Upstream Works Collaborative is hard to define. 

Co-founder Beth Katz describes the goals of her one-year-old nonprofit with terms more befitting a startup, aiming “to be the most responsive, adaptive, productive, innovative, supportive group possible.” The organization’s mission statement—“working together to support thriving and equitable communities”—is almost comically broad. 

Perhaps the clearest summary comes via negation: “I think of Upstream Works as a tool to get things done,” says co-founder Julia Katz, Beth’s wife. “I don’t think of it as a volunteer opportunity.”

Essentially, Upstream empowers individuals to quickly respond to their community’s needs through charitable means—facilitating funding for projects, matching specialists with those with complementary skills, and bridging the gap between the nonprofit world’s false dichotomy of “community members” and “practitioners.” The name highlights the organization’s belief in “going upstream” to address the root causes of issues: not solving one-off problems, but finding and eliminating their underlying cause.

The eleven-person nonprofit, featuring specialists in urban design, food equity, affordable housing, transit planning, and more, has already sparked a variety of signature efforts: Durham Bowls, which pairs local chefs with school nutrition managers to build healthier lunches in Durham Public Schools; Point4Health, a tactical urbanism project that improves grocery store accessibility for affordable housing residents in Maplewood; and Bull City Rebuilds, which raised nearly $38,000 for those families and businesses affected by the April 10 explosion on Duke Street.

The idea began with conversations among co-founders Beth and Julie Katz and Linden Thayer. Beth Katz and Thayer pursue food equity through Food Insight Group, their B-corporation; Julia Katz inhabits the adjacent if distinct field of affordable housing. They were facing the same struggles in tackling community problems, as the litany of steps required—to access grants, engage the right local stakeholders, and even design a website and logo—quickly overwhelmed them. The inevitable outcome, says Beth Katz, “is not so much shortcomings on projects—it’s the absence of projects.”

They could’ve launched separate nonprofits, says Julia Katz, but instead they built a more versatile solution. With Upstream, potential collaborators apply to join; if accepted, they can apply to develop a project (which must fit Upstream’s mission, focus on equity, and include interdisciplinary teamwork) or find fiscal sponsorship for grants or tax-deductible donations through Upstream’s 501c(3) status.

Much of Upstream’s appeal, says Beth Katz, is in creating “a structure through which people can do their best work.” 

“There isn’t a job in everyone’s exact, perfect spot in their field,” says Julia Katz. 

By fostering discussions among individuals in divergent areas, Upstream enables them to find or build projects that match their passions. Additionally, this often independent work leads to “self-selecting,” says collaborator and designer Rebekah Miel. The collective structure allows for the sharing of resources, such as accounting and legal services, professional development, or even Adobe access.

Miel created the Bull City Rebuilds GoFundMe in the immediate aftermath of the Duke Street explosion. Her initiative led to the “slightly terrifying” situation of having to equitably disburse thousands of dollars, but it also led to something more: Less than two weeks after the blast, United Way, in conjunction with Upstream and other partners, started the Durham One Fund, which puts in place both a standing fund and a system for creating community response teams to help meet needs following future disasters.

Miel’s success hints at the impacts Upstream might have: Durham Bowls isn’t just making tastier school lunches; it’s also addressing programmatic underfunding and the power of minor tweaks to combat budget shortfalls. Point4Health highlights a neighborhood’s food insecurity but also larger failings around accessibility, like the lack of a city policy requiring affordable housing for seniors to be next to a bus stop.

Currently, collaborators aren’t paid, and Upstream has no office. But that also means it has less overhead and can be more selective in its projects. And with a startup’s flexibility, Upstream can launch ideas faster, as demonstrated by Bull City Rebuilds. Its goals will determine its structure, not vice versa.

Upstream’s future isn’t clear: Its co-founders aren’t aiming for exponential growth, although they’ll need to grow to sustain their work. But Julia Katz, in explaining Point4Health, lands on the potential value this collaborative could have. As a member of Durham’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, she knows that the city wants temporary changes to neighborhoods to demonstrate the desire for crosswalks and bike lanes. 

“Part of [Point4Health] is a first example of how a community can do it, but there are a lot of hurdles,” she says. “And so I’m showing the city: If you want people to do this, it needs to be made easier to do.”

This is a corollary for Upstream’s efforts. Improving equity is nice, but the co-founders know precisely the uphill climb it requires. So together, they’re making it a little less difficult.

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