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Margeret Mwale on Presbyterian Committee for the Self-Development of People

To best illustrate the mission of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self Development of People (SDOP) Margaret Mwale, associate for community relations, says that “we teach people how to fish rather than give them the fish.”

For almost 40 years this Presbyterian Church (USA) ministry has been funded by an annual offering collected by Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations around the US. Mwale is careful to point out that the work itself is considered a “partnership” in long term solutions with low-income grassroots community groups and never considered a form of charity.

“We come alongside these groups and see how we can partner with them. We want to participate in the empowering of economically poor, oppressed and disadvantaged people so they are in a better place,” she says.

Self-Development of People criteria require that the low-income grassroots group members directly own, control and benefit from a project. Mwale says that this approach is the key sticking point in any funding decisions that are made by the SDOP National Committee. Yet she’s also noticed that it can be one of the most “difficult” ideas for some well-intentioned groups to “get their arms around.”

Says Mwale, “We might, for instance, have someone approach us on behalf of a group of homeless people saying they would like to apply for a grant to build a shelter – but that is an idea where one group is doing for another.

Our idea is that we want a group to do for themselves, organize for themselves, and be the beneficiary. We want groups to own their own project and own the skills they gain in the process,” she says.

Projects are funded throughout the United States. Self-Development of People also engages in partnership in different parts of the world through intermediary partners in Africa, Asia, South America and Latin America/Caribbean. The National  Self-Development of People committee comprised of 31 people– made up of “Presbyterians and non-Presbyterians” – make broader granting decisions for projects funded nationally and internationally, while local Self-Development of People  Committees work regionally to review smaller local grants.

Mwale says that groups that are eligible for funding can have a very “informal structure” and are not required to be a 501(c)(3) organization– or have affiliation with the Presbyterian Church.

Projects supported are broad and varied, from small agricultural cooperatives in rural communities, to empowering young people from low-income neighborhoods to supporting a group of homeless individuals in Portland, Oregon who’d built a transitional housing village and sought support for more structures and a beginning micro-enterprise. She says other factors that weigh into the decision making process for projects to receive funding include the collaborative efforts among group members, and also the number of people the project can benefit.

Collaboration in Mwale’s own daily work is also important, and much of her time is spent traveling and developing connections within low income communities and anchoring community based organizations that can point to potential projects that fit within the scope of Self-Development of People funding. A recent collaboration came through the Prevention Network, an intermediary that works with The Skillman Foundation, which helped connect Mwale to potential qualifying groups in Detroit.

Mwale has worked with SDOP since late 2005, and in that time she says some of the topics that Self-Development of People has received grant requests and funded projects around include agriculture, community organizing, economic development, the environment, health, homelessness, transportation, immigrants, skills development and water. “These are issues that are ongoing and becoming acute because of the economy. We have funded a number of projects that deal with these and other very different issues,” she says.

A native of Zambia, Mwale’s background is in economics and higher education. She came to her current work through a role with a Presbyterian congregation in urban ministry, and says “I always had interest in working with and making a difference in low income populations – the progression to this was very natural for me.”

The focus on teaching the fishing, rather than giving the fish to communities around the world has been “extremely rewarding” for Mwale – especially when she’s able “to see the difference that Self Development of People makes in so many low income communities and people.”

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