Articles by

Lilly Weinberg

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    Lilly Weinberg is director for community foundations at Knight Foundation. Below, she highlights a recent report detailing the impact of the Knight-supported On the Table initiative, which brings together community residents over mealtime conversations to discuss pressing community issues.  In a time of growing polarization, when trust in institutions of all kinds has hit all-time lows and social media conversations often descend into hateful rhetoric, it may seem difficult to find pathways for consensus and common ground. At the same time, the strength of our democracy and our local communities relies on connected action — the ability of residents to hear each other, make informed choices and shape decision-making.Through this lens, in 2017 Knight Foundation expanded an initiative of the Chicago Community Trust called On the Table. Founded on the basic premise that ‘we all need to eat,’ On the Table brings people from different backgrounds and income levels together to share a meal and discuss pressing community issues. In a few short years, with the help of community foundations across the country, it has united tens of thousands of city residents on a single day to talk about issues from affordable housing and climate change to racial equity and transportation.
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    Cities across the country – big and small – are investing in linear parks and urban trails. Communities are prioritizing these important and substantial investments for a variety of important reasons: they effectively connect public assets - like parks and libraries - with diverse neighborhoods; activate underused spaces (think New York City’s High Line crafted from a former rail line); and spur economic development in nearby areas.But designing, promoting and funding linear parks can be challenging, often spanning miles of multiple municipalities, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, with support from complicated funding models. So, what happens when three unique cities get together to talk about their signature linear parks and trails? A whole lot of learning. Knight Foundation funded an information exchange between two Knight cities, Lexington, Ky. and Miami, and Atlanta to do just that . Last month, a team from The Friends of The Underline (a 10-mile linear path in Miami-Dade) and Townbranch Commons (a 3-mile linear trail and park in downtown Lexington) met in Atlanta to have a deep-dive exchange about their future projects with the city’s Beltline team. As many know, Atlanta’s Beltline is a multi-billion dollar, 22-mile light rail and bike/pedestrian trail that has transformed the communities it passes through. While most community members love their Beltline, not everyone is thrilled. We wanted to hear it all: the good, bad and indifferent. And while we came from very different communities with unique projects, we had four shared takeaways.
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    We live in a time of disruption for local news and information. Local media continues to shrink, trust in journalistic institutions is at an all-time low, and people can’t even agree on what constitutes a fact.  It’s a difficult time to navigate, especially if you believe like we do that good, accurate and contextual information is essential to strong communities and a healthy democracy. Local news and information is particularly important to our lives. How else can you learn about your children’s school system or the pollutants in your neighborhood lake?  
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    Photo by Lilly Weinberg. Last month, Knight Foundation sent 20 Emerging City Champions from 13 cities to an intensive studio in Toronto hosted by our partner 8 80 Cities to better develop their winning ideas. This is the second year of the program, and I was eager to see how it’s developed, so I went along for the ride, participating in all of the sessions. I left the studio impressed. Mostly, I loved the energy of the group and getting to know the seven young leaders from the small to midsize markets I manage for Knight. Each participant will receive $5,000 to implement a project in one year that will improve mobility, public spaces or civic engagement in their home cities. I am excited to see their projects in action. A lot was jam-packed into the studio, which lasted for four days, 12 hours each day. There were many lessons shared about how to get started that benefited the young urbanists, many new to social change. For some, the idea of executing on a project in a short period of time felt overwhelming, but the studio showed how transformational change is doable even with a small amount of money and time. Here were my top takeaways from the sessions:
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    'On the Table' in Chicago. Photo by Lilly Weinberg. Last month, 55,000 residents of Chicago ate meals together, discussed pressing community topics and brainstormed solutions as part of the Chicago Community Trust’s, “On the Table” initiative. The initiative started three years ago with no ambition except celebrating the trust’s 99th year. However, it was clear after the first On the Table that there was major demand from the community. The trust saw this as an opportunity to not just engage residents but to use data from those conversations to better inform its strategy and Chicago decision-makers. Knight followed the initiative’s success and thought, What if we could do this in Knight cities, leveraging the leadership of local community foundations? As a result, this year we funded the On the Table Symposium, which allowed for civic leaders from all 26 Knight communities to learn directly from the trust. In fact, a day of the symposium included the On the Table event, in which participants had breakfast, lunch and dinner with residents across Chicago. It was filling in more ways than one, so with much optimism, here are my top three takeaways for replicating the event successfully: 1.     Quality not just quantity: While getting as many people as possible to partake in the meals should be a goal, creating an inclusive and intimate environment is a must. Whether the event is at a large community center or someone’s home, limit each table to a maximum of 12 people. This allows for people to feel more comfortable and decreases the likelihood of cross-talking. Everyone should be allowed to have a voice, and having respect for each other is nonnegotiable.  2.     No agendas: This one made me a bit uncomfortable; we all like a bit of structure, right? How can you assemble so many people effectively without an agenda? But these conversations aren’t trying to sell anyone anything. They are bringing people together from different communities to problem-solve issues they want to discuss. To do this successfully, the participants have to believe they can trust one another. In my last meal—held without an agenda—I overheard a police officer and teens from Chicago’s South Side discuss the core components of community trust, love and hope—a rarity for a community where trust and optimism are at an all-time low.
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    Winter’s in its final days, but it’s been downright confusing. The warmest winter in history? Check. All-time lows? Check. Snow records? Check. Unpredictable weather, especially in the northern states is just part of the deal. We’re both Florida natives living in Miami, but we’ve sought to learn more about this “foreign” subject matter. Many of the 18 small to midsize Knight communities, which we represent, are cold weather cities—from Grand Forks, N.D. to Boulder, Colo. We visited Grand Forks to experience the extreme cold firsthand, and we interviewed people from Knight communities across the country about how they embrace winter. Here are our top five takeaways from what we learned: Downtown Boulder bike paths and trails are completeley clear in the winter, which makes commuting, physical activity and programming easy in the winter.   5) Program. Program. Program: Studies show residents in cold climates are more inclined to stay in their homes during the winter, so programming is essential to bring them out of hibernation to community activities anywhere. Boulder gets people to come out to recreation centers with a robust schedule of activities. According to Alison Rhodes, a parks and recreation manager with the city, rec center usage increases 40 percent in the winter. Lee Shainis, executive director of Intercambio Uniting Communities, which focuses on immigrant integration in Boulder County, added that it’s important to think about the needs of immigrant communities during the winter. What climate did the new community members come from, how can programming support their needs, and what activities can build bridges? In Boulder, activities take advantage of the region’s unbelievable natural resources. Activities such as snowshoeing are economical and easy for everyone. Even bike rides are popular. As the joke goes in Boulder, bike lanes and paths are cleared faster than the roads.