(Courtesy photo by Pete Mauney)
Another year of the Knight Cities Challenge, another year of Philly showing off its potential for civic innovation.
For this year’s Knight Cities Challenge, an annual event where the Knight Foundation awards grants to projects from the 26 cities it invests in, five projects from Philly applicants were selected for funding, tying with Detroit again for having the most local projects receive awards.
In total, 33 projects from 19 cities across the U.S. are each receiving portions of a $5 million pool of grant money.
Last year, four Philly projects also ended up winning the largest amount of grant money, $873,364. Among those projects was the Institute of Hip-Hop Entrepreneurship (IHHE) from Little Giant Creative’s Tayyib Smith and Meegan Denenberg, which received a good amount of national attention.
Lo and behold, the two are once again winners of the challenge this year with their project, A Dream Deferred, receiving $295,000. A Dream Deferred will produce a data map looking at the history of redlining that will “reimagine what cities would look like today if the practice had never happened” through artistic interpretation, Smith and Denenberg wrote in an email.
The redlining data collected will be synthesized and reinterpreted through an exhibit or installation that will show its discriminatory effects on Black and Brown communities. A documentary with more personal stories will also be shown at the event.
It’s a continuation of the principles that Smith and Denenberg say that make up most of the work Little Giant Creative and its nonprofit arm Creative Cities Lab does, by taking complicated topics that “affect the quality of our lives and futures and translate them using contemporary and compelling language.”
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Ariell Johnson, founder of the Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, is also a grant winner, receiving $50,000 to start a comics workshop to teach kids and adults how to create comics. The idea for something like this has been in Johnson’s head since she started the business back in 2015, she said in an email — it’s why she picked the current location for the store, with a large empty space toward the back that will be renovated for the workshop.
Just as Johnson was recognized nationally for being the first Black woman to own a comic book store on the East Coast, she wants to use the new funds to create programming that focuses on fostering creativity in “nontraditional” comics consumers — people of color, women and the LGBTQ+ community.
“Our store’s overall mission is one of representation and a huge piece of ensuring that we have diverse books to read is to have a diverse creator base,” Johnson said.
The City of Philadelphia is also getting in on the grant opportunity, receiving the largest chunk of Philly money at $338,000 for its PHL Participatory Design Lab.
This effort, being run by the city’s Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation (ODDT) and the Mayor’s Office of Policy, Legislation and Intergovernmental Affairs, will focus on hiring fellows from service design and behavioral economics backgrounds to “find ways that will improve the experiences of the public when interacting with a particular city department,” according to Liana Dragoman, user experience strategist at the ODDT, in an email.
This sort of traveling “participatory design clinic” (something Anjali Chainani, director of policy for the Mayor’s office, alluded to at the inaugural conference from the the Fels Policy Research Initiative focusing on the intersection of research and policy) will include a number of ways for residents and city staff to get involved in the planning, execution and refining processes.
“This is a great opportunity to demonstrate that service design methods can and should inform more than digital products within the City of Philadelphia, like processes and policy,” Dragoman said. “If we can connect policy improvements to on-the-ground service delivery processes and tools, then we can be more effective in maximizing government resources.”
Two of the five projects being funded are directly focused on immigrants and refugees — one from Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture and the other from the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations (SEAMAAC).
From the Arab culture-focused Al-Bustan comes an extension of its Tabadul Project, with a grant of $180,000. The Tabadul Project is a cross-cultural arts program that helps students and their families at Northeast High School, the most diverse school in Philly, connect with one another.
With the grant, Hazami Sayed, executive director at Al-Bustan, said they’re now able to take this effort to a citywide scale by hanging up 26 eight-by-10-foot photographs of youth expressing immigrant experiences, taken by photographer Wendy Ewald, and hanging them up at the Municipal Services Building where they’ll be facing the Thomas Paine Plaza.
This initial showing will hopefully be a kickoff to events that foster conversations across cultures about “belonging, culture, identity, immigration and being American.”
Thoai Nguyen, CEO of SEAMAAC, hopes to take his grant money of $175,478 and revive the street food vending culture that made up a big part of the identity of the Mifflin Square Park, for which SEAMAAC is leading revitalization efforts thanks to a $500,000 grant the nonprofit received from the William Penn Foundation back in June of last year.
Vendors coming from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries used to do a lot of food and merchandise vending in the Mifflin Square Park but in October 2015 after some gang violence took place in the park, police and License & Inspections were prompted to get rid of the vendors, many of whom were unlicensed.
With the money going toward repurposing shipping containers where four or five of those vendors can be housed, Nguyen hopes to eventually help these vendors become business owners. As a Vietnamese refugee himself, that work in helping these neighbors is personal for him.
“We really want to create entrepreneur opportunities for Southeast Asian refugees or anyone really, in the neighborhood,” Nguyen said. “Anyone who is facing socioeconomic challenges, we would love to work with them so they have an opportunity for sustainable economic entrepreneurship.”-30-
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