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Friends & Neighbors

Ralph and Jeanne Graham: Growing the Institute’s grassroots organizing efforts

April 5, 2005 | By Jim Dulzo
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Jeff Dworin

Ralph and Jeanne Graham 

Ralph and Jeanne Graham are great supporters of environmental causes and organizations across Michigan, often through the Clannad Foundation, the family philanthropy they founded 10 years ago. Two of the Institute's dearest friends, Ralph and Jeanne have been crucial to our growth over the past decade, both through Clannad (Scottish for "family") and as private citizens. Now the Grahams are making a five-year challenge grant to expand the Institute's Grassroots Support Center.

Institute: How did you discover the Institute?
Ralph: We read about the Institute during the drilling controversy in the Jordan Valley in 1995. We live in Bloomfield Hills, but have property near the valley and love hiking there. When we came home, we sent the Institute a check because it was working to clean up that whole industry in terms of how it gets into both state and private land.

Institute: What convinced you that supporting the Institute is a wise investment?
Jeanne:  It was the first time we saw an organization using a really effective message to help stop the countryside from going down the tubes.
Ralph: We had been contributing to environmental causes for 20 years, but the Institute’s approach was so pro-active, so involved in the local community. It wasn’t buying land, but it was protecting land without trying to own it or take it off the tax rolls. It really marked the beginning of our sense of the power of grassroots movements. Prior to that we had been very involved in social issues through our church, so it was an extension into the environment that was pretty comfortable.
Jeanne: As we got to know the staff, we liked them and trusted them. And it didn’t hurt that, after we sent our first check, Keith Schneider showed up at our door asking, “Who are you guys?”

Institute: What most encourages you about Smart Growth efforts in Michigan?
Ralph: I grew up on a farm by Lansing, so seeing farmland eaten up at such a rate is painful. So I see your farm program as a massive good thing. It slows down the amount of farmland being converted into housing and industrial parks. And now there’s some potential for our Kafkaesque township system to get a little more cooperative; according to a directive from the governor, townships are urged to work together more closely, but we will see. And we’re glad about the governor’s work to re-establish the importance of downtowns.

Institute: What discourages you?
Ralph: The polarization in Lansing reflects the polarization on the national scene, although it’s not quite as bad. And in Detroit, while the infrastructure changes there are promising, with a lot of people building and investing in ways that are totally positive, the poverty and racial divide and lack of transit simply must be overcome.

Institute: What do you tell friends about the Institute when you ask for support?
Ralph: As a board member, I am always looking for more supporters. I simply give people a litany of the things the Institute has accomplished, quite often its grassroots work. I tell them that it is a profoundly skilled journalism organization and does an incredible job of communicating. I try to make a connection between good communication and positive action by politicians, officials, and average citizens. I urge them to support the Institute because they can  get directly involved with it. People almost always respond positively.

Institute: What convinced you that the Grassroots Support Center proposal was worth such a major investment?
Jeanne: Seeing how well it’s worked over the years. Power can come from individual groups learning to be effective in their communities.
Ralph: We want the support center to be a teaching tool, rather than just for crisis management, and develop programs that get communities to be smarter before they face coal burning plants or Wal-Mart threats. There is an attitude we could put out there that makes it cool to complain, to stand up, to go to city council meetings, to become more public citizens.

Institute: What would you like to see us work harder on?
Ralph: Getting more influence on the ground. It is good to get Detroit News and Free Press editorials, but if we couch our membership slightly differently, we could energize a lot of the people to contribute and get involved at the grass roots.

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