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Washtenaw United: UWWC's Justice Fund expands reach in quest for greater community equity

Bridget Herrmann
United Way of Washtenaw County
Bridget Herrmann

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'


As the Vice President for Impact & Advocacy for United Way of Washtenaw County, Bridget is responsible for establishing, leading, and executing United Way’s community impact agenda of grant making, public policy advocacy, financial stability programs, and community partnerships.  She works to find the full expression of United Way's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in its work. Her employment with United Way has taken her from Florida to Washington and now, Michigan. Originally from Miami, FL, she now calls herself a Michigander after surviving seven winters.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to another edition of Washtenaw United. It is our weekly exploration of the work being done in our community in the quest for equity and equality. I'm David Fair, and I'm not telling you anything new in stating that, in order to achieve those ambitions, a great deal of financial investment and sweat equity is required. Well, efforts do continue on a number of fronts. That includes the United Way of Washtenaw County's Justice Fund program. The organization says the fund is aimed at disrupting systems, policies, and practices that perpetuate poverty, racism, and trauma. Our guest today is the organization's Bridget Herrmann. Bridget is Vice President of Community Impact and Advocacy. And thanks for coming back to WEMU, Bridget.

Bridget Herrmann: David, it's always a pleasure speaking to you. Thanks for having me.

David Fair: Poverty, racism, and trauma, whether we like it or not, has always been a part of the community makeup and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Give me the origin story of the Justice Fund.

Bridget Herrmann: Sure. So, David, for as long as United Way's been in our community, which is over 100 years, we've been connecting people, resources, and organizations together to creating a thriving community for everyone. And we've predominantly done that by investing in the wonderful and diverse programs that are being delivered by local nonprofits. And what we know is that programs help people beat the odds, but they don't change the odds for people. And so, what we wanted to do was, for the first time, invest in efforts that are changing the systems, the policies, and the practices that are keeping these problems, these entrenched forces--poverty, racism and trauma--in place, so that we can change the odds for Washtenaw County people.

David Fair: Is it fair to say there are people going through these things in every part of Washtenaw County, but the majority of the adverse impact lay in eastern Washtenaw County?

Bridget Herrmann: You know, David, I think we can look at the data that's being produced by the Office of Community and Economic Development that shows that there in our community, which is not necessarily the case in other communities across the country, that there is a link between, you know, where poverty is concentrated and the social identities that you carry and your race. But we know that trauma is something that spans across your socioeconomic status. It spans across every zip code in our community. And that really, although it can occur at any age, it has particularly debilitating long-term effects on children's developing brains, and that it can be a one-time event or a long-time experience. And so, we can see these are really cross-cutting issues when you get down to it.

David Fair: So, what, if any, role does the county's geography play in how the United Way goes about making its investment determinations?

Bridget Herrmann: You know, David, we look at where the greatest opportunities lie. And so, we can stop things like the Washtenaw County Opportunity Index. We look at where the data says that there's the opportunity for solutions to be presented. And so, while United Way invests in all domains of the county, we take into consideration things like the Opportunity Index and census data to prioritize where our finite resources can have the greatest impact.

David Fair: So, how much money this year overall is being invested in the Justice Fund and throughout the community?

Bridget Herrmann: Yeah. So, this year, with the Justice Fund specifically, we're investing $380,000. These are one-time grants to ten organizations to pilot new efforts that are focused on community change work that will address poverty, racism, and trauma. Now, as a complement to that, we're really excited to be investing $1,000,000 in 41 organizations across Washtenaw County, delivering multiyear, general operating support grants. So, we are committed to funding these organizations for the next three years, and we are focused on general operating support because it's the most flexible funding. And we want to make sure that as folks and our nonprofit organizations continue to navigate the ongoing effects of the pandemic, our dollars allow them to meet their missions in a way that doesn't encumber them. We're also excited that, through that fund, you'll see reflected both, you know, longstanding organizations and some emerging efforts taking diversity of organization size into account.

David Fair: Washtenaw United continues on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with the United Way of Washtenaw County's Vice President of Community Impact and Advocacy, Bridget Herrmann. And I want to go a little further down that line, Bridget. The systems, policies, and practices that often repress opportunity, statistically, have a far greater and more adverse impact on Black, indigenous, and people of color, or the BIPOC community. So, more specifically, how are you using these dollars to address the disparity?

Bridget Herrmann: Thanks for asking that question. You know, United Way of Washtenaw County has been on a journey over the last several years with an equity vision and statement that's on our website, and we are committed to learning and action around diversity, equity, and inclusion and making sure that that commitment finds its full expression in our culture and the way in which we do our work. And so, for that reason, we had to apply an equity lens to our grantmaking processes. And what we know is that, nationally, a leadership gap persists among nonprofits and other human service organizations when it comes to who is leading this work. And so, we wanted to attend and focus on and lift up and prioritize organizations and efforts being led by Black, indigenous, and people of color, recognizing that these groups have been and continue to be excluded from mainstream philanthropic resources. And we also know that, in many cases, these BIPOC-led groups are most proximate to the people and communities experiencing the inequities resulting from systemic poverty, racism, and trauma. And so, for that reason, David, we committed to investing at least half of our funding into BIPOC-led efforts, and we exceeded that in both these grant programs that we delivered.

David Fair: So, as you apply the lens to these community issues and start to make some determinations, what was the criteria used in deciding who warranted grant money to have the greatest community impact?

Bridget Herrmann: That's a really big question. And so, what we like to share with folks is that, you know, our decisions are supported by United Way, but they're really made by a group of community volunteers who comprise residents of Washtenaw County. And for the first time, we also included employees--so, people who work in the nonprofit sector--and constituents--folks who have received services from our local human services sector. And so, what we do is we take folks through a process. Everybody receives implicit bias training. We walk them through how to review the grants, staff facilitate the process. And our volunteer reviewers, they score each proposal individually, which is very important. That score is an important starting-off point. But then, we look at things. We look at the applications comparatively and for United Way of Washtenaw County. This time, we looked at the extent to which organizations themselves were on a learning journey and expressing a commitment to learning and action around diversity, equity, and inclusion as an example. And then, we also looked at where their services were located, the populations that they were working with, and their organizational size. David, it's important that United Way of Washtenaw County, our funding is being accessible to a wide array of organizational sizes, right? That's an issue of equity that we're not accidentally preferencing larger organizations over smaller organizations, or vice versa--smaller organizations over larger organizations. And so, our volunteers had a very arduous task. We had over $4 million in requests to our Community Impact Fund with $1,000,000 available. And so, you know, the score is always an important starting-off point. But I like to tell folks that there's a lot of context and nuance and these additional lenses that we use to arrive at funding award determination.

David Fair: Once again, this is Washtenaw United on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with Bridget Hermann, who is Vice President of Community Impact and Advocacy with the United Way of Washtenaw County. Even with new organizations earning grant money and the number of groups increasing, the UWWC commitment has been steady at about $1,000,000 a year for a while now. Money just doesn't go as far as it used to--perhaps not even as far as it did three months ago. Are you working to expand the pool of money available in the Community Impact and Justice Fund?

Bridget Herrmann: David, that is our charge every day. You know, we've been in this community 100 years, and I work very closely with our resource development team. You know, United Way raises dollars annually in our community, and we invest them back out into local nonprofit organizations. And we like to say that it's our local nonprofit partners sharing that United Way of investing in them that helps our community members see the value of United Way in our community because we're funding such a wide and diverse array of organizations. And so, yes, we are making every effort, even in this economy, to raise additional resources, understanding that, as everybody knows, the nature of work has changed. And so, for the majority of United Way's history, we've relied on campaigns in workplaces through partnerships with local businesses to come in and talk to employees about the mission of the United Way and the work that we fund. But with many employers moving to remote workplaces, that takes on a very different tack. And so, we, like everybody else, are trying to figure out how do we bring the information and the impact that we deliver to the community, to folks who may not be aware, who might be interested in investing in our efforts.

David Fair: Overwhelmed or optimistic or both?

Bridget Herrmann: Oh, I'd say it's a 50/50 split given the day. However, from where I sit in the community, David, it is always powerful to read about the work that people are pursuing and the solutions that folks are continuing to deliver. Despite the odds and despite the numbers and despite the obstacles that human service organizations in our community face, they have been on the front lines every day, choosing and continuing to choose to do this work, which is no small feat. So, I think our hats go off to everybody in the human services sector in Washtenaw County for staying in the sector and continuing to help our community members who have been impacted by poverty, racism, and trauma.

David Fair: Bridget, thank you so much for the time today. [

Bridget Herrmann: I appreciate you having me. Thanks for all you do. And thank you to our community members for supporting your local United Way.

David Fair: That is Bridget Herrmann, Vice President of Community Impact and Advocacy at the United Way of Washtenaw County. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


United Way of Washtenaw County

Community Impact Investments Overview

Justice Fund Investments Overview

Frequently Asked Questions


UW grants are more than monetary resources. They are also:

  • Ongoing thought partnership and technical assistance with the United Way team working in resource development, marketing and communications, finance, community impact, leadership.
  • Connection to like-minded donors and community members.
  • Use of UWWC’s communications and social media platforms to amplify partner efforts to increase impact (e.g. events, advocacy opportunities).
  • Deeper relationships characterized by periodic conversations with the UW team to discover how we might further support your work (e.g. virtual coffees).

Key Principles Informing the Fund:

  • UWWC is going to invest money and share our social capital with partners.
  • UWWC will not exclusively invest in 501(c)(3)s.  UWWC will directly invest in people and self-organized groups, via a fiscal agent.
  • In service of equity, we will be providing flexible, general operating support grants, rather than program-restricted funding.
  • Applicants, not UWWC, will determine how they will understand the impact of their efforts over time.

Key Characteristics of Partners:

  • Your work is based and takes place in Washtenaw County.
  • Community will vouch for your work, such as through a testimonial.
  • You can demonstrate that you are currently pursuing this work and that you are a trusted actor in community.
  • You include the leadership of those directly impacted in the design of your solutions.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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