Three insights on tackling a social change project in your community

communities / Article

Photo by Lilly Weinberg.

Last month, Knight Foundation sent 20 Emerging City Champions from 13 cities to an intensive studio in Toronto hosted by our partner 8 80 Cities to better develop their winning ideas. This is the second year of the program, and I was eager to see how it’s developed, so I went along for the ride, participating in all of the sessions. I left the studio impressed. Mostly, I loved the energy of the group and getting to know the seven young leaders from the small to midsize markets I manage for Knight. Each participant will receive $5,000 to implement a project in one year that will improve mobility, public spaces or civic engagement in their home cities. I am excited to see their projects in action.

A lot was jam-packed into the studio, which lasted for four days, 12 hours each day. There were many lessons shared about how to get started that benefited the young urbanists, many new to social change. For some, the idea of executing on a project in a short period of time felt overwhelming, but the studio showed how transformational change is doable even with a small amount of money and time. Here were my top takeaways from the sessions:

· Focus on small incremental change: Your ideas can be big, but think in incremental steps. Try out an idea and prototype it before investing a lot of time or money. If it doesn’t work, then the idea can be easily tweaked without much risk. We did a fun exercise to test this out. We went to a park in Toronto and interviewed pedestrians on what they would like to see improved. Then, in the next 30 minutes, we used duct tape, washable paint and other supplies to make interventions. It was easy, low-risk and doable.

· Lean on your network/cohort: The network of these leaders is vast, and I saw firsthand how the Emerging City Champions can leverage the expertise and skills from the members of their cohort and last year’s class. This is applicable to any cohort or group; don’t be afraid to source ideas to the group. There were so many different types of skills in the group from community organizing to maximizing social media to engineering. Lean on your group for help.

Don’t underestimate communications: This is a big one. Don’t be afraid to communicate, communicate, communicate. There are so many digital tools that can help you do just that. These tools can build a polished website in less than a few hours and develop branding that can make your work look legit (even if you don’t feel legit quite yet). Also, the studio emphasized the importance of identifying your audience and then communicating directly with them to make your project a success. And finally, don’t forget to tell your story, making it authentic to your ideas and who you are.

Overall, the new emerging leaders walked away with the confidence and an actual plan for how to execute on their project. They learned from the team of experts at 8 80 Cities and from real-life examples in Toronto. I can’t wait to see what they come up with in our Knight cities.

Lilly Weinberg is the program director for community foundations at Knight Foundation. Email her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @lillyweinberg.

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