Told the news by phone, Abby Mechling, associate educator at the nonprofit community museum, celebrated a hard-earned win that will change how Spanish-speaking children and their families experience art in Austin.
Impact Austin announced five new community partners in June, each of which will receive a game-changing $80,000 grant to continue their work in the community. Contemporary Austin will use its grant to expand its educational program, Seeing Special Things — the largest in the program’s history.
The grant process is well known for being rigorous. It includes a letter of interest, detailed application, site visit and a final presentation. Contemporary Austin has applied for the award twice, coming in second place in 2016. Altogether, they’ve been working toward this since October 2015. What did all those months of process entail? And how did Contemporary Austin change its fortunes this year?
According to Impact Austin Acting Executive Director Lisa Apfelberg, it’s hard to say what component of the application resonated more with voters in any given year. About 100 members of the group review grant applications, and those voting members can even change year to year.
“There’s no comparison of, ‘Oh, last year they said this; this year they’re saying this,’” Apfelberg said. “It’s really a new year, a fresh start each year.”
For nearly 40 years, Seeing Special Things has worked to bring Austin Independent School District students into the museum community. In that long history, though, the program has not had a designated bilingual educator. This grant will change that.
Mechling said one of the biggest advantages this year was simply having been through the process from beginning to end once before. The second go-around, the museum learned how to more effectively integrate feedback from the Impact Austin team that helps applicants through from site visit to final pitch.
“I think that we have a pretty rigorous grant application process,” Apfelberg said, noting that the benefits can go beyond just the grant itself. “We’ve been told that when they’ve won them and become our new community partners, it’s like getting a Good Housekeeping seal of approval in the funding world, and that it opens the door for them to get other grants.”
Mechling highlighted Impact Austin’s support as a factor in their success. “Both years we’ve had really amazing teams,” she said. “This year we were better at listening. They had feedback, and we took it, and the next time they didn’t have as much. They’re our audience, so we learned to listen and to make our pitch as clear and balanced as possible.”
Currently, the program offers a self-guided tour pack and artwork labels in Spanish. Even the organization’s current educators are working on their Spanish skills so that they can better serve their students and their families. But none of that, Mechling said, can accomplish what their new hire will.
“We’re trying to invite entire families, not just these students,” she said. “We’re trying to build this relationship of us coming to them, them coming to us, and knowing that the museum is a place for them to learn and spend time together as a family.
When they advanced to the final presentation round of the process, Mechling said she told the panel a story. “Picture this, you’re seeing these kids interact with each other at this beautiful place,” she recalled, “but we can’t speak to all of them, because we don’t have a person who has that ability here. And then imagine if someone who is bilingual worked here (and) what doors that would open.”
That compelling picture was accompanied by a nuts and bolts breakdown of what the money would go to and for what purpose. That element, gleaned from Impact Austin team feedback, was a huge component of their success. “Tell us what we are getting,” Mechling was told. “If you guys end up getting this funding, how you’re going to actually use this money.”
For more information about joining Impact Austin or applying for a grant, click here.