Amplifying Young Women’s Voices and Participatory Philanthropy

It’s a fact: If young people aren’t civically engaged by age 18, they’re less likely to be involved in their communities when they’re older. 

That’s research cited by Nicole Young-Martin, community investments manager at the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts in Springfield. She’s also the staff liaison for the Fund’s Young Women’s Initiative (YWI), one of nine such leadership development programs in the United States.  

Each year, up to 20 young women ages 16-24 are selected to participate in YWI. They hail from diverse Springfield neighborhoods and typically apply for a coveted YWI slot because they show an interest in community activism.  

Photos courtesy of Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts.: Graduation Day for the 2021 Young Women’s Initiative (YWI) class.

They gather several times a month to investigate barriers, explore solutions, and make recommendations for change in their communities. Each year, a different nonprofit partner guides the young women through the 12-session program, providing mentoring, career nights, discussions, and guest speakers. For 2022, Arise for Social Justice took the lead. 

It doesn’t take long for YWI participants to discover that philanthropy plays a hefty role in creating change.  

That’s why YWI turns a group of its participants and alumnae into grant makers each year. They’re charged with awarding grants totaling up to $15,000 to groups they deem effective in tackling community issues.  

Young-Martin said, “What I love about participatory grantmaking is that it yields the power and decision making to those who are closest to the issues in the community. And what’s unique about YWI is that the young women who participate can help those right in their backyards. Participatory grantmaking allows people to say, ‘We understand the issues and what it takes to address them. Let us tell you where the funding should go rather than the donor making that decision.’” 

In 2021, mindful of funding priority areas including safety and anti-violence, economic security, and leadership and visibility, the young women on the grantmaking committee ultimately awarded grants to five Springfield-based organizations. 

Brianna D’Haiti served on the committee and enjoyed learning about Springfield’s caring residents and researching solutions for meeting their challenges. 

She reflected, “I’ve always been invested in mission-driven work. Through YWI, I learned more about philanthropy and how this type of funding can change communities. I want to do more research on philanthropy and the importance of anchor institutions in cities.” 

As a senior at Springfield College with a double major in criminal justice and computer science, D’Haiti’s fervor for civic engagement is already aflame. She’s active in the Black Student Union, the Art for Activism Club, and the Cultural Connections Leadership program. As if her schedule isn’t full enough, D’Haiti is also co-president of the Student Alumni Association. She aspires to be a lawyer or a judge, but before graduate school she intends to volunteer in the community for a year. 

The Community Foundation continues to lend its support to YWI, most recently through  a flexible funding grant to the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts. 

As one young woman told Young-Martin, “I didn’t realize how much donors’ dollars could really make a difference.” 

Photos courtesy of Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts: 2020 YWI class