25 civic innovators named K880 Emerging City Champions to build better communities

Photo of Detroit by Flickr user Mike Boening. 

Ryan O’Connor is project manager for 8 80 Cities, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming cities. Here he writes about the first class of K880 Emerging City Champions, a fellowship program supported by Knight Foundation

Every city needs champions. Local champions see the potential to create meaningful change if neighbors work together to develop a shared vision for a more livable community. These leaders galvanize support around a collective idea, and catalyze action to make it happen. But sometimes a champion needs a little help to get started. The K880 Emerging City Champions fellowship program can offer that jump-start. Through a competitive application process, 8 80 Cities and Knight Foundation have selected 25 young civic innovators to participate in this new program.

These 25 champions—who represent the Knight communities of Akron, Ohio; Charlotte, N.C.; Detroit; Macon, Ga.; Miami; San Jose, Calif.; and St. Paul, Minn.—will receive $5,000 in funding, professional mentorship and an invitation to attend a workshop in Toronto to support them in implementing high-impact urban projects that will strengthen mobility, improve public spaces, and enhance civic engagement in their cities.

The Emerging City Champions application process began in April and concluded earlier this month. Each applicant was asked to share an idea—any idea—that would improve social and physical connections in their city, particularly among low-income and high-needs communities. The applicants were also required to submit a multimedia proposal which demonstrated their vision. The proposed community projects came to life through videos, songs, posters, digital collages and slide presentations. The review panel weighed each application on a simple set of criteria: 1) Will the project enhance mobility, public spaces and civic engagement in the target community; 2) Can the project be implemented; 3) Is the idea new and innovative; and 4) Does the applicant demonstrate qualities of an effective community leader?

Dozens of community champions submitted high-quality applications that matched these four criteria. However, 25 applicants set themselves apart by submitting powerful and creative solutions to crucial civic challenges. Through their multimedia submissions, the successful applicants also demonstrated dedication to their community and enthusiasm for their project idea. This first class of Emerging City Champions comprises artists, advocates, tradespeople, social entrepreneurs, filmmakers, dancers, bike mechanics and health care professionals. What they all share is the willingness to experiment with new and exciting ideas, and the leadership skills to create change.

The first stop in their yearlong journey as Emerging City Champions is Toronto. Each champion will attend the Emerging City Champions Studio, where they will build on their existing skills and knowledge on how to implement effective and inclusive community projects. Part boot camp, part program kickoff, the studio will include a series of interactive workshops and presentations led by city building experts from across North America. Each day will be structured around a theme – from project development to project implementation – which will guide the champions through each phase of making their community project idea a reality. In addition to the educational component, the studio is also an opportunity for the champions to connect with their professional mentors, and to begin to build a network among their peers.

On June 17, the champions will return to their home cities. That’s when the real work begins. They will have one year to implement their community vision, but they won’t be alone. 8 80 Cities, Knight Foundation, the professional mentors and the extended network of Emerging City Champions will be there to support them each step of the way. One year from now, this group will have fully emerged as community champions, inspiring many more to follow their lead.

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