MicroGrants: The Joe-Schmo way


Joseph Selvaggio has a knack for finding people in need and granting them opportunities to be their best. For the last 30 years, he’s spent a fortune of donated funds on those who need them most. He officially began MicroGrants to partner with people of potential in 2005. These grants are akin to the efforts and achievements of Muhammad Yunus, bank and micro-credit developer and 2006 Nobel Prize winner.

“In 2007,” Selvaggio admits, “I got to role-play him at the Salzburg (Global Seminar,) conference on public/private partnerships. And we reviewed how well Yunus’ investment helped Bangladeshi women. It was genius. And it started with a cell phone business.”

Now 71 years young, Selvaggio rubs shoulders with the elite of the Twin Cities, but the fanciest things about him are his red, New Balance walkabouts. This former Benedictine priest and Chicago West Side native is familiar with and particularly sensitive to the dynamics of an immigrant communities and poverty.

“I grew up in an immigrant community among Irish, Italian, Polish and Germans. And with the help of the 1% Club, PPL-Inc. and MicroGrants programs we are meeting the needs of new immigrant communities. We’re here for the people from Laos – Hmongs, you know? From Ethiopia, Mexico and Somalia to name a few.”

When Selvaggio speaks, it’s in hushed, frank and fast jaunts and I’m challenged and wanting to hear it all. Witnessing his knowledge and caretaker passion reminds me of a new pair of suede Hush Puppies. You slip ‘em on at the store and wear them home and close to always. He’s soothing, healing your tired mind.

MicroGrants are a balm for weary, stymied, but determined individuals. Many recipients are under-educated and want to achieve a higher education, or may be in need of a little extra cash to keep the heat on, afford to operate and use a car so they can keep their job. All recipients are parents in need – who use this money to access their dreams.

“We know our recipients through the screening process provided by our external agencies,” Selvaggio said. “We have great people doing the hard part. I could never say no to anyone. But WomenVenture, Summit OIC and PPL provide a diligent process and can determine who’s a good person with a plan that’s in need. We do our due diligence to make sure we’re helping to make a sustaining impact.”

But one grant winner had a fortunate intervention from the founder himself. “Joe asked me, ‘what would you like to do if you weren’t working for PPL?’” chuckles Sam Riley, security and operations administrator for PPL Properties. “And I said, that’ll happen when I’m 80, droolin’ and smell of urine, but I guess it could be bartending. It’s safer than what I do today.”

Riley’s the most astounding, 6’4” security specialist I’ve ever met. (Which is sayin’ something because I grew up with a father in the security business.) Riley’s a little older than me. He’s the father of three children, two girls and a boy that make him sparkle when speaking about them. He’s a charismatic member of the PPL team whose job it is to protect clients in PPL properties from ne’er do wells, criminals “and thrill killing idiots,” he said.

The Army veteran continues, “It’s very surreal. It’s astounding. You have to detach yourself from it and keep a clear head. You can’t look at the emotional side of it. Sometimes years go by…and then I think about it. I remember dealing with a 17-year-old, frontin’, living with a colostomy bag because of his bangin’ and I told him, you won’t keep alive doing what you do. ‘Get your shit in order!’ The next day, he pulled a gun out in the park, and a policeman shot him dead. What we are seeing out there, even after the 90s mess? Right now, this shit is not normal.”

Over the years, Riley has provided community liaison services for PPL, its clients and law enforcement agencies. His strong-arm, in-harms-way skills were honed through decades of colorful, hard work. His resume includes bodyguard work for Prince and the Revolution plus The Time, in the early to mid-late 80s.

“I didn’t tour with them,” he says. “I did the local shows. I grew up with them on the north side.”

After building a mammoth reputation in the Minneapolis club scene, Riley was recommended to join the American Wrestling Association. He became the comeback partner, the ‘put over’ for Big John Nord “The Lumberjack.”

“Back then I topped out at almost 400 lbs,” Riley recalls. “I trained down the road at the Native American Center and performed in Rochester, MN. We’d rehearse and put ourselves through the worst physical abuse imaginable. It’s entertainment for the masses, but it’s real. Brutal. I call it a dance of choreographed insanity.”

He says that work led to performing for what is now called World Wrestling Entertainment or the WWE, and to becoming friends with Governor Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura. The professional friendship continued into Ventura’s political career with Riley working on Ventura’s weekly radio show, and still continues today.

That was his job ‘back in the day’. Now? He’s providing hands-on conflict resolution, doing undercover surveillance and taking dying declarations from victims of violence, and admits it is too much for a man raising teenagers.

“Just before Christmas (2006) my brother passed on, one child needed braces, another [needed] glasses and my car stopped running. I’m supporting two households. My ex-wife is permanently disabled. Our family faced numerous financial hardships. Now, I’m not one of those who says ‘poor me, why me?’ Joe honored me by asking the question at that time – Joe reached out. The MicroGrant was a godsend. I got my car on the road, paid the bills, provided a good Christmas for my family and I enrolled in a bartending academy.”

A smile lights up his face as he recounts the “blessings” Joe has given to so many in the community. “He tries to rebuild people. It’s (MicroGrants) a hand-up, not a hand-out. With his help, we all can continue our quest for truth. We can separate out, avoid the bullshit and get to what counts.”

The MicroGrant program has had many successes. One of the first recipients, Shegitu Kebede took the $1,000 grant in 2003 to start a business. Her plan included beginning a cleaning service that employed under-skilled immigrant, single mothers.

An Ethiopian refugee and single parent, Kebede parlayed the grant into a community service. She has employed more than 30 women, taught them living-wage skills and worked with each of them attain higher-paying jobs with benefits. Ms. Kebede was the 2006 Virginia McKnight Binger Award in Human Service from the McKnight Foundation.

Industrious and creative, Kebede forged partnerships with Augsburg College, Fairview Medical Centers, and the University of Minnesota and began an after-school program for the children of single mothers she employs by utilizing more than 50 student-interns to support it. Her latest project is more a support network than a sewing class for immigrant women. She is helping women help each other with issues from parenting to employment and domestic abuse. The MicroGrant annual report quotes Kebede: “All these programs are possible because someone was there for me…now it is time for me to return the favor.”

“We are hoping to do more this year and expect to give five hundred $1000 micro grants. It’s a great, Twin Cities-focused program that can change a life. We welcome donations. There are opportunities to mentor, coach clients in becoming self-sufficient. Our intake staff provides stable program management, but I’ll never turn down good will. We’re open to growing entrepreneurs: from industrious kids starting babysitter collaborative to graduates of our partner organizations’ train to work programs. Emergency grants are necessary to keep people from falling. If you want to know a recipient, you can contact me at 1035 East Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis (PPL) or you can email me at joeshmo@qwest.net to invest in a person’s potential.”

Rachel Dykoski lives and writes in the Whittier neighborhood in Minneapolis.