Hillary Do, MBA ’22: Equipping the Right Leaders to Advance Community Change
Stanford Impact Founder Fellow offers training and support at the grassroots level.
Hillary Do | Saul Bromberger
For Hillary Jia Do, a comment made by a high school friend recently brought home the importance of empowering marginalized communities to address problems from the bottom up, which she is doing through her organization BOLT (Build Our Lives Together). “He grew up in North Philadelphia and he told me that, for most of his life, he didn’t know it wasn’t normal to be surrounded by vacant lots filled with trash,” she says. “It was only when he left Philadelphia that he realized this was weird.”
Do, also a Philadelphia native, has seen too many problems like this become normalized. Children unsure whether they will eat that night. Adults working multiple jobs on minimum wage to survive. And young people whose sense of hope is so diminished many believe they will not live beyond the age of 30.
“What needs to be addressed urgently is basic human rights,” says Do. “There is a reality that many Americans are living in extreme poverty and are treated poorly, and it is no coincidence that they are disproportionately Black, Indigenous and people of color.”
Do cites a study of one North Philadelphia neighborhood conducted by Frontline Dads, one of BOLT’s community partners. “One of the top three needs identified was trash cans,” she says. “There was only one trash can serviced by the city’s sanitation services in the entire neighborhood.”
Most national organizations design top-down solutions, says Do, and while helpful, the persistence and extreme seriousness of the problems make clear that these are not comprehensive solutions. Do believes most national organizations fail to tap into the rich vein of local knowledge, experience, and connections of local leaders already working on the ground.
She highlights two examples: Ryan Harris from As I Plant This Seed, who works non-stop to provide his community with essential services and Tahira Fortune, from Voices by Choices, whose son was shot to death and uses her own savings to run a weekly support group for more than 50 mothers who have also lost children to gun violence.
“Despite the obstacles they face and how relatively under-resourced they are, it’s incredible what these grassroots leaders are doing to serve their communities and right these wrongs,” she says. “We need to invest in local leaders because unlike outside stakeholders, they are doing the work and they won’t give up just because these problems are hard.”
That’s where BOLT comes in. It provides individuals and groups with knowledge, skills, funding, and access to networks. It gives young people a head start while creating a pipeline of future leaders, and empowers adults already serving their communities to increase their impact.
Do cites Harris’s story. “It took Ryan 10 years to have a rowhome that he can use as a community space,” she explains. “He has already accomplished so much but imagine how much greater his impact would be today if he’d got the space in half that time.”
For Do one of the biggest problems is a national lack of willingness to invest in local grassroots leaders who are already working to provide critical services, facilitate community dialogue, or advocate for community needs. As a result, they are disproportionately under-resourced compared to government agencies, larger, prominent nonprofits, and foundations set up by business and tech billionaires.
“As a society, we’re interested in investing in national organizations that we believe get results because of their prestige, but they have little organizing power at the local level,” she says. Meanwhile, community organizing is treated as volunteering and so is undervalued.
“This needs to change,” says Do. With first-hand knowledge of the problems, trust among communities, and deep experience in providing services — from childcare to home repairs — that meet tangible needs, local leaders have extremely valuable assets.
However, to make use of these assets, they also need to master strategic planning, project management, policy advocacy, and fundraising — all of which BOLT’s training helps them to acquire. Once equipped with these skills, Do believes local leaders, who already have outsized impact compared to national organizations, can do even more “because they are proximate to the problems.”
The Novel Idea
A key part of BOLT’s empowerment strategy is training. Young community leaders receive this through a six-week summer program for public high school students. Meanwhile, an eight-month accelerator offers adults who are already active community leaders a curriculum focused on community organizing and strategic management. Participants acquire the tools needed to harness financial and human resources and to tap into supportive networks, from BOLT alumni to coaches, funders, and elected officials. All participants are paid for their time in the program.
The training transforms the way young leaders think about local resources. At the end of the 2022 Community Rising, BOLT’s youth summer program, one fellow, Emely, reflected on how the program had opened her eyes to the purpose and workings of state government. “If you had told me years ago that I would have state representatives inviting me back to the state capital to talk about gun violence prevention, I wouldn’t have believed you,” she said.
Emely’s new understanding of local government is exactly what Do hopes will result from participation in BOLT programs. For in addition to skills and resources, she wants to equip community leaders with something else: the ability to advocate for their communities. “It’s about learning how government works,” says Do. “In a program like this they can learn about all the tools that can help bring about change. For me, it’s about closing the knowledge gap.”
BOLT’s emphasis is on local solutions. In Philadelphia, participants learn about the role of the political ward system in influencing votes, and the Philadelphia Land Bank, which controls access to vacant lots.
Another important pillar of her model is collaboration and partnerships, such as the one BOLT has built with PA Youth Vote. The plan is to partner with local organizations, businesses and foundations, whether for sponsorships or to tap into sources of mentors.
Yet Do is not interested in pursuing a volunteer model. Rather than charging fees, as training programs often do, or simply making the program free, she believes in paying BOLT participants for their time, particularly as many face financial barriers that would otherwise prevent them from participating. “People like to talk about how much they value community leaders,” she says. “Let’s follow through on that.”
Do has had her own share of hardship. Her father was a refugee from Vietnam (he died when she was 5 years old) and her mother immigrated from China. “When they came to this country, it was not easy, to say the least,” she says. Meanwhile, Do relied on needs-based financial aid to meet her educational goals.
All this has given her a deeper understanding of the gaps she hopes BOLT can fill. She believes the model of empowering local leaders to accelerate change could, if adapted to different regions and cities, be adopted across the nation.
She sees three ways in which BOLT’s impact will scale up organically. First, as communities learn advanced skills in management and community organizing, these skills will become part of institutional knowledge that is passed down through generations within the community.
Second, as BOLT’s networks grow and its cohort of alumni changemakers expands as more people go through its programs, other communities will learn about its impact and adopt the same model. Third, as the impact of capital redistributed to people working at the grassroots level becomes clear, Do believes philanthropists and other funders will change their perspectives and acknowledge the power of people on the ground to solve social problems.
Ultimately, she says, she would like the organization she founded to disappear. “I see a world in which BOLT doesn’t exist,” she says. “Because if my job disappears, it means we’ve accomplished our mission: that every neighborhood is thriving, and is led by the people living there.”
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