Director strategizes Akron's future

Local Knight Foundation chief works to develop leaders to create 'transformational change' in city

By Betty Lin-Fisher
Beacon Journal business writer

About 11 months into her new job as the Akron program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Jennifer Thomas believes she has a good sense of the community and is ready to move to the next phase of grant making.

Thomas, who joined the foundation in June, replaced Vivian Celeste Neal, who retired in February 2010 after seven years.

Thomas, a University Heights resident, had launched and led the Cleveland-based Civic Innovation Lab, which provides mentoring and funding to civic, social and technology startups. Thomas said she spent much of the first six months of her new job on a ''listening and learning tour meeting with the leaders, citizens and residents of Akron.''

''What I was looking for were the assets, the bright spots,'' she said.

The Miami-based Knight Foundation is focused on advancing journalism in what is called the digital age and investing in communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers, including the Beacon Journal. The foundation also focuses on projects ''that promote informed, engaged communities and lead to transformational change.''

Akron is one of eight communities with a resident program director, Thomas said. The foundation will continue to support communities in arts and media innovations, she said.

Thomas said her Akron strategy is ''to develop, attract and engage the next generation of talent to bring expertise and perspective to the civic and economic challenges we'll face in the transformation.''

But Thomas noted the ''next generation'' doesn't necessarily mean young people.


''We need leaders who are as tech savvy as they are strategic,'' she said. ''This is not just about young people. It's not age specific to me.

''It's definitely not just the 20-somethings, but they are a part of it. As we develop Akron into an engaged community, then they'll want to be here.''

Cascade Village

Thomas said a good example of a grant that fits the new focus is a $1.7 million award over three years to help the relatively new community of Cascade Village, built on the site of a former public housing project, in a resident-led effort to provide workshops, career and financial coaching and school and youth programming. Cascade Village is a mixed-income community of apartments, town homes and houses built in 2006 with private and public investments. Many of the residents are still renters with some sort of subsidized assistance, but the community also has several home owners.

Thomas will share her strategy Tuesday morning at what she hopes will be the first of many community breakfasts for leaders and residents.

Rising to Occasion

She will also highlight another grant that was made last fall, when the University of Akron's Office of Multicultural Development was awarded $425,000 over three years to develop a program called the Rising to the Occasion: African-American Male Initiatives at the University of Akron.

The program is designed to recruit and retain African-American males to graduate from UA and will begin this fall, said Fedearia A. Nicholson, director of the Office of Multicultural Development.

There is a national problem of low graduation rates among African-American males, including at UA, Nicholson said.

''The graduation numbers are startling. We have a large number of African-American men [students], but the graduates are very low,'' she said.

The most recent six-year graduation data for African-American males who enrolled in 2004 show that six years later, only 13.7 percent of them graduated. That compares to 33.6 percent six-year graduation rates for all students, Nicholson said. She said graduation rates are tracked nationally over a six-year period.

Program coordinator


Nicholson has hired a program coordinator who starts today. In the program, which will start this fall semester, the university will recruit 25 African-American males with ACT scores that place them into college-level English and with a minimum high school grade point average of 2.5 to be in the intensive program.

The students will take three classes together and be required to participate in many other activities, including a twice-a-week study group with tutors and interaction with nationally known speakers.

The students will also have what's called ''intrusive advising'' by the coordinator. ''It's a holistic approach. So much of the personal lives and baggage of students comes into academics,'' she said.

Nicholson said she will also ask the students' families to be involved. ''They'll be invited to participate in a program that's pretty special,'' she said.

Students will receive a $250 stipend for the year if they remain in good academic standing. They also will be loaned a laptop computer.

Nicholson hopes the program will be successful enough to obtain more grants later. UA will also be supportive, she said. ''The success of our institution is tied to the number of students who graduate,'' she said.

Thomas said there are not specific budgets for awards each year from the Knight Foundation. The foundation has eight focus cities and 18 other foundation-supported cities that do not have resident program directors.


Copyright 2011 The Akron Beacon Journal

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit