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Tyler Cowen’s “The Complacent Class,” 25 Years After the Rodney King Uprising and Grant Writing

Tyler Cowen’s exceptional The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream is another must-read for grant writers, like Sam Quinones’s Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. Jake and I like Cowen not only because he’s a terrific writer, but also because he often points out when “conventional wisdom” isn’t supported by data or logic.

While this is not a full book review (see Jake’s review here), I want to focus on one of Cowen’s key findings: America is by some metrics actually more segregated today than it was when I was a budding community organizer and grant writer in 1972. In describing what “segregated” means, Cowen not only cites compelling studies for racial segregation in housing, but also for education, economic, and political metrics. Anyone who lived through the recent election and has seen the startling red/blue county election map should realize that some obvious political divides exist. Still, the increasing racial and educational segregation of America most trouble me.

If I could travel backwards in time to interview my 20-year-old, idealistic self in 1972, I know that my 1972 self would believe two things about America in 2017: we’d be using flying cars powered by dilithium crystals or something exotic, and racial segregation in housing and education would be a distant memory. I was wrong on both counts. While electric cars are slowly gaining ground and articles about the coming autonomous car revolution are rampant, my 21-year-old self would have no trouble either driving or understanding most 2017 cars, which still have gasoline engines (primarily), a steering wheel, gas pedal, brake pedal, and so on.

As Cowen points out, and as we grant writers daily see in Census data, racial segregation is worse today, by some metrics, than it was in 1972, both in terms of housing and education. As Cowen says, “If we look at school systems, racial segregation is also getting worse in some ways.” Despite the perfectly rational explanations Cowen provides, I still find this almost incomprehensible. After five decades of the “War on Poverty,” endless speechifying from politicians, religious leaders, and virtue signalers on the left and right, and the racial divide is not only still here, but seems to be increasing.

Data that supports this doesn’t just come from The Complacent Class. The New York Times just published “Family by Family, How School Segregation Still Happens.” Although Jim Crow laws are long gone, the vast majority of American public school students attend highly segregated schools. For example, 73% of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) students are Latino, even though only 47% of LA residents are Latino (of any race; note this is Census lingo). Only 8.8% of LAUSD students are white, while 49.8% of LA City residents are white. It’s obvious that LA has re-segregated from both residential and school attendance perspectives. The vast majority of white LA residents, regardless of income, have simply abandoned LAUSD (or, depending on one’s point of view, LAUSD has abandoned them). Thus, no matter what ethnicity a LAUSD student is, they likely attend a very segregated school, and, unless they’re Latino, that student is going to be on the extreme narrow end of the segregation stick.

Re-segregation in America presents an interesting problem for grant writers, as we frequently must gently massage the data to fit within the prevailing notions of clients, and grant reviewers. For example, when writing a proposal for Watts or South Central LA, we still present the mythology that this area is largely African American—though it isn’t and hasn’t been for at least two decades. Even the LA Times revealed in 2015 that Watts is over 70% Latino.

We’ve also reached the 25th anniversary of the Civil Disturbances* following the acquittal of the cops involved in the Rodney King beating. I watched a Showtime documentary about this big brother to the 1965 Watts Rebellion, “Burn Motherfucker, Burn”.

In 1992, I was living in the Bay Area, but on April 29th I happened to be in Hollywood visiting a hospitalized relative. We were watching on TV in his room. When the not-guilty decision was announced, the station switched to live feeds of gathering angry crowds at the LAPD’s Parker Center Downtown, which is pretty close to the hospital. I quickly decided to “get out of Dodge” (or Hollywood in this case), as I knew what was going to happen.

I was staying in the San Fernando Valley, which was largely untouched, but as I drove to LAX the next afternoon, I could see the smoke billowing over much of the basin. To quote a prophetic James Baldwin story, it’ll be “The Fire Next Time.”

Around April 29, 1992, I first thought of leaving my public sector career as a Community Development Director to start a consulting business, as I watched LA burn. This idea eventually became Seliger + Associates in 1993. I reasoned correctly that the federal response to the unrest would be massive grant programs aimed at South Central. Since I had worked for the Cities of Lynwood and Inglewood for years, I knew many public agency managers and nonprofit executive directors in LA. Consequently, our first clients were mostly from LA, with many being in South Central. In this way, Seliger + Associates is linked to the Rodney King decision.

While the Showtime documentary is reasonably well made and should be viewed by those too young to remember 1992, I was struck by how the film maker perpetuated the same mythology about South Central and similar areas we still use in proposals to describe target areas. In reality, the disturbances extended way beyond South Central to Hollywood, Mid-Wilshire and Koreatown, none of which were even close to being majority African American. Many of the looters and arsonists were Latino. Even the area around the infamous live TV broadcast beating of the unfortunate Reginald Denny at Normandy and Florence was probably not majority African American in 1992. But this doesn’t fit the narrative of the Civil Disturbance in the documentary, just like Census data doesn’t always fit the narrative of our proposals. As we’ve written about before, grant writers, like documentarians, are at our most basic level story tellers. As Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard is told by a newspaper editor at the end of John Ford’s classic western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

* Note that I use “Civil Disturbance” and “Rebellion,” both capitalized, not the more descriptive term, “riots.” Avoid words like “riot” or similarly loaded terms in your grant proposals. Remember who’s going to read the proposal and use language that fits their worldview.

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When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually)

Faithful readers know that I’m very fond of what used to be called “B movies,” so it should be no surprise that I also love movie trailers. The otherwise forgettable 1998 remake of Godzilla featured one of the best theatrical trailers I’ve seen: old guys are fishing off an East River pier in Manhattan. One hooks something big, his pole bends, the camera moves to the water where a huge wake is forming, and Godzilla’s head emerges. Fade to black with gigantic type across the screen: “SIZE DOES MATTER.” The audience went wild.

Too bad the actual movie was awful.

The question of size in grant writing was posed by a reader in a comment on “Health Care Reform Means Green Grass & High Tides for Grant Writers.” Michael Leza wrote:

I’ve seen you say before that a good way to get into grant writing is to volunteer to write grants for small local non-profits. Do these kind of non profits have a realistic chance of getting funded or is this more of an exercise in going through the motions and learning the process? Would some of these big health care reform/stimulus bills be a more likely source of grants for these kinds of organizations, or would it be easier to try and apply for a more established grant (be it federal or otherwise)?

Michael is wondering if it is worth volunteering to write proposals for a small nonprofit in hopes of becoming a paid grant writer. Since only small nonprofits are likely to take him up on his offer, he probably doesn’t have any choice. But his question suggests the larger issue of whether the size of the applicant organization, and by extension the age and experience of the applicant, matters in applying for grants. Like most questions regarding grant writing, quantum effects cloud the answer, but in most cases size doesn’t matter. In some cases it helps if the applicant for a grant program is new and/or has no track record, as long as the applicant meets basic eligibility criteria. How is this possible?

Let’s take a real world example of a tiny faith-based nonprofit organization in Watts that came to us about 10 years ago for help in writing a LA County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) proposal to provide services for students at Jordan High School, which more or less is the definition of a high-risk high school. What made this interesting is that DCSF was re-bidding a contract it had had for years with an extremely well-known and very large nonprofit in Watts that has been scooping up city, county, federal and foundation grants since the Watts Rebellion in 1965 (those readers who know South Central will know which agency I’m writing about).

Our prospective client, a minister, asked if I thought he could compete for this grant against the local heavyweight champ of nonprofits. I told him that he was man of faith, and if he had faith in his organization, so did we, and we could write a competitive application that would put him in the ring, a nonprofit Rocky against a nonprofit Apollo Creed. Like Rocky, our client won the grant.

While we wrote a great proposal, it was likely funded because the incumbent large organization probably thought they had the grant in the bag and threw together a lame proposal. DCFS may al so have been tired of funding the same organization. Grantees that get repeated grants often end up becoming lazy: they don’t file reports on time and/or start fighting with the funding source. In other words, they act like a typical teenager. This opens up opportunities for new and frisky applicants to successfully compete for grants. The punch line is that once this small nonprofit got their DCFS grant, they used our grant writing skills to develop into a large, multi-program agency with lots of grant funds.

The same principle that size doesn’t usually matter in applying for grants is also true regarding small public agencies. Two examples will demonstrate this. I’ve already mentioned one before in Blue Highways: Reflections of a Grant Writer Retracing His Steps 35 Years Later, which involved us writing a funded $250,000 Department of Education Goals 2000 proposal for a tiny school district with just over 100 students in rural Oklahoma. We were able to make the client competitive against giant applicants like Chicago Public Schools by emphasizing the oddity of their situation: the District wanted to implement bilingual education because of an avalanche of immigrant workers arriving in the community for jobs at an about to open industrial-sized hog farm.

This year, we wrote a funded $1,500,000 HUD Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control (LBPHC) program grant for a small, rural city in California that caters to thousands of seasonal tourists. We usually write LBPHC proposals for much larger cities like Boston, but HUD apparently bought our argument that this city, although small in comparison to most LBPHC grantees, has a big lead problem and could implement a believable abatement program. We amped up the proposal by tying the lead problem to the current foreclosure mess (it never hurts to play up any related media-inspired hysteria you can find in a proposal). It also helped that our client had never before had a direct HUD grant, since all of their previous HUD awards were passed through the California Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Small Cities Program. I think HUD is always looking to fund new applicants for LBPHC and other long-in-the tooth grant programs and was pleasantly startled to get a credible proposal from an unlikely applicant.

As long as your organization meets basic eligibility for a given grant competition and avoids the “silly factor” that Jake wrote about last week in So, How Much Grant Money Should I Ask For? And Who’s the Competition?, get busy and write. As with many things in life, it doesn’t much matter how big the applicant is, as long as the grant writer knows how to use his skills to craft a compelling argument. With luck, the funder will see the application as an opportunity to fund someone new, while using grant funds to meet a real local need.

For an example of this principle in action, check out the Innovative Arts Ideas, which goes so far as to explicitly say, “Great ideas can start anywhere, so the challenge is open to everyone – established arts institutions, independent artists of all types, businesses and service organizations.” So they’re searching for very small organizations or individuals, as well as large, established organizations.