Looking at the 20-year journey of Living Cities, I’m struck by how timely and parallel its path is to the one we’ve taken recently at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation—one of the eight founding members of the National Community Development Initiative (NCDI).
President and CEO Alberto Ibargüen arrived at Knight in 2005 and I joined the team in 2006, following rewarding but tough years striving to keep the dramatically changing newspaper industry focused on the idea of community. Our predecessors at Knight, in building a relatively new foundation INTENT on having national impact, had already seen the power Living Cities’ investments had to leverage major funding for housing and community development in 23 U.S. cities. With interests in the well-being of 26 communities, we at Knight remained committed to the Living Cities mission, but were eager for more innovation and a greater impact on urban America—if not a full-on transformation of millions of lives.
On Aug. 29 that year, Hurricane Katrina slammed the upper Gulf Coast. While national attention focused on New Orleans, Alberto knew that Biloxi and 10 other Mississippi coastal communities might get overlooked.
Knight’s immediate $1 million commitment to disaster recovery soon turned into more than $10 million for the region—and included unprecedented involvement from Living Cities.
Within weeks, we and our partners convened a series of charrettes—citizen-led visioning exercises—to devise a plan for their cities’ future. Living Cities joined the effort in East Biloxi, a neighborhood similar to New Orleans’ Ninth Ward: low-lying, flood-prone, full of families who’d owned their homes for generations.
And they wanted to stay.
The nimble response, the integrated approach and that willingness to engage neighborhoods in their own future all helped demonstrate to us Living Cities’ commitment to its own reinvention. At a time when we were rethinking our own approach to sustainable system change and commitment to transformation, it gave Knight’s trustees the faith to continue into the next round of funding. Knight’s two-decade commitment to Living Cities is now at $22 million.
The parallels don’t stop there.
Like us, Living Cities has committed itself to being a continuous learning organization. In recent years, Knight has launched open contests and competitions with few rules or restrictions, believing that outside-in thinking—the wisdom of the crowd—will help in the search for ideas and innovation. We have re-engineered our programs to learn with our eight core communities and share immediately and widely what we learn, all toward the goal of informed, engaged communities. A prime example: Two Knight locales, Detroit and the Twin Cities, are among the five involved in Living Cities’ Integration Initiative.
Living Cities recognizes the value of consistently concentrating in the same room the hands-on expertise of its members’ most forward-thinking people. Because Living Cities’ leaders are leveraging not just the dollars but their own top-down expertise together against real-life, real-time concerns, these gatherings are among the most important dates on my calendar. Nowhere else do the major foundations, financial institutions and community entities bring their knowledge to bear in order to test and create durable solutions to urban realities.
At their hearts, Living Cities and Knight Foundation both approach systems change by putting the well-being of people first. Founder Jack Knight saw how important it was to “… bestir the people into an awareness of their own condition.” Once inspired, he believed it was possible to “rouse them to pursue their true interests.”
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