ECC 2018 Catch Up: Akron, St. Paul, and Macon

Emerging City Champions (ECC) is a fellowship program led by 8 80 Cities. ECC provides young civic innovators with leadership training and $5,000 in seed funding to launch transformative projects to enhance public space, urban mobility, or civic engagement in their city. ECC is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Visit for more, and look for the next application call-out in spring 2020.

This week, we’re catching up with the ECC 2018 cohort to learn about what they accomplished during their 2018-2019 fellowship.

Photo c/o Josy Jones

Akron, Ohio

Josy Jones is an actor, director, playwright, and community builder originally from Cleveland, Ohio. In 2015, Josy started a theatre group, The Chameleon Village Theatre Collective, to bring site-specific theatre to Macon, Georgia and provide artists with an outlet for exploration. Josy thinks theatre serves as a catalyst for the voices of the unheard and has dedicated her journey to finding those connections. Josy currently lives in Akron, Ohio and has brought the concepts of the Chameleon Village with her. Josy is currently working on growing the Chameleon Village into a business. Her main goal is to activate under-utilized space and be a catalyst for pairing arts and community with economic development.

Josy’s passion for new work and using underutilized space were the foundation of her ECC project idea, Reimagining the Village. She conducted a site-specific “class” where she selected a few members of a community to walk around their neighborhood and reimagine their space with stories connected to them. She then assisted them in creating original, short plays that happen in those spaces and conducted a live, site-specific theatre tour through the neighborhood. Reimagining the Village highlighted the beauty of those spaces, allowed both residents and other Akronites to reimagine those spaces and their potential, encouraged neighborhood exploration, reshaped the narrative of the individuals who live in Cascade Village and provided residents with the tools to reshape their community’s narrative.

ECC allowed Josy to do her first grant-funded project. She was able to create an intergenerational space for Black women creators where folks with different religious backgrounds and sexual orientations were able to create together. This work served as a foundation for a future project she will be working on called “HOME,” a project utilizing theatre to collect stories from residents in a neighborhood, ask about their strengths and interests, and have their input to inform future usage of dual-zoning spaces in Akron that will be activated with theatre created out of their stories.

Fellow Akronite Kai Wick is a community artist and maker who graduated with a B.F.A. in Sculpture in 2015 and now runs her own studio in downtown Akron. Kai’s work focuses on communities looking to make the next step in their revitalization process. This includes creating park benches, garden planters, and parklets. She also works directly with community members in designing custom projects that focuses on their neighborhood’s needs and values.

Kai’s initial ECC project idea, the Interactive Bus Stop, was intended to bring playful positivity to a space that can be associated with everyday, boring, and stressful routines. Kai developed community partnerships to invite local neighbors to contribute prototyping input and data about their transit and pedestrian needs, and she received city approval for access to a sidewalk peninsula to complete the bus stop install. Later in her fellowship year, Kai’s goals and circumstances changed, and she shifted her focus to a new idea that she will work on in 2020 using the skills she developed through ECC. Details to come!.

Photo c/o Tonja Khabir

Macon, Georgia

Tonja Khabir is a social entrepreneur and community relations specialist who has managed and supported programming in the fields of Public Health and Education for over 10 years. As a bio-behavioral health researcher, Khabir supported teams in East and Southern Africa enhancing health and development in vulnerable communities. She returned to Macon in 2014 as the founder of Two Hands, a nonprofit encouraging global leadership for underrepresented youth in Middle Georgia. As an arts aficionado, Khabir is passionate about the integration of arts and culture in the promotion of health and community development. She currently serves as the Executive Director of the Griffith Family Foundation, a grant-making organization with a mission of tackling poverty at the root.

Tonja’s ECC project, Street Talk: The Bobby Jones Project, organized community members to re-envision the vacant Bobby Jones Performing Arts Center (BJPAC) through collaborative planning. The BJPAC is a cultural asset in Macon’s Pleasant Hill neighborhood but had become the victim of blight. Tonja began by engaging residents and government officials, surveying 150 local neighbors for community input, and leading community cleanups (the #TrashtagChallenge). The cleanup team removed debris from inside the building, cleared brush and tall grass around the grounds, and contracted a local landscaper to maintain the lawn. Ideas collected through the community survey were shared with Historic Macon and students from Catie Pizzichemi Interior Design Studio at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), which resulted in five design proposals for the BJPAC. At a final block party that invited the public into the building for the first time in years, residents voted on their favorite idea for the space in a community charrette.

While the goal of the project was to understand the best way to sensitively develop the building for community use, Street Talk is also serving as an opportunity to share the history and culture of Pleasant Hill community through active programming from local artists and vendors. The project received additional funding and assistance from the Griffith Family Foundation, Keep Macon Bibb Beautiful, and the Leadership Macon Class of 2017.

Photo c/o Elizabeth Zalanga

Saint Paul, Minnesota

Elizabeth Zalanga is a passionate advocate for social justice. She is active in her community, volunteering with several organizations that work to eliminate disparities faced by youth from traditionally underserved and underrepresented backgrounds. She was recently named a Women’s Foundation of Minnesota (WFMN) Innovator, and served as a U.S. delegate to the 2018 Youth20 (Y20) Summit and G(irls)20 Summit in Argentina, where she developed and co-authored policy recommendations for the G20 on global issues youth face.

Elizabeth’s ECC project, Youth.Civic.Engage, is a civic engagement and youth leadership development program created in partnership with the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. It challenged four high school aged girls of color living in Saint Paul to explore what civic and meaningful engagement looks like in their communities. The program was designed for girls of color to learn how to break down the power structures of their community, and identify the decision makers that exist within it. Additionally, the cohort was given the chance to learn about themes such as democratic participation, voter disenfranchisement, state legislation, and local public policy issues.

The project empowered girls to think critically about issues facing their communities, such as gun violence, climate change, youth unemployment, and how to create solutions and turn their passion into actionable steps that produces results. The cohort learned about the importance of civic engagement and that youth deserve to be taken seriously as leaders to better influence the creation of policies, programs and activities that will impact current and future generations. They discussed how to challenge institutions to center youth from marginalized communities, who often are not given a platform to voice their much needed and valued opinions in all aspects of the solution, implementation, and monitoring process.

Building on the civic engagement and youth leadership development program, Youth.Civic.Engage will become a podcast hosted, written, and produced by high school students from diverse backgrounds sharing their thoughts on issues facing youth in Minnesota, and what they believe to be solutions to the barriers they face. The podcast will also include interviews with various local elected leaders and will touch on the 2020 presidential election. It is anticipated to begin February 2020.

Catch up on other ECC 2018 projects all week on our Stories & Insights page and visit for more information. The call-out for next year’s application will go live in spring 2020.

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