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Yvonne Abraham

Rising and falling

It was going to be beautiful.

To much fanfare, the deep-pocketed Eos Foundation announced it would send millions into Grove Hall, a Boston neighborhood shackled by poverty and crime. This would be no top-down effort: Residents themselves would come up with solutions to the neighborhood’s ills, then get help to carry them out. Other donors would join the effort, ensuring dollars would flow into Roxbury for years. The groundbreaking initiative was called Boston Rising.

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But three years later, the relationship between Eos and some in Grove Hall is anything but beautiful. The flood of donations envisioned by Eos founder and former Morgan Stanley big Ken Nickerson never came. Boston Rising’s mission has been shrinking for months. Its last remaining staffers will be laid off June 30. Boston Rising will exist in name only, its remaining antipoverty efforts folded back into the Eos Foundation.

People in the neighborhood feel betrayed. “I was so excited when they chose Grove Hall,” says James Hills, a pastor and former mayoral adviser. “I thought they’d stick around. . . . But here we are. There’s no consistency, no continuity.”

From Eos Foundation president Andrea Silbert’s perspective, this is all about the recession. Boston Rising was modeled on New York’s well-endowed Robin Hood Foundation. Eos provided the seed money, but its survival always depended on recruiting lots of other donors, she says. The downturn, and the smaller philanthropic community here, made that incredibly difficult. Boston Rising had staffed up in anticipation of other donations, and was top-heavy.

“We should have kept it lean, focused on fund-raising, and grown it as donations came in,” she says. “Instead, we had to downsize it.”

Besides, Silbert says, Eos is still invested in Grove Hall, determined to pour $6 million more into the neighborhood in addition to the several million already spent. It will focus on seeding savings accounts and making enterprise loans. And it will donate $1.5 million to the Family Independence Initiative, a visionary outfit that funds groups of neighbors to save money and pursue education and other goals. It also gave $250,000 to establish the Grove Hall Trust, made up of locals who make small grants to businesses and community-building events.

But there is clearly retrenchment here. For example, there will be no more funding for summer jobs, no more programs where businesses compete for grants. Hills and other members of the Grove Hall Trust are now essentially on their own, raising their own money. It’s too soon, they say. “You are our parent entity, but now you’re treating us like you don’t know us,” Hills says. (Silbert says this was the plan all along.)

Hills’s neighbors didn’t want to trust Boston Rising. Other organizations have swooped in to improve poor neighborhoods and failed or faded away. Why should this one — run out of a downtown office — be any different, they asked him. But Boston Rising hired such good organizers to meet with residents, people who had lived their problems and understood them, that Hills and others urged another leap of faith. Those same organizers — vital to Boston Rising’s credibility in Grove Hall — have now left or been laid off.

“Now they’re saying ‘I told you so,’ ” he says. Eos was way too impatient, say Hills and others. They seemed not to understand that gaining trust and transforming a neighborhood with deep-seated problems takes time.

“They got freaked out because they weren’t raising money and they had no tangible results,” says Leora Rifkin, another member of the Grove Hall Trust. “You can’t measure trust.”

Silbert thinks that’s unfair. “We did something bold,” she says. “I understand people are disgruntled. . . . While it didn’t work the way we wanted, we’re still committed to making change.”

Their good intentions are unquestionable. But Eos owed it to the people of Grove Hall to tend to them as tenderly when it pulled back from its original mission as it did when it was selling residents on that mission in the first place. This isn’t a public relations problem. It’s about something far more important: trust.

Without it, Boston Rising’s work in Grove Hall will be much harder from now on.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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