The Story Behind the Awesome Gloucester Foundation
by Lois A. McNulty
A small group of volunteers recently got a thousand-dollar boost in their effort to raise $100,000 to restore the lights at historic Mattos Field, thanks to the Awesome Gloucester foundation. The 20 local members of this relatively new foundation were convinced that improving the much-loved and used playing field would be one way to make Gloucester “more awesome.”
Awesome Gloucester has raised eyebrows in the year since it started giving away wads of cash- with no strings attached- every month to anyone who comes up with a project that all 20 members of its board can agree will further its missions (innovation in maritime-related industry and economy, preservation of maritime heritage and culture, community togetherness and appreciation.)
What is Awesome Gloucester about?
“I guess I have a high tolerance for ambiguity,” Sal Zerilli offers, by way of explaining why he thinks The Awesome Foundation is just what Gloucester needs these days.
In 2012, Zerilli had returned to his hometown of Gloucester after almost 20 years away, and he became concerned about what he perceived as divisiveness in the city’s culture. Even more so, he was concerned about his friends’ uncertainty and about growing lack of trust between people in the community. Zerilli, an applied sociologist with a Phd from UCLA, had worked in design, communications, and innovation. He has made six documentary films, including two films about Gloucester’s most revered traditions- the Fort Neighborhood (No Pretty Prayer) and the Grand Banks Dory (Maritime Capsules.)
Having lived in Los Angeles, Seattle and Toronto before returning home with his young family, he saw firsthand how people in other places were responding creatively to similar issues in their communities . Zerilli had a creative response to the fraught situation he found in his beloved hometown- The Awesome Foundation – and he started talking up the idea. The Awesome Foundation, launched in Boston in 2009, has spawned in five years 103 autonomous chapters in 14 countries. It gives no-strings-attached, no- questions- asked mini-grants of $1,000 every month to people they believe are doing things to build community, to make the place “more awesome.”
Within ten days of his first conversations about it, Zerilli had 20 people in Gloucester willing to commit to the ideals of The Awesome Foundation, and so a chapter began here, in late 2013. In October 2014, Awesome Gloucester will launch its second year. In its first year, with little publicity but word of mouth, AG received 120 applications, and awarded $12,000 in 12 separate grants, to these projects:
November, 2013– Glosta Lobsta- promoting local, soft-shell lobster
December, 2013– Art Haven’s Downtown Lobster -Trap Holiday Tree
January, 2014-Lights, Camera, Nature- getting kids outside to record the natural world
February, 2014– Giant Chess Game – interactive, inter-generational activity for community events
March, 2014– Backyard Growers School Salad Days- involving schoolchildren in growing and eating vegetables at school
April, 2014- The Cape Ann Social Club- for mentally and emotionally challenged adults
May, 2014- Judith Sargent Murray Comes Alive!- staging a play by local writer and activist of the 1700s
June, 2014- The Phyllis A- providing a dock ramp for visitors to this restored fishing vessel
July, 2014- The Man Who Photographed the Man at the Wheel- a book of photos and remembrances of Louis Blend, from the 1920s and 30s
August, 2014- Private Freedom- support for veterans
September, 2014- The TAG Program- making the art and craft of sewing and fabric art accessible to young people
October, 2014- Mattos Field Rehabilitation- local playing field
November, 2014– Bridge to Workplace- work opportunities for special needs students
“It’s a way of focusing on solutions to the problem of declining trust in community. We move beyond narrow concerns and focus instead on larger values. This helps evolve the discourse beyond choosing sides. We’re all about creating common ground.” Zerilli says. “We give energy to the people who are working on the front lines of community. We trust them. We support them. Most importantly we try to realize our community ideal through action. No matter what your own perception of what’s happening in the city, most of us can agree that we can use more cohesiveness and more trust in the community, and that’s what we’re all about.”
But Awesome Gloucester is not just a feel-good exercise in positive thinking. It’s a concrete method for building strong alliances within and across a divided place.
It’s one thing to say you support a person or a project you think is “good for the community,” but it’s another thing entirely to reach into your pocket and hand them $50 of your own cash with no strings attached. But that’s exactly what Awesome Gloucester trustees do month after month. Zerilli adds, “The strength of Awesome Gloucester is definitely the Trustees. Smart, dedicated, passionate people all putting their money where their mouth is. In my opinion, there might be another chapter as good as us, but there is none better.”
Who are these people? You may know more than a few of them as neighbors and friends:
Sharon Lowe- official AG photographer
(left to right) Awesome Gloucester Trustees Rona Tyndall, Rich Francis, Rick Doucette, Sal Zerilli.
Awesome Gloucester Trustee Ann Molloy, sales manager for her family’s Gloucester business Neptune’s Harvest, believes she gets far more out of her association with Awesome Gloucester than she gives. “It’s positive energy. It’s building up the community. It’s good people,” she explains. “Not just the Awesome Gloucester board, who are awesome, but the people who apply and come pitch their ideas. I’m always blown away by the creativity and the generosity of people. They come from all walks of life, all political and religious groups. I thought I knew this town, growing up here, but I get surprised all the time. People are thinking up amazing ways to make life better, in the face of all the hardships we face here. You can’t get depressed when you see this kind of thing month after month.”
Trustee Jim Tarantino puts it this way, “Some people here think fishing is dead, and real estate is their hope for the future; some people think the death of the fishing industry can and should be prevented and the working waterfront restored. No matter what we believe, we can all can learn from each other. Bottom line- we all have families and homes and we all care about this place Gloucester. We’re all trying to do the right thing. Awesome Gloucester is one place where people with opposite opinions on the issues can learn from each other and work together for the same goal.”
There is now an opening for an AG trustee. If you are interested,
contact AG through facebook (Awesome Gloucester) or by reaching out to Sal Zerilli at email@example.com
Awesome Gloucester invites members of the community to attend Pitch Night, at 7 pm on the third Monday of each month, at the Gloucester House, Rogers Street, which supports Awesome Gloucester by donating its meeting space.
Zerilli points out that “Awesome” turns on its head a traditional model of the philanthropic foundation as a board of remote wealthy donors granting money to anonymous needy people.
“this is an ongoing experiment in community philanthropy,” he adds. “totally grassroots.”
As a group, Awesome Gloucester’s trustees, for example, come from all walks of life (small business owners, real estate agents, teachers, retail employees, government workers, bank employees, artists, and social and health care workers. They represent varying opinions about the changes coming over Gloucester’s fishing industry and harbor, and sometimes divergent views on the future of Gloucester . Diversity among members of the board as well as among applicants is the goal and byword for Awesome Gloucester, and it somehow works.
Awesome Gloucester crafted its local mission with three aspects:
innovation in maritime related industry and economy,
preservation of maritime heritage and culture,
community togetherness and appreciation.
Of the 12 grants that have been awarded in Awesome Gloucester’s first year, all but two have been to projects that fit the third goal- community togetherness and appreciation.
Zerilli is hopeful that more of Awesome Gloucester’s grants in the coming year will support its maritime economy and maritime heritage goals. To that end, AG will launch an initiative for December of this year. For one month, AG will consider applications only from a targeted community – Gloucester High School. AG volunteers and high school staff will work with students on their ideas for initiatives, and on writing applications and pitching their projects.
“We’re posing an Awesome Challenge to GHS students in December. Our model for the challenge comes from the world of design and innovation, and we’re optimistic about the impact our experiment will have,” Zerilli says.
If this experiment goes well, AG will choose two other public institutions later in 2015 for “targeted consideration.”