Q&A with Roserria Roberts, Community Investment Manager, United Way of the Columbia-Willamette
What is your primary charge as Community Investment Manager for the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette? I have two primary charges. One, to the agencies that receive funding through United Way, while also managing the Tools for Independence Vision Council. The task is to make sure that the composition of the Vision Council represents the communities in our region, and the interests aligned with United Way’s focus on income and financial stability.
My work also involves identifying and highlighting unmet needs in the community. The “income” focus of United Way encapsulates several different areas: poverty, homelessness, food security, and affordable housing. To address these issues, United Way focuses on employment and providing support for seniors and people with disabilities.
What success stories are you most proud of? I am really proud of the movement toward using community-building as a model for promoting financial stability. Our investments in programs are truly shared with participants. For many programs we fund, participants are involved in program design, oversight and implementation. In health and human services work, there’s a fine line between being “prescriptive” in our approach, and allowing individuals the opportunity for self-determination. There’s a myth that people who are poor don’t know what they need to do to change their lives. A lot of times, people know what they need to do; they just don’t have the right resources.
The programs we fund involve community members in all aspects of program development. Participants learn skills that they can use to secure living wage employment. They have a voice in the process, and are empowered to gain the supports, education and tools they need.
The help provided by the programs we fund have a lot of depth. We focus on the root causes of problems to identify solutions that bring about lasting changes in people’s lives. It all goes back to investing in the people who are living in the community. When people acquire the skills they need for living wage jobs, communities improve.
How does your work impact communities of color in the region? When we look at unmet needs in the region, unfortunately, communities of color stand out. Communities have the high percentages of unemployed individuals and low-wage workers. Health disparities are common among communities of color.
We have stressed that agencies that serve communities of color should apply for United Way funding. We found that we have not received many applications from agencies of color. Our funding model is based on accountability, and measurable results and improvements.
We continue to reach out to agencies that serve communities of color. We want to make sure that smaller agencies have a level playing field to compete with larger, more established agencies. We conduct workshops for agencies offering tips on how to successfully compete for United Way grants. We provide support on completing measurement plans for funded programs.
What are the foremost challenges in doing the work? The biggest challenge is never having enough money to fund the needs in our community. Another challenge in serving health and human services needs is the lack of coordination among funders in the region about the issues that receive financial support. I believe that there is an opportunity for funders to come together and look at the critical issues and collectively align efforts to address the problems. Government funding is also a challenge. Some counties in the geographic areas served by United Way provide more health and human services, while others lag behind.
What aspect of your work do you find most fulfilling? Working with the agencies, and seeing positive changes in communities and people. It’s really rewarding to see people achieve their goals and make lasting changes in their lives.
For large, multi-year grants, United Way requires collaboration. Lead agencies work with partner agencies to bring programs to fruition. The most successful programs are those that take the time to understand their partners before they engage in collaboration. Successful programs have established objectives, and the most successful partner agencies have values that are aligned with those of the lead agency.
What was your career path leading up to current post? I earned my master’s degree in public administration to work in nonprofits. I’ve worked in housing for quite a long time. I’ve seen quite a broad perspective of lifestyles, growing up in Chicago and knowing abject poverty. I moved to Portland, Oregon as a teenager. Even though the physical remnants of poverty are not as visible in Oregon, the mindset associated with experiencing generational poverty continues to exist. When you see large ghettoes and the deprivation of the human soul, it’s quite touching.
After apartheid collapsed, I spent a year living in South Africa. I worked for the Center for Social and Economic Justice, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. that focuses on organizational development. T There was a glut of tribal and community leaders who have been doing the grassroots work in community organizing but had no formal training in managing growing organizations. Our task was to provide the tools to help community leaders become more effective at the work they’re doing, and to gain a solid understanding of public policy.
Getting to know the locals was quite the experience. I found that there’s a stronger sense of community in South Africa. The country is made up of so many different tribes. The South Africans are very proud people, and they work very hard.
Why are you drawn to community issues such as housing and financial stability? I have been given quite a few blessings. My family was very poor in Chicago, and people helped us. Now that I have the capacity and skills to help others, it’s rewarding to be able to give back. United Way has worked hard to lift up those who are less fortunate. My experience in Portland Habitat and the Portland Housing Center has allowed me to work with people who have financial difficulties. Helping people get on the right track so that they can work toward supporting themselves and eventually creating wealth for themselves and the next generation.
Colors of Influence Fall 2008