One of the signature programs of this era was the Neighborhood Leadership Initiative (NLI), which was founded in 1992 while Christine Todd Whitman, the future governor, served as president of the Foundation’s board. According to the Foundation’s 1993 Annual Report, NLI “epitomizes our belief that true, positive change can only come from the grassroots up, not the top down.”
To achieve that positive change, the program “identifies committed people in the community, trains them over nine months in skills which enable them to become leaders and organizers, graduates them as Community Foundation Fellows and awards them grants for small projects in their communities.”
According to Bobbi Gille, a CFNJ program officer at the time, “The main objective was for people in these very challenged areas to start up programs because they spotted a need in the community. The objective was to put those particular leaders in a place to train new leaders and have these good works grow from there.”
Initial funding for the Neighborhood Leadership Initiative was provided by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Victoria Foundation, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, and by the John C. Whitehead Fund, established when Mr. Whitehead (a former United States Deputy Secretary of State and chairman of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York) made a $1 million contribution to CFNJ. During the program’s tenure, it graduated 512 leaders, all of whom have contributed to their communities in a positive way.
As Luis Perez, a 1998 graduate and former gang member, recalled in a New York Times article on the program, “We are soldiers learning to tap into the government and private sector for resources in order to fight our battles in the war on drugs, poverty and the exploitation of our communities. I have grown from a soldier to a general, ready to declare war on anything that will destroy the fabric of my community.”
Another 1998 graduate, Joyce Cook, who was the director of social services and programs for the New Community Corporation in Newark, said then that, “you may have thought your problem was just unique to your own little pocket, but you find there are common problems all over the entire state, and you look at effective ways that other groups of people and individuals have attacked the problem, and you say, ‘OK, I can borrow that idea and take it back to my community.’”
The Neighborhood Leadership Initiative became one of the Foundation’s most successful and recognizable initiatives, and cemented the Foundation’s role as a grassroots, community-based partner early on. The ripple effect of good works has invariably touched millions of New Jerseyans over the years, and done so at remarkably little cost. To empower promising young leaders with the skills to solve problems on their own initiative has proven quite valuable.
According to former Governor Christie Whitman, the program was about “empowering people in the communities, which was, in my mind, the best way to come up with solutions that were going to work – by listening to the people who live in those communities.”