By the People: Community Spring Creates Change Through Empowerment
Kevin Scott left prison with an extensive list of skills, but little chance of getting a job. When some friends hired him to work in their restaurant, Scott decided he would do everything he could to become the best employee they’d ever seen. Soon, he was promoted to management.
“I was so thankful to have a job and some stability, I stayed longer than I should have and stopped looking for opportunities that aligned with my passions,” Scott says. “But outside of work, I was doing community activism around the treatment of prisoners and toxic prison environments. That was really what I cared about, but I wasn’t paid to do it.”
During one of his regular visits to the nearby public library, he ran into a contact from his community organizing work who told Scott about an organization called Community Spring.
Community Spring would change Scott’s life, and the lives of many others.
Lindsay Kallman ’10 and her life partner Max Tipping, who met on a study abroad program in Tanzania, worked in the social justice world in Washington, D.C.—Kallman using her public health background to focus on health disparities, and Tipping bringing his law degree to bear on housing and homelessness issues. Together they realized that the people so many nonprofit and government organizations purported to help did not have a say in how they were being helped.
So, they created what didn’t exist.
Community Spring opened in 2020 in Kallman’s hometown of Gainesville, Florida, just before the pandemic struck, with a mission to “dismantle structural poverty and spur economic mobility at a grassroots level.” A critical part of their model is to hire people who are experiencing the issues they will work to solve.
Despite the complications of the pandemic, they stayed the course, balancing the risks of COVID-19 with the important work of their organization.
“Sometimes, in the nonprofit world, we overcomplicate poverty,” Kallman says. “Poverty is a function of income. If people have money, they can meet their basic needs. Poverty persists throughout neighborhoods and for generations because of power inequalities. So we pay people to cultivate power.”
They launched Community Spring in the South, which Kallman explains “tends to be less invested in people, power and infrastructure,” compared to Washington, D.C., where advocacy exists at every turn.
The pair understands that they have been able to do community organizing because they have privilege. They wanted to build tools that people experiencing poverty could use to make change—a “for the people, by the people” approach.
They started with two programs. Fellows, hired from the community, self-identify as people impacted by poverty. They organize together for one year around an issue that has contributed to their lived experiences. And, they are paid for the work. The first class focused on the justice system, and the current class is working on housing. Following the fellowship, they have the skills, connections and, most importantly, the confidence, to move on to the next steps in their careers or education.
Scott is a member of the first class of fellows, which worked on multiple initiatives, including “Ban the Box,” which prevents employers from requiring job applicants to check whether they have been convicted of a felony until after they have been offered a position. The group’s work also led to the creation of Just Income GNV (Gainesville), a guaranteed income pilot program for people who have been released from prison in the last six months.
“We know guaranteed income brings people out of poverty in a material way and also in an emotional way,” Kallman explained. “Statistics show a person is twice as likely to get employment once they have guaranteed income, so they can pay for things like transportation to and from an interview or for childcare during the interview. Mental health diagnostics show this income is as effective as Prozac.”
Scott, the convicted felon with marketable skills but no one to give him a shot, graduated as a member of Community Spring’s first class of fellows and is now the full-time director of Just Income.
“Community Spring helped turn what I felt was the absolute end of the world—and I was positive it was—into what I now see as just the beginning,” he said. “Max and Lindsay have changed my whole experience on the planet by saying what I thought mattered. I never felt steered or curated or like there was some agenda behind the curtain. They are 100% genuine, and it feels like straight-up empowerment.”
In his role, Scott does outreach, educates people about Just Income and helps people get back on their feet. He recently presented on a call with representatives from the White House. The program is about giving people an income for their first year out of prison, but it is really about so much more than money.
“In a world where re-entry is a buzzword, it’s really more like entry for the first time because many people come from a lifetime of struggles,” he says. “I’m a white guy, very much born on third base because of that, and I barely made it, even with advantages. I slept in the parking lot of a homeless shelter and remember the first time someone other than my mother asked me if I was okay. Now, I actually work at that homeless shelter, and through that job and Community Spring, I’m the person asking someone else if they’re okay.”
Sydney Lee is in the current class of fellows working on housing security, and their campaigns target advocacy and educating the local community around housing. Every fellow has a personal connection to the issue, whether through an eviction, escaping unsafe housing or the inability to secure better than substandard housing. Lee helps lead the communications work of the team and creates content for webinars and events on the topic.
It’s meaningful work.
“Before the fellowship, I lacked a sense of direction,” Lee said. “You can’t pour from an empty bucket, so to do this work as an impacted person and to have so much poured into me is life changing. Plus, I’m getting paid, which is huge. This opportunity helped me see what I’m capable of if I’m given resources and a foundation. Max and Lindsay always ask how they can help us, which is really different from the institutions I’m used to. I truly feel loved.”
Lee is inspired by Community Spring and says their model is groundbreaking for non-profit work.
“It’s nice to be given a chance to lead. All of the fellows are proof that when you provide people with resources and basic necessities, and give them the support they deserve, we really excel,” she says. “The fellows before me told me this would change my life, but the progress almost sneaks up on you. The way I talk about myself, the things I desire for myself, it’s so different.”
Kallman applied Early Decision to Davidson. Her older sister, Annelle ’04, was a Wildcat, so she knew the college well and was certain that’s where she belonged, too.
“Davidson values critical thinking and philosophical learning,” she says. “It is a well-rounded experience, as opposed to training. I sought courses that allowed me to think more deeply about complicated social issues, so when I think about how my Davidson experience informed my current work and life path, it’s that.”
Professors like Ken Menkhaus, through his course “Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector,” helped provide a foundation for Kallman’s future. A lot of what she learned at Davidson played into how Community Spring is structured, as well as what led her there.
Clint Smith ’10, Kallman’s Davidson classmate and best-selling author, serves on the Community Spring board of directors.
“Through the combination of their respective professional experiences, Lindsay and Max have developed an incredibly nuanced, thoughtful, and empirically grounded understanding around the factors that perpetuate inequality across this country,” Smith says. “Their framework recognizes that myriad forces—both interpersonal and structural—have for so long prevented the most marginalized people from having access to the levers of upward mobility, and through Community Spring they have created a community-based, locally-led intervention to help people change the trajectory of their circumstances. Lindsay and Max do this work with so much compassion, empathy and kindness, it's impossible not to root for them.”
The organization is still new, and the team is looking at ways to take this model to other parts of the country. They haven’t decided whether they will expand the outreach themselves, or make this a model that can be adopted by other community advocates. For now, though, Kallman and the entire Community Spring team is effecting change in the Gainesville community one empowered individual at a time.
This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2022 print issue of the Davidson Journal Magazine; for more, please see the Davidson Journal section of our website.