WILMINGTON – Dionna Sargent first realized she had the power to have an impact on others during her senior year in high school. She had to do community service to satisfy National Honor Society requirements and decided to invite some of her friends to go together to serve lunch at a Philadelphia hospice.
“I suppose I could have done it on my own,” she said. “But I decided to get others involved and I’ve just kept doing that ever since.”
Sargent joined Cinnaire in 2014 as the organization’s community development market leader. You might have heard of her recently as the person who brought NCALL Loan Fund and True Access Capital to the table to create Equitable Wilmington. The collaborative wants to build the capacity of community-based organizations to preserve or rehab more than 100 affordable housing units; provide 48 small-business loans totaling $1 million and develop community facilities that create assets and resources for the community.
She and her Equitable Wilmington team made news in late October when JPMorgan Chase announced it would invest $4 million into the organization as part of its nationwide PRO Neighborhoods competition. She was widely credited as the linchpin who brought all the right people to the table and helped secure a grant that made Wilmington one of only seven U.S. communities selected this year out of 75 applications across 49 U.S. cities.
“I think one of the key things that makes her effective is that she really truly believes in the work that she does,” said Van Hampton, president and CEO of True Access Capital. “She wants to effect change in the community. She’s made so many relationships. I’m always either bumping into her or she’s been there already. The three [community development financial institutions] in Delaware have been meeting regularly and Dionna has been the driving force, keeping meetings on track. We’ve all really come to depend on her.”
Sargent sat down with DBT Editor Peter Osborne a few days short of her 38th birthday to talk about how she approaches her job, what the Chase grant will mean to the city, and what’s next on her plate.
What does it mean to be a connector? No one organization can tackle these issues alone. I like to connect the dots and define who should be at the table with us. We have a niche as do other organizations. Being a connector means figuring out who has a complementary skill set and the right resources. I’m passionate about being a connector because Cinnaire might not be the right organization, so I make referrals to other organizations and maybe someday they reciprocate.
How do you get things done? By moving from a point of self-interest to finding a common interest. Otherwise it’s a challenge. You have to set your ego aside and know that you’ll get recognition in due time. Some of self-interest is tied to organization viability. Sometimes people don’t want to work together because they’ll be jeopardized, or their funding model will be at risk. The question is, are we committed to our cause or to solving the problem. Finding a solution should be our common goal.
What will you count as your biggest success in 2019? Winning the PRO Neighborhoods grant. This was our fifth time pursuing this grant, and my second time working on the grant with this team, and it is an extremely competitive process. What I have learned is the power of persistence, determination, and most importantly collaboration. Great things happen when we work collaboratively with others and recognize that we all have something valuable to contribute to the greater good and for a greater purpose. Additionally, a critical part of this success is our community partners in East, West Center City/West, and Northeast Wilmington who further enlightened us on how community development financial institutions like ours can support local organizations’ community and economic development efforts to revitalize neighborhoods and create economic opportunities for residents. This grant is a huge win for Wilmington!
What does success look like in 2020? There’s alignment around our work with community development in Wilmington – most stakeholders at the table and we’re all working toward the same goal. As you think about the range between self-interest and common interest, we’re closer to common interest. And we’re all rowing in the same direction.
When the merger that created the Wilmington Alliance was announced, Longwood Foundation President There du Pont said it doesn’t make sense in a city of our size to have two organizations trying to operate in parallel. Thoughts? I agree with him. There are organizations that are adequate but could be more effective. As a nonprofit, we should be working ourselves out of a job as it relates to fixing a problem so we can move on to the next one.
What question do you wish more people would ask themselves? I suppose you get answers like, “Why am I doing this?” or “What’s my motivation?” I’ve been asking myself, “Am I being effective?” We can be doing a lot of things and thinking we’re making an impact and achieving our goal when all we’re really doing is checking off a box.
What’s your favorite quote? There are lots of them, but the one I’ve been using lately is an African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
What’s next? Developing the strategy for success in the collaborative over the next few months. We have this money, what now? We’d like to use the $4 million to attract another $29 million in funding.