Bahia Ramos feels the beat of local communities in her grantmaking

communities / Article

Above: Bahia Ramos

Bahia Ramos learned the importance of empathy from her grandmother at an early age. It’s a notion the Brooklyn native worked hard to weave into her role as the director of Knight’s Community Foundations’ program.

“Always knowing what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes and having consideration for that is an important step of the decision-making process,” she explains.

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When Ramos first came to Miami as a National Urban Fellow, she wasn’t sure exactly where an internship at Knight would lead. Three years later, her role at Knight has grown and taken her all over the country to spearhead grantmaking in partnership with 18 local community foundations. It’s “the chance to take a micro-view of communities” - from Long Beach, Calif., to Palm Beach County - that excites her.  

Below, Ramos shares what ideas connect small cities and what we can expect from this year’s Knight Community Information Challenge winners.  She even introduces us to her alter-ego.

You travel to a lot of small and mid-sized cities. What common themes connect them?

B.R.: Small cities are very in touch with their own identities. It’s easy for them to speak to their own unique characters. A strength many have is that their core is small and concentrated so people can connect more easily with each other than in larger cities. Smaller cities want to make a name for themselves and and they don’t want to lose their residents to other places. They’re all also pushing for the big city ideals, though, like having a stable middle class, being an interesting place to live and having cool cultural and social offerings.

Do any in particular stand out?

B.R.: Wichita, Kan., is interesting because it’s a city that lost a major industry [aeronautical engineering] and is trying to re-imagine itself. It’s making a very concentrated effort to involve regular people in thinking about the community’s progress. They’re also really making an effort to use economic and real-estate development to help the city. For example, with Knight’s support the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Visioneering Wichita, the Young Professionals of Wichita and the Wichita Community Foundation are coming together to help figure out how to spur economic investment downtown. Another is Boulder, Colo., because it breeds entrepreneurial activity. It’s an open environment and its growing population is bringing together local entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and others really well. As Miami’s own entrepreneurial ecosystem grows, it’s looking to Boulder for insight.

Could you share a bit about your approach to local grantmaking? What about it excites you?

B.R.: Working directly with people who are so focused on a local level is inspiring. My work has always centered on that, because for me it always comes back to what’s important in a specific place at a specific time. I want to know how projects impact everyday people and enable them to have a voice in the changes shaping their communities. I like to think this micro-view helps keep me in touch with what’s happening on the ground in places across and the country.

You were recently selected as a Miami Fellow by The Miami Foundation. What excites you about the program, which is designed to engage new leaders in building a better future for the city?

B.R. I’ve lived in Miami for three years, but I still think of myself as a newcomer. Being a fellow has opened my eyes to all the moving parts of the city, beyond downtown and South Beach. It’s been quite an experience to realize all the unique identities of people here. To be exposed to it all while the city is in such a transition is also very special. It’s reaffirmed to me that I can be leader in that change and in turn it has made me feel more connected to Miami. It’s also nice to be around like-minded individuals who are invested in the future of the city. We’re all discovering new ways to insert ourselves into the leadership here and how to make our voices heard.  

After five years of the Knight Community Information Challenge, which you co-lead with Knight’s program director in Charlotte, Susan Patterson, it took a new direction this year with a focus on Open Gov projects. Why this focus?

B.R.: When you’ve been doing something as a foundation for five years, it’s important to step back and take stock of your progress and explore other opportunities. We’d reached over half of community foundations through the challenge, but were still missing out on connections in other areas of Knight’s portfolio. An Open Gov focus allowed us to better connect the work of community foundations more broadly with some of our journalism and media innovation efforts. Yet, the challenge still gives [community foundations] space to generate their own ideas. We also experimented by offering seed-funding, we’re hoping that smaller grants will give people room to experiment more easily before scaling their ideas.

When will we get to meet this year’s winners?

B.R. In mid-September. We’re looking forward to celebrating them at the Council on Foundations’ annual fall conference for community foundations in San Diego, Calif., on Sept. 24.

What are some of the greatest impacts you’ve seen come from projects funded through the challenge?

B.R.: Oklahoma Watch, a project of Tulsa Community Foundation, which produces investigative journalism on state public policy issues, helped drive certain prison reform measures, particularly around how low-risk and non-violent offenders are treated. Ready Set Learn, a campaign to inform people about the need to get kids into active learning, funded by Community Foundation Serving Boulder County, also helped change public policy and increased funding for preschool and kindergarten classes for low-income schools.

I heard a rumor that your dream life is to be a DJ. True or false?

B.R.: True! I’ve wanted to be one since I was a little kid making mix tapes. I’ve always thought about what it would feel like to move the crowd. In some way that’s very much at the heart of local grantmaking. I always want to play a good beat.

By Elizabeth R. Miller, communications associate at Knight Foundation

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