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  • Writer's pictureDeneene Graham

My Journey Into the Field of Grant Writing

Whenever I introduce myself, I get two of the same questions. “Where is your accent from?” and “What is grant writing anyway”? My first instinct is to say, “Well, my accent and me, AKA my person, are from the same place,” but I don’t. Instead, I try to preempt those two questions. Here is my strategy. I have learned over the years that having a prepared elevator speech makes the process of addressing these curiosities efficient and somewhat less awkward. Yes, an elevator speech – those very well-prepared sets of words one uses to elevate their career. I should clarify to the reader that I usually get these questions outside of the nonprofit field.

You may have gathered by now that it’s my defense mechanism to attempt to avoid the feeling of being dismissed and invisible in a place where I did not learn to speak and what I do for work is considered, by some, vague at best. I would like to share my elevator speech with you:

Hello, my name is Deneene and I am a black immigrant woman from Jamaica. That is also where my accent is from, so I guess you could call my accent Jamaican. I spent the greater part of my childhood learning, playing, and developing in the southern part of the island (how we refer to Jamaica while outside of Jamaica) where farms, rolling hills, and green landscape offer tranquility yet are juxtaposed with rural poverty and a dearth of opportunities for many young people.

I moved from my rural community when I was 11 years old to attend school in another more developed part of my parish. It was there I first learned about the impact of philanthropy. The school I attended was established through a trust bequeathed to provide education to young girls in that parish. I knew at a young age that I wanted to attend this school because I had seen successful women who had gotten their start at that school. I wanted to be a successful woman too, whatever I understood that to be in my young mind. First, though, I had to study and pass the Common Entrance Examination (CXC) and score high enough to gain admission. Then, my family had to figure out how to pay the tuition. Although the school started out providing education for girls whose families could not afford it, it later became a public school with tuition fees. As a side note, all public schools in Jamaica charge a tuition fee.

How does this connect to my journey into grant writing?

I remember one summer before the start of my Third Form (9th grade in the U.S.), tuition fees increased substantially, and my family needed to figure out how they would pay for my schooling. Plus, I had another four years to go. I had an idea. I decided to write letters to my uncles, who lived in New York and Atlanta at the time, to ask them for donations which would go towards my education. I had no idea what they earned and what their circumstances were but thought if they were working and earning U.S. dollars then they were in a position to help. My mom told me she wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea but if I thought it would work, I could go ahead. I wrote the two letters, my mom approved them, and I mailed them. Both of my uncles responded favorably, and I was happy.

Because of the generosity of my two uncles, I was able to continue with my schooling. Every year after that, they would send me whatever they could to assist with school. I learned much later as an adult just how much they sacrificed to help me. I am thankful.

That was my first experience identifying a need, presenting a case, and making a written ask. Luckily, the request was awarded. I am still on this “grant writing” path many decades later with the only difference being who I am asking on behalf of and to whom I am making the request.

Fast forward to 2009. I decided to move from everything I’ve known to start a new chapter in Rochester, Minnesota. Migrating to the United States was a major adjustment for me. Imagine being in Kingston, Jamaica one day and then in Rochester, Minnesota the next. I remember the first day I landed at the Rochester International Airport wondering how it could feel so cool while it was still summer. Yes, the weather is part of the challenge I face being fully embedded in my new community, but it's not the sum of it. As harsh as Minnesota winters can be, there are harsher things that make migrating to a new country difficult. Desiring a sense of belonging when you aren’t welcomed, going out of your way to prove that you are knowledgeable when others believe you are not, wanting to be taken seriously but instead being told to take speech modification classes “to lighten your heavy accent” are just a few of the things I’ve experienced in my thirteen years. There are far more I could share but alas, I have a word limit to adhere to!

I am still working through this adjustment. My professional experience both in Jamaica and in the U.S. has been invaluable to my career as a grant writer, however, those experiences are not the driving force behind my motivation to do this work. It is my personal experiences that compel me, along with the inspiring stories of people’s lives who are impacted by the work of nonprofit organizations, and those who fund them, that strive to make the world a better place for all of us.

Until next time.


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