Recent news headlines reflect the enormous challenges our country faces. In Charlotte, a police shooting in September led to days of unrest, echoing all too familiar scenes in other cities. Communities across the country are being damaged by extreme weather—a more frequent occurrence as our planet warms. And 24/7 election coverage suggests that polarization has permanently impacted any attempt at finding common ground.
In times like these, it can be tempting to conclude that solutions to such daunting, systemic problems are beyond our communities’ capabilities—or that perhaps solutions don’t exist at all.
That would be the wrong conclusion. There are ways to surmount the many challenges we face, and the best ones often come from within our communities. After all, we are the ones living here, the ones who understand our environments from the ground up. We know the players, the context, what hasn’t worked in the past—and what could work in the future.
For Knight Foundation, this isn’t just talk. We just launched the third Knight Cities Challenge, which offers up to $5 million to civic innovators from all walks of life who want to take hold of their cities’ futures. Unlike other grant competitions, which often favor established ideas and institutions, the Knight Cities Challenge is open to anyone: architects, activists, artists, city planners, entrepreneurs, students, educators, and city officials, as well as governments and organizations. The only thing an applicant to the Challenge has to answer is this question: “What is your best idea to make cities more successful?”
The reason the challenge is so open is that we believe deeply in the power of diverse viewpoints. While it might sound like lip service, creating an inclusive platform that encourages diverse connections and ideas is in fact a profoundly powerful practice that offers tremendous benefits to American communities. Doing so allows us to share the fruits of experiences and opinions from the widest possible array of voices, and helps us create solutions that work for all of us—not just a select few.
With more people involved in shaping our cities, we can bring our communities together and support talented local leaders and innovators of all backgrounds. By doing so, we can make our communities more vibrant and better places for all of us to live and work.
Many projects from the first two challenges are up and running in the 26 communities across the country where Knight Foundation works. Their impact has been considerable. A project called ReBrand Detroit, for example, is helping local businesses and entrepreneurs use branding to accelerate their businesses’ growth and spur grassroots neighborhood innovation. Another winner, Urban Consulate, has transformed civic conversations in New Orleans, Philadelphia and Detroit by “acting as a network of parlors for cross-city exchange,” as one local newspaper put it. A self-sustaining floating science and climate change education center called the Miami Science Barge has been educating residents of all ages on sustainability and local environmental issues since 2015. And in Philadelphia, the Hip-Hop Institute of Entrepreneurship is using the philosophy of hip-hop to teach young people from underserved communities who want to start a business but lack the funding or training to do so.
What these projects have in common—and what all challenge winners have in common—is their devotion to at least one of the three factors that research has shown to help create a strong, successful city. First, such cities attract and keep talented people. Second, these cities have robust economic opportunities, which materialize when we break down socioeconomic divides and create new connections between neighbors. And third, strong cities have connected and civically engaged citizens.
We understand that successful cities require buy-in from their citizens. When they buy in to talent, opportunity, and engagement as pillars of their city, citizens can make a difference for themselves and for their fellow community members, whether it’s through pop-up pools that bring together residents of all socioeconomic backgrounds, artwork at poll stations that encourages voter participation, sidewalk events that connect citizens with their local government, or community-wide conversations over dinner at a very, very long table. But these solutions are already out there—they are previous Challenge winners. What’s next? How do we keep improving our communities?
That’s where you come in. This is an opportunity for you to improve your city—and to get support from Knight Foundation to do so. So here’s my question: what’s your best idea to make your city more successful? Let’s make it happen.
Lynn M. Ross is vice president for community and national initiatives at Knight Foundation.