The Beautiful Project: Helping Black Girls and Women Thrive

Posted March 29, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Group of Black girls and women on steps of house

Image provided by The Beautiful Project

How can the arts and a sup­port­ive com­mu­ni­ty be com­bined to posi­tion Black girls to be agents of social change? The Beau­ti­ful Project pro­vides men­tor­ship through train­ing in pho­tog­ra­phy, film and writ­ing to help Black girls and women advance their well-being and tell their own sto­ries. With sup­port from the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, The Beau­ti­ful Project has honed its mis­sion, refined its pro­gram offer­ings and achieved 501(c)(3) non­prof­it sta­tus to expand its work and make the orga­ni­za­tion more sustainable.

Since its 2004 launch, The Beau­ti­ful Project has brought togeth­er Black artists, edu­ca­tors and researchers in Durham, North Car­oli­na. The orga­ni­za­tion offers four core activ­i­ties, includ­ing a sum­mer inten­sive train­ing and a youth appren­tice­ship for girls ages 14 to 18. In addi­tion to help­ing par­tic­i­pants cul­ti­vate their writ­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy skills, these pro­grams pro­mote the per­spec­tives of Black girls and women in the Durham region and beyond. In 2019, the col­lec­tive brought its work to the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art in New York City for the exhib­it Pen, Lens & Soul: The Sto­ry of the Beau­ti­ful Project.”

The Beau­ti­ful Project’s empha­sis on using the arts to build self-con­fi­dence and rela­tion­ships between Black men­tors and mentees drew the atten­tion of Ayo Atter­ber­ry, a senior asso­ciate with Casey’s Evi­dence-Based Prac­tice Group. Atterberry’s port­fo­lio focus­es on help­ing pro­grams and orga­ni­za­tions devel­oped specif­i­cal­ly to improve well-being for youth of col­or to doc­u­ment their pur­pose and build evi­dence so they can grow and work with more young people.

Strength­en­ing lan­guage to advance mis­sion and programs

At the onset of their rela­tion­ship with the Casey Foun­da­tion, The Beau­ti­ful Project’s team strug­gled to artic­u­late their core activ­i­ties and pro­gram out­comes. Despite hav­ing built a strong local rep­u­ta­tion, they knew they need­ed to refine this lan­guage to gain the atten­tion of exter­nal boards and donors. With a Casey grant, Jamaica Gilmer, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the orga­ni­za­tion, hired Erin Stephens to help them do so.

Stephens worked with Gilmer and con­sul­tants deployed by the Foun­da­tion to devel­op The Beau­ti­ful Project’s the­o­ry of change (a state­ment of the over­ar­ch­ing belief that guides their work) and log­ic mod­el (doc­u­ment­ed steps they take to achieve their goals). The result­ing tools com­bined the con­sul­tants’ expe­ri­ence and knowl­edge on imple­ment­ing and eval­u­at­ing pro­grams with first­hand per­spec­tive from staff and par­tic­i­pants at The Beau­ti­ful Project.

Fund­ing also enabled The Beau­ti­ful Project to start a sec­ond cohort of its youth appren­tice­ship pro­gram, help­ing four to six par­tic­i­pants devel­op advanced writ­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy skills. The Beau­ti­ful Project gained access to a net­work of oth­er Casey grantees on sim­i­lar jour­neys to doc­u­ment and eval­u­ate how they con­tribute to well-being for young peo­ple, fam­i­lies and communities.

Growth is not just about scale,” says Atter­ber­ry. Growth is also about going deep. The goal was to help The Beau­ti­ful Project real­ly dig deep into their pro­gram so that they can show their log­ic mod­el, get addi­tion­al fun­ders and even­tu­al­ly scale their program.”

Becom­ing a more sus­tain­able organization

Orig­i­nal­ly, The Beau­ti­ful Project was sup­port­ing its work through a fis­cal spon­sor. Gilmer was reluc­tant to reg­is­ter The Beau­ti­ful Project as a non­prof­it, hav­ing wit­nessed oth­er orga­ni­za­tions strug­gle with being ful­ly on their own. She changed her mind when, through a con­ver­sa­tion with Atter­ber­ry, she real­ized she could steer her team along this process through con­tin­u­al learn­ing and strong leadership.

Ulti­mate­ly, The Beau­ti­ful Project’s non­prof­it sta­tus has made the orga­ni­za­tion more sus­tain­able, Gilmer says. Mon­ey that was going to the fis­cal spon­sor is now direct­ed toward goals. It has also earned the orga­ni­za­tion greater legit­i­ma­cy among donors and fun­ders. It put us in a dif­fer­ent sphere,” says Gilmer. Now, when apply­ing for fund­ing, we have the enti­ty that phil­an­thropy is going to con­sid­er before they even get to our mis­sion and vision.”

Expand­ing access for lead­ers of color

Lead­ers of col­or often lack access to crit­i­cal resources to sus­tain their pro­grams, par­tic­u­lar­ly fund­ing and out­side exper­tise. At the same time, they’re indis­pens­able fig­ures, cre­at­ing cul­tur­al­ly respon­sive and effec­tive orga­ni­za­tions. By help­ing lead­ers pin­point their orga­ni­za­tions’ strengths and nav­i­gate the com­plex­i­ties of fundrais­ing, the Foundation’s sup­port helps pre­pare them for growth.

Our part­ner­ship with the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion was a piv­otal shift to how we think about and do our work,” says Gilmer. It gift­ed us with the abil­i­ty to just choose some­thing that we can com­mit to as opposed to try­ing to do every­thing, but being less effec­tive. The thought­ful and trans­par­ent part­ner­ship allowed us to see that we did not have to be per­fect, but if we could take what we had learned, learn more and oper­a­tional­ize our exper­tise, we could go further.”

Hear pro­gram lead­ers of col­or dis­cuss their jour­neys in build­ing evidence

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