Oct 21, 2015

The Barra Foundation Talks Open Source

by: Carly Rapaport-Stein

A few weeks ago, Barra Foundation President Kristina (Tina) Wahl sat down with me to discuss what piqued the Foundation’s interest in Open Source. Read on for Tina’s take on innovation, art, and the trending currents happening in and around Philadelphia.

Carly: Tell me a little bit about the Barra Foundation.

Tina: Sure! At the Barra Foundation, our mission is to invest in innovation to inspire change that strengthens communities in the Greater Philadelphia region. Our roots are in the pharmaceutical industry, which informs our approach to intentional innovation. In this industry, you test a new drug, evaluate the results, and disseminate lessons learned.  This notion of trying novel approaches has always been at the core of our work. For Barra, innovation is not a flash in the pan or the next fad, but it’s a way of investing with the hope that the project or initiative will inspire change. Change takes time, and it’s a process.

Part of what we’re also engaged in is around communications, and so this is a great opportunity to chat with you. Our point in communications is really to help elevate the stories of our grantees – it’s not about Barra, but about the organizations that we work with and helping to share the information about the projects and the organizations. In the process of trying a novel approach, there is often learning that happens and we think it is important to share that learning.

Our interest areas are health, human services, arts and culture, and education. We provide roughly 4 million dollars a year in grants, and we have three full-time staff and one part-time staff member. In our strategy, we have the Barra Awards, which offer core support for exemplary organizations that demonstrate leadership, adaptability, and performance – we really think that organizations need some flexible dollars and breathing room in order to take a step back and think about how to stay ahead of the curve and innovate. We have our Beyond the Money – which is a misnomer, as it often does cost money! That portion of our strategy is really about how we can provide value beyond the grant money. And the third part of our Foundation giving is our Catalyst Fund, which is risk capital for novel approaches for organizations trying new things, which is where Open Source falls for us.

Carly: And what got you interested in Open Source as a potential Barra Foundation match?

Tina: When I heard about Open Source last summer, I was intrigued by the idea. We think innovation can happen at the intersection of different program areas, and that was one of the things that was so appealing about Mural Arts. Mural Arts really looks at some of these issues, these challenges to communities, in a holistic way, and from a different angle. There are so many leaders and dreamers in the community, and we just want to enable them to have the space and time to reflect and think and test the novel approaches, that will in turn inspire change.  And in each of our grants, the way the organization inspires change is a little different every time.

Carly: I can really see how that might line up with Open Source and Mural Arts overall.

Tina: Definitely. We talk about adaptability – organizations that are really looking around the curve – and Mural Arts, since its founding, has always come up with creative solutions, and is great at looking at things from a different angle. We find that cross-fertilization fantastic, the idea of looking at education, mass incarceration, criminal justice, and appreciate the way Open Source is trying to break down the stovepipes between those areas. Foundations will typically say, ‘you fit into education, or you fit into health,’ but we really need to challenge ourselves to look at these issues more holistically. We look for, is this the right organization to take on this project? And Mural Arts is the right organization for this particular project, in terms of being able to spark conversations that will inspire further change. I think the combination of international and local artists also really helped with the authenticity of the project for Philadelphia.

Carly: Oh, absolutely! And were there things beyond seeing an assortment of international and local artists that got you interested?

Tina: I think it was the scale of the project. Often there are many artists who want to affect social change with their art, but being able to take this beyond one neighborhood or community, to have a citywide conversation, that was something we hadn’t seen before. When we talk about innovation, we talk about things that are new and different, things that have the potential to be better solutions, and things that have the potential to have a significant impact. There’s a sort of ripple effect that happens beyond the particular organization or project, and Open Source has the potential to get people who maybe aren’t typically engaged in these conversations to talk about these important challenges and opportunities that are facing our city.

We were also interested in the intent: the value placed on the true partnership that this is having in communities. Open Source is not about artists coming in and thinking that they know what’s happening in the community – it seems to me that there was a lot of listening throughout this process, really doing this in partnership with each other, and leveraging the strengths that already exist. That listening and that dialogue also makes this a unique approach.

Carly: I agree completely. So in that dialogue, what do you hope the community gains from this exhibition and from the programming?

Tina: I hope that people who wouldn’t typically be in the conversation are now exposed to these issues. JR’s mural, Migrants, Ibrahim, Mingora-Philadelphia, is a great example. Bringing people out of the shadows, exposing people to issues and ideas that they might not think about. It’s approaching these issues from a different angle and thinking about the challenges in a very comprehensive  way.

I think too that, if it inspires an individual, who then has a conversation with someone else, it creates a domino effect, helping to get people to think about the issues that are affecting our communities. This conversation, hearing about people’s stories, will create that ripple effect, helping people to think a little bit differently and look at these issues more holistically.

Carly: Do you think that holistic approach is a part of something new in Philadelphia?

Tina: It’s a trend we’re seeing more of in the Philadelphia community. We know that there are these problems we’ve deemed “intractable,” and we need to think creatively about how to tackle them in new and different ways. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel: if there are programs that work, that’s terrific, they should keep on working and continue to improve themselves. But if there are areas where there’s an emerging issue where it’s clear that current programs are not working as well as they could, then let’s get creative and think about new solutions.

Carly: It’s so neat to hear a foundation doing this kind of work. Looking at the field, this seems like an unusual and interesting approach.

Tina: It’s great that our roots have enabled us to pursue this kind of giving, and we’re still learning too. We’re a year and a half into our revised strategy at the Barra Foundation, and we see it as an evolution, not a revolution. Innovation has been at the heart and soul since our founding, but we’ve evolved our grant programs to make them more useful to nonprofits, learning from the experiences that the Foundation staff has had working in the nonprofit sector ourselves and listening to current needs.

And we really try to listen. We think that if people are going to try something new, you really have to be honest about what’s working and what’s not working – and that’s a hard thing to do with foundations! So we try to be really open and accessible, as much as we can.

Carly: That’s really great. So here’s my final question for you, Tina. Do you think projects like Open Source are particularly timely or important for a city like Philadelphia?

Tina: Most definitely. This is the first time we’d seen this sort of collaborative approach to a citywide conversation, and we thought it was unique. One of the other questions we rely on is (and this was inspired by an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review) not just will this work, but if it works, will this matter? We’ve always had these immense challenges in Philadelphia, but in some ways now, they seem even more challenging now than they did in the past. Looking at Philadelphia, seeing its many challenges, and knowing that it’s one of the poorest of the 10 largest cities in the USA, it’s time for us to think differently. Open Source is a great way to do that.

Carly: Thanks so much, Tina, for your time!






For more information about the Barra Foundation, please visit their website. For more information about Open Source, please click here.

Last updated: Nov 9, 2016

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