Articles by

Vignesh Ramachandran

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    A new project is adding a bit of color to what was once a drab, vacant building in the heart of Downtown San Jose.Erin Salazar, founding founding executive director of Exhibition District, and her organization have worked with the city and downtown association to transform a former retail store into a creative community center they call Local Color, a just-announced winner of the 2017 Knight Cities Challenge. 
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    Photos courtesy of California Walks. Areas of San Jose are a lot more walkable than the average resident may think – and a statewide advocacy group is helping increase awareness about it. California Walks, which advocates for pedestrian safety and walkable communities throughout the state, is working on “Walk San Jose,” an initiative to identify and create walking loops that people can explore. Knight Foundation supported the project with $30,000. Part of the goal is “having more of a conversation around the value of walking in San Jose and the value of walkable communities,” said Jaime Fearer, the San Jose-based planning and policy manager for California Walks. The Walk San Jose initiative is creating six small cards that feature walking loops as a free resource that people will be able to pick up at coffee shops, office buildings, hotels, the convention center and other locations around the city. Two routes have been completed: The first loop focuses on exploring civic, art and architectural history in Downtown San Jose, while the second loop focuses on the city’s visual and performing arts, education and innovation. “They’re really meant to be community-owned, community-based asset maps,” Fearer said. “So the community is involved in deciding what they want to highlight and where the loop goes.” The planning process includes a “walk audit,” where members of the community can help think about what makes a walkable route and community. The audit looks at elements such as the condition of a sidewalk, level of daytime shade, adequate nighttime lighting and whether the area is full of trash or blighted buildings.
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    Photo by Michael Bolden on Flickr. A collection of small $1,000 ideas can go a long way toward improving community in San Jose, California. At least that’s the motivation behind the Awesome Foundation’s San Jose chapter, which launched in June 2015 thanks to Knight support and plans to mark the occasion with an anniversary party this fall. The Awesome Foundation is a global community with more than 80 active chapters around the world that support community projects through $1,000 microgrants. Knight Foundation has provided $6,000 in startup funding for the San Jose chapter and has also supported the Miami chapter. Since its launch last summer, the San Jose chapter has funded projects that span from helping create a community room inside a library, to supporting a free robotics program for underprivileged children, to helping put lights on the bikes of San Jose riders. “I see the potential for [microgrants] making really big change,” said Jonathan Schuppert, dean of the Awesome Foundation San Jose chapter. “I think a lot of people … they have great ideas but they just lack the resources to be able to actually implement them.” Awesome Foundation chapters generally have at least 10 local people get together and contribute $100 each so that the chapter can award a $1,000 grant. The chapter trustees review microgrant applications and decide which projects to fund. (San Jose chapter trustees include Knight Foundation San Program Associate Mark Haney.) Often the $1,000 funding is the final catalyst someone needs to make a project happen, Schuppert said. “Hopefully with that success comes other successful projects and other ideas, and inspires other people to then do things,” he added.
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    A new initiative seeks to bring some of the most interesting things happening in Silicon Valley into one of the most public spaces in our communities: the public library. The goal is to bring the ideas of innovation centers and accelerator programs for the community into the city’s library system. “Public libraries are an entry place for people who are looking to get connected,” said San Jose Public Library Director Jill Bourne. “They have a need that they need to fill. They’re looking for information and referral often.” With support from Knight, the San Jose Public Library WORKS program is connecting the community with resources to help in job searching and employment training. The program helps refer people to the right organizations that might help in the career process. The San Jose Public Library system includes a large named library and 23 branches in neighborhoods across the city. Right now, community members can walk into any of these branch libraries to get access to a website and plug into the resources of available programs and calendars. “We’re often able to reach communities that may not have any other access point, or other access points seem intimidating to them, because maybe they have a language gap or a literacy gap or they can’t travel across town to a program,” Bourne said. “The library is ultimately accessible, and they feel very comfortable there.” The idea is for the San Jose Public Library system to be an entry point: the library might connect someone to an online training track to get an accredited high school diploma or toward getting training skills to apply for certain jobs. People can access these resources at any branch library or online at home, and the services are also available in Spanish and Vietnamese.
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    All photos are courtesy of Garden to Table. Zach Lewis manages a Northern California farm that produces many different vegetables – kale to spring onions – but it’s in a location where planes fly close overhead and Silicon Valley traffic whizzes by. Lewis is executive director of Garden to Table, a San Jose-based organization that focuses on building community around a sustainable, local food system. The nonprofit has established an urban farm on San Jose’s Taylor Street – right next to a big freeway and not too far from the flight paths of nearby Mineta San Jose International Airport. The 1-acre lot – just a 5-minute bike ride from the downtown core – had been vacant for over 50 years, covered in weeds and occasional trash. A few years ago, Bay Area-based developer Barry Swenson donated a land lease to Garden to Table, which is now transforming the space into a fresh food. Knight Foundation provided $60,000 in support to the farm. “The purpose of the farm is really to connect people together through education and through great food,” Lewis said. About half of the available space is being used for farming.  Garden to Table has built a series of  large raised beds, totaling about 5,000 square feet, which required bringing in soil suitable for planting, Lewis said, “which is one of those funky challenges you get in urban environments.” The farm is growing vegetables that are suitable for San Jose’s climate: garlic, radishes, beets and carrots are thriving now, while summer crops like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are being planted. Garden to Table’s Taylor Street farm stand reopened after its winter closure at the end of April. It’ll be open every Saturday for the rest of the year, Lewis, said. In late June or early July, the farm plans to add another day for food sales.
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    Photo and videos by San Jose Taiko. San Jose’s highly acclaimed Japanese-American drumming group is trying something new: free experimental performances in urban spaces around the city. With $20,000 in support from Knight Foundation, San Jose Taiko has embarked on these small experiments that tap into Greater San Jose by using “space as inspiration” for performances, according to Franco Imperial, the group’s artistic director. This “Inspiration by Discovery” initiative is also supported by The James Irvine Foundation. The idea is to have free performances that take advantage of unique spaces or acoustics around San Jose, Imperial said. “Taiko” is a barrel-shaped Japanese drum but is used in San Jose to describe both the drum and the drumming ensemble. San Jose Taiko—founded in 1973--empowers its members with creative control: All compositions they perform are written or arranged by the group. The organization has 20 members and an apprentice, with ages ranging from 24 to 52. The first of these three experimental performances was held last summer: The drumming group twice took over the iconic Circle of Palms Plaza in downtown San Jose, which is located between the San Jose Museum of Art and the Fairmont Hotel. Video from a GoPro mounted on a drone captured a birds-eye view of the circular performances. Very little of the performance was rehearsed beforehand, Imperial said, which led to a casual, “anything-could-happen” atmosphere that appealed to much of the audience.
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    Above: "Vrindavan," photo courtesy Naatak.   America’s largest Indian theater company – Naatak – took on a culturally sensitive issue in a recent production: widowhood in India. Naatak, a Bay Area-based theater company formed in 1995, presented its 50th play last September – “Vrindavan,” a modern play about 12 widows living in the Indian town of Vrindavan. Thousands of Indian widows have traditionally gone to live in this town, located between Delhi and Agra in northern India, after being kicked out of their homes. In some sects of traditional Indian communities, women can be blamed for their husband’s death and forced to shave their heads. The play was inspired by a real-life event: In 2014, Bollywood-actress-turned-politician Hema Malini made controversial remarks about the town of Vrindavan, saying it was overcrowded and that more widows shouldn’t move there. These remarks sparked some public outcry, which “Vrindavan” playwright and director Sujit Saraf said inspired the play. Knight Foundation provided $30,000 in funding for “Vrindavan” – which was full of classical music and dance – as well as for another production that premieres this fall. The funding helped with hiring professional musicians and dancers for the production. In Hindu literature, Vrindavan is known as the town where Lord Krishna spent his teenage years. Widows have been known to spend time there singing songs in praise of this Hindu deity. The play echoes the 2014 real-life incident: It was set in a home for widows and centered around a dozen widows who learned to live among squalid, cramped conditions and end up dealing with a Bollywood star who arrives and tells them to return to their original homes.
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    Above: Two Artsopolis grantee organizations (San Jose Taiko and Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose) in a collaborative performance. Photos courtesy of Artsopolis.  A Knight Foundation-supported technology platform is arming arts service organizations around the country with tools to publicize areas of the arts that aren’t always noticed by the public or covered by the media. Originally developed almost 15 years ago, Silicon Valley Creates’ Artsopolis platform provides a digital hub to promote events and activities in a city’s arts ecosystem. About 50 communities around the United States – and now one in Ecuador – are using Artsopolis technology to power websites that feature local events, artist profiles, arts education information, public art facts and classifieds to promote jobs and auditions within the arts. The sites might feature productions as big as the local symphony or “The Lion King,” alongside events from a small theater. “The Artsopolis platform really levels the playing field for the small groups to be able to have visibility in relation to the large organizations,” said Jeff Trabucco, director of Artsopolis. The Artsopolis platform complements another Knight-funded effort, Creative Exchange, an initiative of Springboard for the Arts and Urban Innovation Exchange that is a “national platform for storytelling and resource-sharing” among artists and the creative community. A majority of Artsopolis licensees are arts service organizations (typically an arts council, arts alliance or creative coalition), while some tourism bureaus and media organizations have also adopted the technology. The platform recently received $100,000 from Knight Foundation to boost its efforts in Knight communities, such as San Jose, and to deploy four new tools:
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    Photos are courtesy Kartma Street Cafe. For the last month, people walking near Market and Santa Clara streets in downtown San Jose have been doing a double take at an outdoor street cafe. It’s not just the coffee; it’s the sandwich board that advertises, “The street cafe that’s ending homelessness.” Those words are true to their core: Kartma Street Cafe – a project of the Downtown Streets Team – is training and employing people who are working their way out of homelessness. The refurbished cart has sleek branding, artisan coffee and, since the street café’s launch in November, three once-homeless team members have been employed for 30 hours per week, making $15 an hour. Kartma in action. Courtesy Kartma Street Cafe. “One of our team members moved in [to a home] the same day he started with us,” said Rob Sanchez, project manager of Kartma Street Cafe. Since then, all three employees have either been housed or have received housing vouchers thanks to a community-wide effort, Sanchez said. Knight Foundation provided Kartma with $25,000 in support to expand economic opportunity.
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    Bilingual "Dichos" books paid for by a Somos Mayfair microgrant provide students with suggested activities. Photo courtesy Somos Mayfair. A nonprofit in San Jose is handing out grants to local residents for projects that benefit the city’s Mayfair neighborhood. The program is modeled after awards made by the Awesome Foundation, which has chapters across the country that make no-strings-attached grants. Somos Mayfair works to address problems of the working poor and immigrants in Mayfair – a community predominately made up of people from Mexico, Central America, Vietnam and Cambodia. Knight Foundation supports Somos Mayfair in its efforts to provide $1,000 to $2,000 microgrants for creative ideas that help the community. “We believe [the] community, they know their problems best, and given the tools, they also know their solutions,” said Jessica Paz-Cedillos, Somos Mayfair’s director of resource development. Somos Mayfair has been advocating for participatory budgeting where the public helps decide how to spend government dollars, and the microgrants align with that goal by empowering the community, Paz-Cedillos said. Two projects have been funded and completed this fall. The first grant went to a group of mothers who are volunteers at local elementary schools in Mayfair; they purchased three sets of bilingual books – called “Dichos” – that tell stories that are culturally relevant to the Latino community. The volunteers wanted the books because they regularly read to children at the schools. The second grant funded a local screening of a movie about civil rights leader Cesar Chavez and how the Latino population became involved in the 1950s labor movement.