Nonprofit Spotlight: Groundwork USA

Melissa Stafford
September 7, 2022
Image: Groundwork USA

This post is the fourth of a six-part series that highlights nonprofit organizations that the DG+Design team chose to receive donations for the 2021 calendar year. Each DG+ team member explains how they reached their decision, and why the nonprofit is important to them.

You can learn a lot about a society by how it treats its most vulnerable. What’s more, you can learn a lot about what the future may look like for many of us in the face of climate change by how a society treats its poorest, most resource-stressed communities today. Our system is currently broken, and as the planet continues to warm, the fractures in our foundation are only going to widen and be felt deeply across our entire society. We must find ways to ensure that all communities are empowered to not only survive, but thrive, today and in the future. 

As a foster parent for many years, I have had a very intimate look at what happens to families and communities when folks are unable to access vital resources like stable housing, a secure food system, and cheap energy. I know up close what those struggles look like and what kinds of support can make a difference. Advances in areas like energy and infrastructure and policy only help if people have access to them. 

It’s because of this that I chose to support Groundwork USA, an organization I’ve been following since before our involvement with 1% for the Planet. When given the opportunity to choose a nonprofit to support, I sought them out on the 1% network, as their direct involvement in communities experiencing disinvestment, neglect and poverty is truly making an impact. Groundwork USA is on the ground, working hand-in-hand with neighborhoods taking tangible, meaningful action, creating sustained change and making improvements for so many communities.

The mission of the Groundwork USA network is to bring about the sustained regeneration, improvement, and management of the physical environment by developing community-based partnerships that empower people, businesses, and organizations to promote environmental, economic, and social well-being. Their six main focus areas of work are: Equity and Inclusion, Healthy Communities, Climate Resilience, Transforming Brownfields, Urban Waters, and Youth Development.

One prime example of their impact, and their ability to work with multiple entities and organizations within the community to make things happen, is their participation in revitalizing the Saw Mill River in Yonkers, NY. The river had been covered in the 1920s and turned into a parking lot, and over the course of many, many years, they worked closely with the EPA Office of Water, the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary Program, the City of Yonkers, Scenic Hudson, and even design students from Columbia University, among others, to eventually establish the Saw Mill River Daylighting Park. As they put it, “few environmental projects focus community attention as dramatically as those that seek to create (or retrieve) parks and trails along urban waterways.”

While a massive undertaking, this project resulted in significant positive impacts ecologically, culturally, and economically for the community and broader ecosystem.

A group of local students overlook the Saw Mill River Daylighting Park in Hudson Valley, New York. (Image: Groundwork USA)

Another example of their work is their efforts to transform cities, like Lawrence, Massachusetts, one of the poorest cities in the Commonwealth, and home to the largest Latino population in New England. From life-threatening asthma in both children and adults, to heart disease and tobacco-related illness in older people, residents have faced no shortage of health challenges. Additionally, more than a third of the city’s children live in homes where household incomes are below the poverty line. Since 1999, Groundwork Lawrence (GWL) has spearheaded multiple, connected initiatives to help local residents improve their health and quality of life.

Not only is Groundwork USA doing their own incredible work, but they’re making the knowledge they’ve gained in the process accessible to others so that they can emulate it in their own communities. In addition to their case studies, which include a section dedicated to “Lessons Learned Along the Way,” their Equitable Development Resource Hub is full of tools, guides, podcasts, graphic novels, templates, and case studies to support others’ efforts to transform brownfields and other neglected lands into community assets.

As a designer, the Design Justice Network Principles are something that have resonated with me, and in my opinion, Groundwork USA embodies all of them:

In some nonprofits, operating under assumptions can take the place of listening to the real needs of the community being served. This doesn’t benefit anyone and typically results in little to no positive change. This is not the case with Groundwork USA. From the language they use on their website and marketing collateral to the projects they work on, it was clear to me that they truly work with the community. They take a proactive approach to situations like housing insecurity and food access and rather than hoping to put a bandaid on things once they get bad, they focus on addressing the source of these problems through preventative work.

Groundwork USA is the only network of local organizations devoted to transforming the natural and built environment of low-resource communities—a national enterprise with local roots, working at the intersection of the environment, equity, and civic engagement. In their own words, “We believe in leading by doing.” For more information and to donate, visit 

About DG+ Donations

Last year, DG+Design joined the 1% for the Planet community to help support nonprofits that are fighting pressing environmental issues around the world. Any organization can join the community, which helps vet nonprofits to help us as donors choose legitimate, trusted recipients for our contributions.

While the DG+ team’s contributions might be relatively small when compared to some of the larger community members, we still followed a formal process to our giving. Our approach was relatively simple. Each of our full-time employees chose a recipient non-profit organization to receive funding. Then, our total donations were split equally among these nonprofits.


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