By Katie Sobiech
Crystal Jones, Co-Manager of the Akron Neighborhood Trust, knows first-hand the benefits of partnering with the Knight Foundation.
“I think the Knight Foundation is to be applauded for being dedicated to strengthening communities and supporting the development with emerging leadership within the community” Jones said.
The Knight Foundation focuses on encouraging and growing the best and brightest ideas in Akron, and catapulting people’s intelligent visions into realities.
So far they’ve funded groups such as the Torchbearers, Akron Digital Media Center, Civic Commons, and Western Reserve Broadcasting, to get the ball rolling.
Knowledge is Power
The foundation is big on supporting news efforts that inform and engage the community. This stems from the Knight brothers, James and John Knight, who led at the Akron Beacon Journal and grew their newspaper franchise across the country.
“They eventually put their money into the Knight Foundation, which now supports cities and communities that had Knight newspapers” Jennifer Thomas, Program Director of the Knight Foundation in Akron, said.
Akron was the very first.
“We give money all across the country where there are Knight groups” Thomas said.
This consists of mostly non-profits, but doesn’t shut out early stage media companies with journalism roots, or those with the intent of increasing information flow to the community.
Introducing Citizen Journalism
Not long ago, in an attempt to increase information flow, the Akron Community Foundation presented the idea of the Akron Digital Media Center to the Knight Foundation. This opened up the opportunity for everyday citizens to enter to the world of “citizen journalism”.
“They train citizens to be journalists and try to fill some of the gap that has been lost by the Beacon Journal and so on,” Thomas said.
Their news source, The Akronist (www.akronist.com), is just getting off the ground and will have an Open House to celebrate their new location at the Akron Public Library in May.
“The Knight Foundation truly cares about community access to information, which is a basic human right. And, most importantly, they’re helping to forge a new direction in journalism, one that’s still taking shape,” Chris Miller, Director of the Akron Digital Media Center and Community Investment Officer for the Akron Community Foundation, said.
“They’ve been critical to kick-starting innovative media projects across the country, and Akron was among the cities who received a Community Information Challenge grant to launch the Akron Digital Media Center and a new media website. Now, we’re able to pursue a new media model in Akron, which has been embraced by community members. These residents are empowered to practice a new form of storytelling and consume digital media in a more discerning manner,” Miller continued.
Stirring Community Conversation
The Knight Foundation also gave a 3 million dollar grant to the Civic Commons in 2009.
“Knight’s support has fueled and guided The Civic Commons’ efforts to combine online and offline tools that foster conversations and connections that drive informed, productive, collective civic action. In addition to its financial support, we have benefited from the knowledge and connections fostered by the Foundation’s reports, conferences and partnership connections.” Mike Shafarenko, President of the Civic Commons, said.
The website creates a place for citizens to converse about important topics regarding their city. This allows people that might not necessarily have a voice in certain matters to be heard.
“It was really to start to perpetuate conversation among people in a civil way that led to action or some kind of outcome. They’ve been able to aggregate people online around issues and some of the more controversial things,” Thomas explained.
For instance, one discussion was around the West Bank of the Flats in Cleveland and what the development there was going to look like.
“They really got new voices involved in the conversation, so it’s not just the same old people saying ‘this is how the development is going to go’. It’s more of ‘how can we get young people involved in this decision?’ It’s really increasing the level of conversation so that people have a voice in what’s happening locally,” Thomas continued.
“We appreciate Knight Foundation’s thought-leadership of and support for innovative approaches to civic engagement. We are merely one initiative among many in the greater engagement ecosystem – we value the Knight Foundation’s cultivation of many approaches that, when combined, produce a collective impact on democracy in the 21st century,” Shafarenko said.
Encouraging Young Professionals
They also find importance in reaching the next generation leaders, which led them to fund the Torchbearers.
“Torchbearers is a young professionals group (for those) in their late 20’s, early 30’s, who are trying to get involved in community and really step up as leaders,” Thomas shared.
The group is currently in the process of creating a curriculum around what they can do to further the community and become more active and engaged. They plan to create a Change-Maker Series curriculum using Akron’s own resources, such as famous entrepreneurs and outstanding business leaders.
“They’ll get them to come and talk to this young group of leaders about what it takes to make change. What kinds of risks are involved? What kinds of networks do you have to build? How do you get people to mentor you? And so on,” Thomas said.
“If we don’t get the younger people out there to push the envelope and make change happen, it’ll be a slower pace of progress. I like to encourage the Torchbearers to get out there and become more active in how they find ways to create change in the community,” she continued.
Another great example of their mission is Informed and Engaged Communities at the Akron Neighborhood Trust (ANT).
“They go into the Buchtel neighborhood where community learning centers are and try bringing in residents to engage with one another to determine what programs and services they want to bring into the building,” Patterson said.
“So instead of someone else coming in and telling them what to do, you’re sort of training them to take the responsibility and initiative to do so. It’s the kind of grant making that we’re doing. We’re trying to be very leading edge and to get the community to think about ‘how do you engage to make Akron a really vibrant community?'” Thomas said
“The Akron Neighborhood Trust is very grateful to the Knight Foundation for giving us this wonderful opportunity to pilot this community engagement model in the Buchtel cluster. We feel that it will make a big difference and will get everyone involved in our community and schools,” Jones said.
Thinking Outside the Box
If it’s not already obvious, the Knight Foundation is definitely making their mark. A $50,000 grant was also funded to Western Reserve Broadcasting, which airs the TV show, Neotropolis, every Wednesday night.
“It covers all of the cool things that are happening locally, whether it’s economic development, innovation, or entrepreneurship. It’s a progressive show,” Thomas explained.
The grant was given so that they could add a social media component.
“It’s not just watching television, it’s how do we engage after that? Are there ways to follow a story beyond what you see? Are there ways to become engaged in a conversation beyond what you’ve seen? Can we use modern technology to enhance what people are watching on TV? You know, trying to get the user and viewer more engaged,” she said.
They also fund the University Park Alliance (Check out story archives for story), which focuses on the 50 block area surrounding the University of Akron.
What’s Your Idea?
If you are passionate about an idea that could better the city, what is holding you back from submitting it? The Knight Foundation is looking for great minds with powerful ideas to share with the community.
“It’s fun. Entrepreneurship is a passion of mine, that’s where I came from, so anything entrepreneurial, I’d love to hear about,” Patterson said.
“We want to work with people to really get that sort of energy going,” she continued.
For more information on the Knight Foundation you can visit their website at http://www.knightfoundation.org.