-million “New Futures” project. Some participants say that, after three years, that effort has failed to instill a sense of ownership in its target cities. (See Education Week, Sept. 25, 1991 .)

“Splash will go and come,” Mr. Baines said, “but the talk around the living room that we’re generating, that’s long lasting.”

Local-Born Initiatives

And project officials say they are beginning to see the kind of visionary, comprehensive proposals they have hoped for.

In Marquette and Alger counties, it has taken time for people to accept that problems of teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, poverty, and academic performance have taken their tolls on local youths, said Judy Watson Olson, Kellogg’s coordinator in the Upper Peninsula. On the pristine surface of the quiet towns that lightly dot the landscape, all seems well.

“At first, there was this gulf between the ‘felt needs’ of the community and the real needs that we saw in looking at the data,” Ms. Olson said.

But the gulf is slowly closing, she said. Kellogg and the Intermediate School District over the past two months have begun to bring together representatives from the two counties’ hundreds of townships to forge a long-range strategic plan for youth programming, said Betty Swanson, an education consultant working for the district on Kellogg projects.

A proposal has been drafted to form a youth, family, and community-resource office within the school district serving the town of Gwinn. The project would also develop career guidance, mentoring, and “job shadowing” projects to spur on local economic development in a region where an estimated 26 percent of the population who would like to work cannot find jobs.

The third component would develop recreational and enrichment activities to replace the pervasive youth pastime of drinking for lack of anything better to do.

And with Kellogg’s help, a distance-learning project should be up and running by the end of the school year to bring advanced courses in foreign language and calculus to 52 remote schools where teachers of such courses are impossible to come by.

But Kellogg officials are quick to point out smaller projects, whose scope may be more limited, but whose inspiration came directly from the community.

In Alger County’s Grand Marais, for instance, a high-school Spanish class developed a proposal to visit Costa Rica and to establish an exchange program with the Central American nation. The proposal was funded last year for $5,714.

In Marquette, the teenage nightclub, Club M.Q.w., is owned and operated by the youths who frequent it, thanks to Kellogg money.

“People are becoming more aware of the possibilities,” Ms. Swanson said.

A Study in Contrasts

It is hard to imagine two more different places than Marquette and Detroit’s Northern High School community. The stately old Victorian mansions built in Marquette’s Great Lakes shipping and mining heyday have retained their luster, despite the contraction of those industries. The Victorian homes around Northern have largely gone the way of the other bombed-out, decaying buildings of the neighborhood.

The predominantly white faces of the North give way to predominantly black faces in the South. And the closest thing to the Upper Peninsula’s expanses of timber are the urban neighborhood’s ubiquitous, weed-choked vacant lots.

But the community around Northern High School has advantages that its distant northern neighbors can only dream of, Kellogg officials say.

For one, the neighborhood can be traversed in minutes, as opposed to the hours it takes to cross Marquette and Alger counties, making community consensus much easier. And resources and the savvy necessary to access them abound in Detroit.

So far, Detroit’s projects have received more than $15 million from Kellogg. The Upper Peninsula, in contrast, has received $3.8 million.

“In the U.P. Kellogg people are doing well if, after three years, people know their names,” said Dave Farley, the coordinator for the Calhoun County project. “Around Northern, the task is to convince people that they’re not going to go in and leave two years later in frustration.”

In the basement of the high school, Terri Johns, a registered nurse, and Marilyn McCullough, a full-time advocate for pregnant and parenting teenagers, recently argued over whether the well-stocked health clinic they stood in was funded by the Kellogg Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, or the A.T.&T. Foundation. The answer proved to be Robert Wood Johnson. It was Ms. McCullough’s salary that was funded by A.T.&T.

But next door, Kellogg could take credit for a parenting class endowed with one-way glass looking into a fully equipped day-care center. Open to any student--but especially pregnant and parenting ones--the class started earlier this year.

By January, 20 community toddlers will be in the day-care “laboratory,” working with a handful of the high-school students at a time while the rest of the class observes through the one-way mirror.

Ms. Olson, of the Kellogg Upper Peninsula effort, admits that such a class or health clinic might be impossible to establish in her territory, where conservative parents remain reluctant to face the problems of teenage sex and pregnancy.

With some difficulty, Marquette General Hospital was able to establish with Kellogg funding a separate home for pregnant teenagers, many of whom had been kicked out of their homes by irate parents. But a school-based facility would be a different story.

“We never expected to get the kind of fruitful proposals at first in the U.P. that we’d get in, say, Detroit, where people expect resources and have proposals sitting done on the shelf,” Ms. Olson said.

Instead, the problem in Detroit, officials say, is in reaching those grassroots workers who have grown weary of watching grantmakers rush in optimistically only to rush back out quickly in disgust when projects did not show immediate results.

Earlier this month, James W. Ribbron, a special-projects assistant to the Detroit City Council’s Youth Advisory Commission, sat amazed as teenagers from the Upper Peninsula and Battle Creek described how they wrote Kellogg grants for projects they had devised. The group had been called together by Barry Checkoway, a University of Michigan professor who has been given a grant by Kellogg to study how to involve youths in project development.

“I try ice breakers, I am enthusiastic, I do everything possible to get the kids involved,” Mr. Ribbron said, “But when I say, ‘O.K., let’s get some ideas,’ there’s only silence.”

It is precisely that reluctance that Kellogg officials say necessitates a slow, long-range process. Last year, the foundation helped set up the Kellogg Neighborhood Advisory Panel, or KNAP, with community activists, church and business leaders, social-service agents, educators, and youths who meet monthly to identify problems and hash out solutions.

The panel has now broken into subcommittees dealing with education, housing and neighborhood development, health, cultural arts and recreation, jobs and economic development, family preservation, and crime. Each subcommittee will unveil a strategic plan in January, according to Gerald Smith, Kellogg’s Detroit coordinator. Those plans will yield new funding proposals to replace older, less comprehensive projects, such as the Northern Community School Program, which, in 1989, was given more than $700,000 to run a network of extended-day and summer- enrichment projects for all the students in Northern High’s feeder system, said Bernard Tinsley, the program’s coordinator.

“We’re beginning to cross old boundaries, to extend our horizons and look at a bigger picture,” said Ms. McCollough, the advocate for parenting teenagers. “The residents feel serious about what they want [from Kellogg], and they want to work out a plan. That’s going to take time.”

Said Mr. Smith: “It was at the very last meeting that KNAP held [in early November] where people began saying, “My God, look what we’ve created.’... People are just about at the point of really believing.”

Welcomed at ‘Home’

Kellogg does not face recognition problems in Calhoun County, especially in Battle Creek, nor is there fear that the foundation will pack up and go away.

The community college bears Kellogg’s name, as does the sports arena, the school district’s auditorium, and a biological research station owned by Michigan State University. The cereal company, which generated the millions of dollars endowing the foundation, is one of the county’s largest employers.

Consequently, the foundation has been able to generate the kind of grassroots projects that the other two areas are years away from.

In 1985, Lorraine Snyder--then a resident of the Parkway Manor public-housing project and a welfare recipient decided that the children of the project needed some organized activity after school. She took it on herself to organize and run her Stop Trends in Poverty--or STOP It--project.

By 1990, demand had stretched Ms. Snyder too thin. She was using her own scant resources to buy materials, and field trips were limited to the number of children who could fit into her car.

One day, she said, she sat down beside a fellow student at the Kellogg Community College and began talking about STOP It and her dreams of expansion.

That fellow student, as it turned out, was a staff member with the Kellogg Youth Initiative. In February 1991, STOP It received a three-year grant of $385,555 to upgrade educational services, install computers in Parkway Manor’s community center, and hire support staff.

Such fortuitous meetings are far less likely outside of Battle Creek, admits Dave Farley, the Calhoun County coordinator. The problem facing the foundation on its home turf is to assure members that they--not the Kellogg people--are in control.

And because Kellogg is on everyone’s lips, some early proposals came in too quickly, without the necessary collaborative and comprehensive elements, Mr. Baines noted.

For instance, in May, when a dropout-recovery program of the Battle Creek school district asked for the renewal of its 1989 grant, the foundation decided the project’s success would depend on a social-services component that initially had been neglected, Mr. Baines said.

It insisted that a family-outreach component be added along with a beefed-up job-training aspect in collaboration with Junior Achievement.

Now, foundation officials point to Operation GRAD--Or Gathering Resources for Adult Decisions--as a model, and have awarded the program a total of $1.8 million.

The program divides the day of about 100 returned dropouts into computer-driven academic instruction and job training. For job training, students either work in the program’s delicatessen, housing construction and rehabilitation business, landscaping firm, or video-production and communications operation. All profits are split among the students.

A Sense of Commitment

The attention that Mr. Farley was able to give Operation GRAD to fine tune the proposal is unique to the three-district initiative. Kellogg still entertains grant proposals from around the state and from around the world, for that matter.

But in Calhoun, the Upper Peninsula, and Detroit, the foundation goes out of its way to ensure that proposals ultimately make the grade.

Consequently, the acceptance rate of proposals from the target areas is more than 50 percent, Mr. Farley said, far above the rate for other areas.

It is that kind of personal attention that sets Kellogg’s efforts apart from foundations that still rely on the caliber of the initial proposals to make their grants, said Patricia White, a senior program officer at the New York Community Trust, which has also targeted one area, the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn, for special attention.

But it is the foundation’s generational commitment that is most unusual, she said.

“It’s obvious to me that the kinds of changes that we’re all hoping to see cannot possibly happen over a short period of time,” said Ms. White, whose Bushwick project has been set for three years. “I have been very impressed by the sense of commitment [Kellogg has] brought to its communities.”

“Without doubt,” she concluded, “its projects will be rich and full in ways we can’t say our project or other foundation projects will ever be.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 1991 edition of Education Week as Quietly, Kellogg Foundation Aims To Transform Mich. Communities