Growing Grassroots in Philadelphia, USA and Beyond

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By Elizabeth Burke
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

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Last November, backstage at the Kennedy Center Honors, a woman named Maria Shelton was listening intently to Jon Stewart talk about how he found his inspiration to live a better life while listening to Bruce Springsteen and driving down the New Jersey Turnpike. When Stewart said it was Springsteen’s “stories of lives that could be changed” that moved him, she wondered how, as a small business owner with 18 years of logistical and creative expertise planning large-scale events and concerts, she could put her knowledge to bigger, better use? Shelton told me it then occurred to her that she had the unique ability to help others by connecting her background in event management with her vast network of colleagues and friends with the same experience. And so, Project Dream Forward was born — thanks, in part, to Stewart, Springsteen and the idea of creating a grassroots campaign (with music!) to help people around the country struggling to get back on their feet and to recreate the dream of entrepreneurship. It’s Shelton’s mission.

Grassroots movements are typically driven by the immediate needs of a community. These movements are often started at the local level, as many volunteers in the community give more freely of their time in support of local issues. They can start small and end up becoming historic. One example is the famous Jane Jacobs, who stopped the seemingly unstoppable Robert Moses from building the Lower Manhattan Expressway and destroying much of New York City’s historic downtown. Without any opposition like Jacobs’, Moses was able to accomplish this in Brooklyn — uprooting traditional neighborhoods by building expressways through them. Anyone who has driven on these roads can see the devastation it caused in the communities that were bulldozed. But when Jacobs got involved, she was able to create one of the first successful, local, grassroots organizations, stopping the “master builder” dead in his tracks.

During this time of economic upheaval and record unemployment (the national average is still hovering around 10%), there is an immediate, growing need for local, community-driven organizations to get involved in saving and creating local businesses and sustainable jobs. People don’t feel they can count on large national groups to come to their aid, but there is so much that needs to be fixed in this country right now — and resources are spread very thin.

So, in the typical American spirit, people are looking within their communities, neighborhoods and local governments to help their towns get back up on their feet. Groups like Project Dream Forward believe that with the right inspiration, we can improve our lives by providing a positive environment for support and assembly.

The idea of the organization is simple: Over two years, and in seven locations across the nation, Project Dream Forward will create local music festivals. Through the use of music, presentation of local success stories, inspirational speakers and booths run by local businesses whose products and services represent the region, it would gather the local community in a festive setting, create a shared experience. A shared experience of what is possible and attainable, a way to get people talking to each other and learning from each other — and not through a government bureaucracy like the Small Business Administration. For while the SBA has done remarkable things and is a tremendous help nationally to budding entrepreneurs, Project Dream Forward believes talking to your neighbor can have an equally sizable impact. It’s more real, more accessible.

While a weekend of positive events, music and festivities is a great start, how can this idea create a sustainable legacy? Sustainability is created when proceeds of these events are plowed back into the community — not the bank account of a national organization never to be heard from again. Partnerships with local businesses will be created; there will be a special emphasis on companies that promote job training, small business development and engaging local financial institutions to offer the assistance to those who need it and qualify for it. That’s right: local banks need to start handing out credit again. Project Dream Forward gives them the opportunity to become a bigger part in the resurrection of Main Street, the town economy, and ultimately their own success.

According to Time magazine’s The Curious Capitalist, 589,000 small business jobs were lost during the third quarter of 2009. While the hemorrhaging of jobs has stopped since then, there is still bleeding. Numbering over 24 million, small businesses are the financial backbone of this country. So when you think about it, Project Dream Forward is how local activists and grassroots organizations can really make an impact. If we can show progress through inspirational events like this one, we can start creating sustainable opportunities to rebuild the spine of America.

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My endorsement of Project Dream Forward is not an open invitation for Obama-bashing — it wasn’t Obama who ruined the nation’s economic health. What we need is to put away the partisan politicking and think of inclusive, exciting and ultimately financially rewarding ways to rebuild communities, families and our own national spirit. The American dream is what makes this country great and it’s why so many millions continually want to come here from elsewhere; the potential for economic opportunity is as inbred in our genetic makeup as our sense of humor. We began this nation with a can-do spirit, hard work, community mindedness and self-reliance. Now is the time to get back to those roots, to recreate the American dream for the 21st century. Project Dream Forward is a truly positive grassroots organization whose time is here and now.

If you would like to learn more about Project Forward, its website is under construction, but Shelton invites those who wish to learn more or to get involved to call 610-675-0315.

Elizabeth Burke, a New York-based actor, has been involved in politics since her first campaign at age 16. Burke’s Law does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.

If you would like to learn more about Project Forward, the website, http://projectdreamforward.org/, is under construction, but Shelton invites those who wish to learn more or to get involved to call 610-675-0315. Project Dream Forward is a truly positive grassroots organization whose time is here and now. While this project is in the early stages of development, I look forward to watching their efforts help thousands of future small business owners achieve their dreams.