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Knight Foundation Challenges Cities to Transform Communities

The Knight Foundation’s goal is to uncover new trends, widen networks, and support bold ideas while combating inequality and social injustice.
Gary Cityscapes And City Views
Artist Omri Amrany's statue 'The Fusion' sits outside the Gary Convention Center in Gary, Indiana.Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Kenneth Parr had big plans for Gary, Indiana.

According to his daughter, Renetta DuBose, Parr had been working towards developing a “big city” plaza for the town ballpark.

“He wanted a place where he could grab a beer, some veggies (he was vegetarian), and some wifi,” DuBose told NBCBLK, “And enjoy friends...all while not using a car.”

And he was on his way of making that dream a reality, thanks to a grant initiative developed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation called Knight Cities Challenge.

Unfortunately, as the Knight Foundation was announcing this year’s finalists, Parr died suddenly of a heart attack just before Christmas 2016.

Renetta Dubose with her late step-father Kenneth Parr.Renetta Dubose

Her father was no stranger to hard work, said DuBose, adding that he had many projects in the works. She has learned a lot about the project through the notes her father has left behind and has shared them with Gary’s Department of Green Urbanism/Environmental Affairs in an effort to keep her father’s work and dream alive.

“I was proud when I first heard about Ballpark Plaza,” DuBose said. “This particular project comes after several other transportation and bike friendly projects he either successfully worked on or had in the works.”

Parr was a huge supporter of the city’s professional baseball team, the RailCats. He had been a season ticket holder since the team opened The Steel Yard during the 2003 season and he never missed a game.

“The first two seats behind home plate have name plates that read Ken Parr and Debbie Parr, my parents,” she said. “Recently, he started a bike group in his neighborhood and he organized a Bike to the Ballpark event. Ballpark Plaza represents his desire to live an environmentally friendly life while helping to boost Gary's economy by creating a surge in dollars spent in the downtown area.”

Parr’s commitment to the community fits directly with the purpose of the Knight Foundation initiative.

Knight’s goal is to uncover new trends, widen networks, and support bold ideas while combating inequality and social injustice.

George Abbott, the Knight Foundation’s Director of Community and National Initiatives, said they look for ideas that address three of the major drivers of city success: attracting and keeping talent, expanding economic opportunity, and increasing civic engagement.

Artist Omri Amrany's "The Fusion" statue sits outside the Gary Convention Center, in Gary, Indiana.Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

“The hope with the Knight Cities Challenge in particular was to help individuals think of themselves as civic innovators and encourage more people to build ideas that support city success,” Abbott told NBCBLK in a statement. “We have seen considerable success from projects that were borne out of the challenge.”

One that stands out for Abbott is a previous challenge winner, The Exchange House in Akron, Ohio. The project repurposes vacant, foreclosed homes in the North Hill neighborhood.

“North Hill is the primary resettlement area for Akron’s growing Bhutanese immigrant and refugee population,” Abbott reports. “The Exchange House brings a much-needed venue for cultural programming and inter-cultural exchange while testing a potentially replicable model for dealing with vacant properties.”

There are 144 finalists, out of more than 4,500 applications. The winners will be awarded this spring from a five million dollar pool. To date, the Knight Cities Challenge has named a total of 69 winning ideas over its first and second years.

According to Knight, several of this year’s finalists have some focus on the African American community and social justice. Here are just a few:


According to Simone Peterson, Neighborhood Specialist/ Neighborhood Planning for Manatee County, Florida, IAmBradenton encourages citizens to participate in government decisions in non-traditional settings.

“When it comes to the African American community, we’re not present at the decision table. There are a multitude of reasons as to why that may be (jobs during important meetings, no transportation, lack of childcare, etc.) so this project aims to eliminate many of those barriers by taking important discussions out of the board room and into the streets of our community so everyone has a chance to contribute.”

Atlas of Philadelphia Local Elections

Comic-style illustrative maps, infographics and bite-sized content to graphically educate young people about Philadelphia’s locally elected offices and their relevance to everyday life. Their project, according to Megan Gall of DataScribe Consultants, targets public high school seniors in a district where the school system population is 50.5% African American.

“African American youth have taken to the streets to exercise their First Amendment rights in cities across the nation. We expect our project to reach a large number of African American students,” Gall said. “We want Philadelphia’s African American youth to understand what’s at stake in each local election and understand the power of their participation.”

A view of the Philadelphia city skyline.Bruce Bennett / Getty Images


Located along the Mack Avenue corridor the Mack Lot is a green infrastructure project to revitalize an 8,000 square foot lot in the heart of the 48214 community between a unique café/laundromat business and multi-functional retail shop. According to Ezekiel Harris, executive director of Macc Development, Mack Lot is crucial to the short and long term benefit of the African American community.

“We’ve repeatedly seen areas like ours struggle to get the attention of capital and entrepreneurial investment. The zip code that we serve is home to just over 20,000 people and 92% are African American and unfortunately many don’t have the means to go to downtown Detroit or Belle Isle to experience the beautiful outdoor spaces that have been created,” he said. “The Mack Lot is just one piece of the puzzle but it will be new kind of gathering place bringing neighbors together and promote the dignity, value, purpose and worth of all.”

Design to Better [Our City] program

Design to Better [Our City] program is an entrepreneurial and action-learning civic engagement program that challenges youth of color to develop solutions focused on building healthier, safer, and more inclusive cities. Within Design to Better [Our City], Black and Latinx youth will be trained to become urban civic designers.

Through their work, they have found that most of the youth of color in their community is unaware of the history that deeply impact their community Antionette Carroll, president and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab, told NBCBLK. “The Design to Better [Our City] Program will not only increase the cultural competency/humility, confidence, and the needed 21st century workforce skills of the participating youth, but will also directly address the systemic structures of racism deeply impacting the African American communities,” Carroll said. “This program’s foundation is focused on moving expertise (particularly lived experiences) and ideas to community action.”

Activest Credit Union

Through democratized place-based investing, Activest Credit Union will enable Charlotte area residents the opportunity to own local municipal bonds. The credit union will serve as an organizing vehicle to promote civic engagement and government transparency.

While Charlotte is the nation’s second-largest banking center after New York, Micah Gilmer, co-founder of Activest, said there’s a stark juxtaposition between Charlotte’s enviable wealth and its social outcomes.

“Charlotte ranks 49th of the 50 largest American cities when it comes to the percentage of its budget arising from levied fines and fees on residents. Three times as many Black and Hispanic residents live in poverty in Charlotte compared to the city's White residents,” he said. “We believe the measure of a society is in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”