Meet the 2020 Emerging City Champions

Written by Annah MacKenzie for Next City.

Twenty young civic innovators have been selected as the next group of 8 80 Cities’ Emerging City Champions to implement projects that show great promise for strengthening their cities. The program is funded through Knight Foundation and selects Champions who propose bold ideas for enhancing active mobility, equitable public space, and civic engagement and resilience in the places where they live. This year, many of the selected projects emphasize the urgency of improving cities in response to the impacts of COVID-19 and the national protests that have underscored deep systemic inequities. 

The fellowship supports the belief that young people provide a fresh perspective and talent in building vibrant neighbourhoods and cities. Offering the next generation of city builders and leaders the tools, resources, and networks to turn these ideas into action, the program provides Champions with $5000 in funding to implement one small-scale community project in one year. 

This year’s fellows represent a diverse group of activists, educators, tactical urbanists, designers, artists, entrepreneurs, and more. In addition to joining a network of their peers from across the country, fellows receive ongoing mentorship from experts in diverse fields such as planning, design, transportation, and communications. Throughout the program, 8 80 Cities and Knight Foundation will also expose participants to opportunities for additional funding, professional growth, and support. In light of the pandemic, the 2020-2021 Emerging City Champions fellowship will take place completely online. At the end of August, the program will kick off with a Virtual Learning Lab, where participants will gain the tools they need to begin implementing their community projects. 

Meet the 2020 Emerging City Champions

Darion Edding of Akron, Ohio is a devoted place maker and groundskeeper working for the Ohio and Erie Canalway Coalition (OECC). Edding will lead canoe tours of Summit Lake and present an oral history of the native wildlife, water body, and surrounding area, which is home to a historically marginalized community. Edding’s project aims to make a positive change in people’s lives by deepening the community’s connection to the lake, dispelling myths, and bolstering social and economic diversity around this shared public space.

Courtney Smith is a creative strategist from Bradenton, Florida. She currently works for the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce, where she develops experiences that foster relationships between businesses and community organizations. Her project, “Downtown by Design,” will strengthen downtown Bradenton’s image as a vibrant economic attraction through a public art pitch competition. Community members will be invited to come up with a unique business concept while activating vacant public space by creating large-scale concept renderings in empty storefronts. The art installations will create an engaging pedestrian experience for the public, who will be invited to provide feedback on the various concepts, and the winning concept will receive a cash award.

Emily Condon is a landscape designer with Alta Planning + Design who plans to increase access to Uptown in Charlotte, North Carolina for residents without cars. Her West End Passage Project will define a loop route comfortable for pedestrians and bicyclists of all abilities that connects Charlotte’s West End neighborhoods and Uptown. To further enhance connectivity and improve the pedestrian experience, the project will also transform underpasses into grand neighborhood gateways that celebrate community identity and culture in the West End.

Also from Charlotte, Makayla Binter is a talented muralist and recent graduate of Davidson College. Her collaborative mural project will showcase the visual timeline of the Historic West End in relation to the rich history of protest, perseverance, and strength of West Charlotte High School. Local Charlotte artists will provide mentorship and guidance to West Charlotte students and local youth, who will design and complete the mural. The project will reflect the past, while also calling on the students to develop a vision for the future of their school.  

Three projects in Detroit, Michigan are taking different approaches to strengthen connections between residents. Alexa Bush is tackling the challenge of students returning to school amid a pandemic by developing a prototype for a physically distant, 30-student outdoor classroom in a public park. The outdoor classroom would offer students relatively safe in-person instruction in the warmer months of fall and spring, shifting to virtual learning or alternating schedules in the colder months. Bush is passionate about creating equitable and resilient cities and serves as the Urban Design Director of the East Region in the City of Detroit Planning Department.

Ben Will, a singer-songwriter, performer, and cultural production strategist native to Detroit, seeks to cultivate post-pandemic connection, catharsis, and healing within the city through songwriting. Detroit residents will be invited to respond to writing prompts about how they have been staying connected and coping with the current pandemic and other recent events. Local songwriters will then be commissioned to create original songs using the community’s bank of responses, culminating in a performance of the songs either at a physically distanced public gathering or through an online program.

Monique Becker is co-founder of Mona Lisa Development–a women-owned, socially responsible real estate development firm with property management, consulting and general contracting capabilities in Detroit. In collaboration with her neighbours, Becker plans to activate lots in Detroit’s Virginia Park District by creating a native butterfly meadow with educational opportunities for youth and accessible seating arrangements so neighbours can relax, gather and enjoy themselves. The meadow will span three lots, with the third being used primarily for community gathering and seating. 

Jordan van der Hagen of Duluth, Minnesota is passionate about multimodal transportation and graphic communication. His project, “Highway 61 Revisited,” invites the community to reimagine Downtown Duluth without Interstate 35, which currently acts as a barrier between downtown and the Lake Superior waterfront. Residents will have the chance to “draw in” their ideas for new public spaces and programs in Downtown Duluth through an online forum, as well as other in-person engagement activities. Emphasis will be placed on developing a vision that builds physical and cultural connectivity while creating economic and environmental opportunities for the people of Duluth.

Anna Campomanes has a diverse background in the arts, design, museums, libraries and horticulture. Her project, “Community Curated Mobile Museum,” elevates the unrecognized experts of Lexington, Kentucky through the curation of a pop-up mobile museum exhibit. The roving museum will encapsulate a wide array of community experience and expertise, ranging from neighbourhood elders who have witnessed significant community change over time to the perspectives of young children. 

Weston Hamilton Stroud, a Transit Planner from Macon, Georgia wants to revitalize a historic community downtown while supporting small businesses. Through tactical urbanism, placemaking, and intentional programming, Stroud plans to revitalize the area around the historic Roxy Theatre building–what used to be one of Macon’s three Black theatres. The primary project strategy will be to create a food park for food trucks and pedestrian plaza in order to provide new opportunities for small businesses as well as programming possibilities. 

In Miami, Florida, Justin Pinn’s project aims to tackle the persistent vacancies within local government advisory boards by activating the talent and equity-minded leadership of local leaders. To do this, Pinn—a first-generation graduate from Georgetown University—will bolster civic participation by ensuring that at least 100 committed leaders are recruited to join and serve on vacant advisory boards in Miami-Dade. Throughout the process, applicants will be matched with advisory board vacancies based on public records, and a project coordinator will be tasked with ensuring that each leader is appropriately matched and confirmed as a board member. 

Chris Medina’s project, “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” seeks to build community cohesion and inspire collective action on the climatic challenges faced by residents of the city of Hialeah and the greater Miami area. Medina, a community advocate, artist and law student, embraces the social value of the arts to raise awareness, spark dialogue, and inspire community action around pressing social and environmental challenges affecting South Floridians. The project will channel activism through the arts by curating a pop-up public art exhibition that rallies residents around the local impacts of climate change and reflect the area’s rich cultural heritage, creative talent, and artistic history.

Marcus D. Laws of Palm Beach County, Florida plans to increase access to community services for residents experiencing homelessness, as well as low- and very low-income individuals. Laws’ Community Resource Trolley will provide free transportation for these populations to access social services, as well as employment, childcare, and other life sustaining activities. Reflecting his background in mental health, Laws hopes the Resource Trolley will improve the community’s physical, mental, and financial wellbeing.

This year, four projects were chosen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, each representing a different challenge and innovative solution for the city. Christine Joy is a Case Management Coordinator in Philadelphia, as well as the Founder of Purple House Project PA, Inc., a non-profit focused on intimate partner violence. Joy’s project, “Urban Oasis,” will create a community garden oasis and holistic healing program at a local women’s shelter. With a deep passion for empowering people, Joy will work closely with the community members at each stage of the development and implementation process.

Ebony Welch is an educator and community artist committed to supporting marginalized communities through an educational lens. In the same vein of her own art practice, which encourages folks to create counter narratives of their spaces and communities, her project, “Strange Fruit,” will display community photographs on fabrics in different public spaces. Using different fabrics that vary in texture and colour, photograph installations will be displayed in places throughout the community to ultimately return the subject matter back to the original source–the community. The project takes inspiration from photographers Tyler Mitchell and Gordon Parks, who used laundry lines as poetic symbols of Black community and domestic space. 

This will be the second year of Iliana Dominguez-Francos project, “Envisioning Brick and Mortar”–an organizing and educational engagement process around development and displacement in North Philadelphia. In its second year, community teach-ins will continue to demystify enigmatic processes, policies and strategies that shape housing development and create opportunities for the community to get involved in future development. Neighbors will also be able to support the circulation of messaging about displacement through art workshops, including screen printing and tire sculptures. Dominguez-Franco is a community organizer who believes that shared knowledge and accessible educational tools are catalysts to sustainable organizing and change.

Stasia Monteiro is a former high school educator who believes in community programming that elevates marginalized voices, critically examines social issues, and develops collective solutions. Their project centers on training neighbourhood leaders, members of the Story Engagement Team, to use creative storytelling-based engagement methods to support deep inquiry and visioning in a community-driven planning process. The ultimate goal is to develop a community vision for activating programs in the renovated Rivera Recreation & Mann Older Adult Centers, an all-ages recreation center in the Fairhill neighbourhood of Philadelphia.

A motion picture artist, documentarian, and social entrepreneur, Andy Renè Tran has dedicated his lens to sharing stories that change people’s lives. His public art project, “SJ Storyboard,” will invite local artists and creatives to tell the story of San José, California through digital canvases projected onto downtown storefronts and public spaces. The digital canvases will include film animation art and live performances by local artists that help tell the story of the city. He hopes this work will support local economic recovery.

Quynh-Mai Nguyen, also from San José, is a second-generation Vietnamese American social practice artist, poet, musician, and community organizer. Currently, Nguyen leads creative direction and community engagement with Arts Build Community, a womxn-led public art planning and consulting firm. Her project, “Womxn Takeover,” is a digital storytelling residency for womxn artists working with youth to create temporary artworks that commemorate womxns’ contributions to San José and Santa Clara County. Community members will be engaged to help identify key sites for renaming opportunities, commemorative public artworks, and womxn to recognize. The works will be presented in an online archive.

Raie Gessesse of Saint Paul, Minnesota is currently the Midwest Program Manager for IGNITE National, where she trains young women across the region to run for elected office. The goal of her project, “Making Power Moves: Young Women’s Political Leadership Training Program,” is to sharpen young women’s understanding of politics and government and prepare them to leverage their personal experiences for elected office. 15-20 young women will be invited to participate in a six-month immersive program that includes trainings focused on political literacy as well as personal development to activate public leadership skills. The program will be a transformative opportunity for young women to organize for long-lasting systemic change in Saint Paul.

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