It seems that I rarely talk about what I do for a living, what takes so many hours of my labor every week. People rarely ask me about my work and I think grant writing remains a bit mysterious to those outside the profession. I could say I spend my time begging for money, but it’s really not like that. I almost exclusively write large federal grants. So I write descriptions of initiatives that the federal government should be funding automatically, without the need to petition the government for this money. Communities are entitled to this money, these programs, so why must they beg? I never feel this more acutely than when I write grants for Native tribes. Seriously, why do Natives have to beg the U.S. government for money to buy uniforms and bulletproof vests for their tribal police officers? What is wrong with this picture?
Although it often makes me totally crazy, most of the time I love writing grants. The people with whom I work are doing exceptional and often heroic things in their communities. I feel privileged to work with them. My oldest and dearest “client” is the Camden City Schools in NJ. The women I work with in Camden are unsung heroines if ever there were any. That community is so distressed, so impoverished, so traumatized; and these women I know at the school district provide supportive services and programs to some of the most needy children and teens in the country. Seriously, what on earth could I be doing with my time that would be more useful than securing money for these women to provide support to pregnant and parenting teens in Camden so they stay in school, stay off drugs, and raise healthy children? The best part of my job is working with such inspiring people.
I enjoy helping my colleagues come up with exciting program designs by making suggestions for things they can do in their programming based on what I have seen other people doing in other communities. Because I have been writing grants for so many years, and because I have worked with people all over the country (in more than 25 states, I believe), I have learned about a wide range of strategies to address a lot of different community problems and issues. This gives me the knowledge to make a real contribution to the planning and framework of programs people build for their grant proposals. We sometimes get so excited coming up with a sensational program, my clients and I. The greatest reward is when the program actually gets funded.
Once, when I was an undergraduate in college, I wrote a script for a TV pilot. It sort of blew me away when I visited the set and saw them shooting. There was the red wagon I had written, sitting on the stage; something from out of my head made concrete and real. I wonder how J.K. Rowling feels when she sees the Harry Potter films. It’s wild to see something that came from out of your own imagination turn into something real that you can touch. That’s how I feel when one of my grants gets funded. I know that police officers will get real uniforms and bulletproof vests. Children will eat real nutritional food. Gardens will be planted. Traumatized women in jail will receive mental health services and perhaps recover, perhaps kick a years-long addiction to drugs, maybe even get their children back and raise them to be healthy and happy and well-versed in their own culture (rather than the culture of a foster family). Tribal youth will be flown to Portland to attend a Gathering of Nations youth leadership training. Maybe it will be one of the most important experiences of their life. Perhaps a turning point for them, a moment when they find themselves and decide what they will do when they grow up. I never actually see these results happen from my solitary work here in my tiny office, tapping away at my computer keys. But I know these results are out there. I have the satisfaction of knowing that I contributed to putting that in the world.
On Friday I wrapped up work on nearly a dozen grants for Northern Cali tribes. Some will support tribal police departments. Some will support tribal justice systems, including provision of probation officers (so people can be supervised in community service instead of imprisoned) and paying for more contractual judicial hours from a super-remarkable Yurok tribal member who is a judge. Some will create exciting programming for tribal youth who have limited access to culturally-specific activities to engage them and inspire them. One of the grants really will send tribal youth to Portland for leadership training. One will buy bulletproof vests for three tribal police officers who are presently unprotected.
I write and write, and then I keep my fingers crossed. And if all goes well, if luck is with us and if I did my job, then a few times a year I have those moments when I receive the phone call or the email and find out that one of the grants I wrote was funded. And I know that red wagon will appear on the stage. Someone’s life will change because of 25 pages that I wrote while sitting here in my fluffy slippers listening to my cats snoring on the couch.