Community Spotlight: ReGeneration Fund Supports Projects For Positive Change

By, Zulema Herrera, University of Illinois student

Sharon Irish, a recently retired staff member from the University of Illinois, started the ReGeneration Fund with her husband in the winter of 2019. The donor-advised fund, which is managed by the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois, was initiated to work with non-profit organizations and to support work by youth of color to address social injustices relating to climate change, economic, and/or racial issues. Since the launch of the fund, they have already started to contribute to projects in the Champaign-Urbana community.

What inspired you to start this fund? What is the meaning behind "Regeneration"?

Because they(The Community Foundation of East Central Illinois) exist, it allows for small donors like my husband and myself to set up a fund so we don’t have to start a nonprofit. They will manage our fund for use according to these sort of broad categories and, also, I did not want to start a nonprofit. That is the goal of the community foundation and they also have a whole bunch of pretty cool programs for emerging philanthropists and rising social entrepreneurs.

So, I am a white middle-class woman whose parents had a lot of education and whose grandparents had a lot of education. We are privileged in all the ways that white middle-class people are privileged so there is that intergenerational wealth that I did nothing to earn, I simply was born on third base as they say. That’s not to say that I didn’t work hard in my life but I just benefited from capitalism in ways that are unfair to many, many people.

So our daughter, Miriam Larson, told me about a fund in Chicago that is pretty well established called the Crossroads Fund and their tagline is "change not a charity" and I was really inspired by their model. Now they are well-established and much bigger and so some version of that is what I hope to do at some point. Right now, we have this idea of working across generations, because I am almost 69 years old so I am at the end of my life. I am more interested in people under 30 and what ideas they have to address issues of justice in the world. That would be ideas that come from their own lived experiences, not from mine, I am not the one to tell them how their priorities should be shaped.

I believe the first project you contributed to was a greenhouse? Can you talk about that?

The Randolph Street Community Garden is just this amazing resource that Dawn Blackman and her team of stewards do. I have known Ms. Blackman since my kids were taking classes from her. She has just these phenomenal ideas about food justice and ways in which her community can be better supported, certainly related to the Randolph Street Community Garden. One of her ideas is to build a greenhouse next to the location of the church of the Brethren on North Neil, now this is not my idea and the ReGeneration Fund is not the only source of funds for this idea.

Blackman’s idea was to build a greenhouse next to the Church of the Brethren on North Neil because that would provide fresh food year-round and it also would also provide a place to show more young people the growing seasons and how to use those foods. Because of the pandemic, I was pretty stuck about what to do next and it was kind of an obvious thing to do, to support them in getting that greenhouse further along.

One of the goals of your fund is to support youth of color and considering the many barriers they face economically and educational-wise, why do you think this is an important issue to address? Also, how can your fund support or provide solutions?

As I have said before, money attracts money, and most young people don’t have access to many resources financial and sometimes educational especially if they are people of color or indigenous people. Historically with white supremacy, all of those opportunities have been denied or very difficult to gain access to. So, young people who are trying to accomplish their goals work really hard and have many kinds of resources but sometimes a little bit of money can go a long way to get an idea realized.

My way of thinking is that older white people like myself need to just get out of the way while at the same time helping those who have ideas to further positive social change and to help them realize those things. The other thing I’d say is that in a way I do think I should get out of the way, but I also hope to build reciprocal relationships with people, many of whom I know already. However, I would like to have it be a dialogue where we’re working together to sharpen goals or clarify ideas and decide together what success looks like.

Can you talk about the most recent project you supported, the B-STEAM Accelerator Camp for Girls, who heads it, and what intrigued you to support it?

In May of this year, I met the amazing Dr. Bianca Bailey, I met her through work that I do with another collaborator. I just thought she might have some good ideas about engaging with young people and sure enough, she did. I also have been working for quite a while with the Dream Girls Academy, I have been on their board since 2013. Before it was Dream Girls it was more of an informal setup for mentoring and life coaching for girls and women.

Photo Courtesy of Sharon Irish, on the left, and Debarah McFarland, on the right.

For almost a decade now, Debarah McFarland, who founded and directs the Dream Girls Academy has been doing this really important work among girls and women. Dream Girls is a nonprofit so when I talked to Dr. Bailey about how we might work together it seemed to be a good way to support the work of the Dream Girls Academy by giving them a grant. This grant would then implement this idea that Dr. Bailey had of a B-STEAM Accelerator Camp where she shares her expertise and experience with girls from grades 6-12 who would be interested in some of the things that Dr. Bailey knows about.

We are starting small with just six sessions this fall and it’s co-sponsored by the Independent Media Center so it’s kind of these two nonprofits getting some love. And then, Dr. Bailey getting enough support to make this camp happen, which has been one of her goals. There’s not really a mission at this point except to just get to know some of these girls and their families. Also, if it’s possible, some of the girls in the camp could then be in a position to pitch other ideas for the funds to support.

Dr. Bailey has such incredible sets of skills, she’s an engineer she has experience with gardening and plants and foraging, many of the kinds of things that Dawn Blackman and the Randolph Street Community Garden are also involved with. So, there’s this really nice synergy between these different people who have interests in gardening and healing and how science, math, and the sort of school-like topics can be integrated into real-life skills.

From the recent projects discussed, how can people who may access these funds do so or gain support for their ideas?

Really, I am just one person so there is no formal process. I have a Gmail account that’s, which is on my website too. I am open to having conversations about people’s ideas and, obviously, The Community Foundation Fund have to be directed to another nonprofit so it’s not like I can give funds directly to an individual. I certainly don’t know every nonprofit in Champaign-Urbana but if somebody comes to me with an idea and wants to brainstorm about a nonprofit that might be willing to partner with them, I am happy to try and think about that with them.

To learn more about the ReGeneration Fund visit their website here:

To learn more about the B-Steam Accelerator Camp, check out our article here: