The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Nov 01, 2011

Keeping an informed and engaged St. Paul

Posted by Polly M. Talen

The following post by Polly M. Talen, program director/St. Paul for Knight Foundation focuses on the foundation's efforts in St. Paul. It was originally written for the Minnesota Council on Foundation's Giving Forum Fall 2011.

You might have heard something on Minnesota Public Radio about supporting journalism in the digital age. Possibly you’ve experienced a Random Act of Culture or participated in the Minnesota State Fair’s first Giant Sing Along. Or maybe you heard about a group of foundations and civic leaders working to ensure that the new Central Corridor light rail line provides opportunity for all of Saint Paul’s residents, especially those living in neighborhoods adjacent to the new line.

What do these have in common? They are all the work of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Headquartered in Miami, with offices in St. Paul and seven other cities, Knight Foundation (not to be confused with The McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis) was founded in 1950 by two newspapermen, John and James Knight. Since then, the foundation’s assets have grown to $2.4 billion. And true to the brothers’ life work, the foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.

As John Knight said in 1969, “Thus we seek to bestir the people into an awareness of their own condition, provide inspiration for their thoughts and rouse them to pursue their true interests.” As a result, more than $100 million in annual grants support transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, foster the arts and engage communities.

Journalism and Media Innovation

Knight is best known for its commitment to excellence in journalism, protection of free speech and media innovation. In the past five years, Knight has invested $100 million in new technologies and techniques, including more than 200 community news and information experiments.

As the largest funder of journalism and media innovation in the world, we are working to improve public media, discover new platforms for investigative reporting, increase digital and media literacy, promote universal broadband access and support a free and open Web.

On a national level, this leadership has resulted in recent work with the Federal Communications Commission, which adopted Knight’s research on the information health of communities. Here in Minnesota we helped launch MinnPost, an early online news site, and we are helping to bring American Public Media’s strategy to engage listeners as sources in news gathering to communities across the country.

Through Knight’s Community Information Challenge, three community foundations (in Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul) were selected along with 70 others nationally to join Knight in investing in strong local news and information as core community assets.

The challenge grant to Minnesota Community Foundation helped launch a community problem-solving tool called Minnesota Idea Open, which has already hosted contests on preventing childhood obesity and improving water quality.

Engaged Communities

Knight’s local work grows from our commitment to 26 communities where the Knight brothers once owned newspapers. St. Paul is one of seven Knight resident communities with program directors like myself, and Duluth is one of 18 communities with donor-advised programs at the local community foundation.

On the community level, we foster initiatives that develop in people a strong sense of belonging and caring; timely access to relevant information; the ability to understand that information; and the motivation, opportunity and skills to take sustainable action on a range of issues throughout their lives.

In St. Paul the work has largely been focused on supporting the community’s informed, engaged and highly collaborative approach to transit-oriented development. We helped found the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative to help unlock the transformative potential of the light rail line along the Central Corridor between St. Paul and Minneapolis.

This collaborative and its many partners engages with residents, business owners and community leaders to develop shared solutions that benefit people and places close to the line during construction and beyond.

Fostering the Arts

Knight Foundation invests in artistic excellence, funding arts projects that engage the Knight resident communities in collective cultural experiences. We look for innovative, high-quality ideas. Our grantees represent emerging artists and organizations and the oldest and most venerable institutions. The projects all have one thing in common: they enrich and engage the communities that produce them.

On the national front, Knight has joined with 10 of America’s top foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts and seven federal agencies to establish ArtPlace, an unprecedented public-private collaboration. It is a nationwide effort to drive revitalization in cities and towns with a new investment model that puts the arts at the center of economic development.

I am delighted that Springboard for the Arts – in partnership with the City of St. Paul and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Twin Cities – was recently selected as one of the first-round grant recipients. Their three-year initiative, called Irrigate, will mobilize and train artists in community development and creative place making, and activate hundreds of artist-led projects along the St. Paul portion of the Central Corridor light rail line to benefit neighborhoods and businesses.

In addition to ArtPlace and other national arts initiatives, we just completed Knight’s second year of arts grantmaking in St. Paul. Recent examples of our support include the new TU Dance Center in St. Paul; production of a High Definition video of Minnesota Opera’s presentation of Wuthering Heights; and the Concrete and Grass Lowertown Music Festival – three days of free music in downtown St. Paul.

Soul of the Community

We often find that our local and national initiatives in our three funding priorities create great synergy and in some cases have even led us to commission research.

We recently concluded a three-year study, conducted by Gallup, on what attaches people to their communities. “Soul of the Community” surveyed 43,000 people in 26 cities nationwide and found that place matters even more than we thought. Understanding the impact of place on community vitality and learning to optimize it will be instrumental in creating successful places of the future, including the neighborhoods along the Central Corridor.

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