8 80 Cities’ Emerging City Champions Make Change Where It Matters

Whitney Sherrill is passionate about making the city of Detroit inclusive and accessible. The “Motor City” has a storied history with industrialized spaces, but Sherrill is devoted to ensuring that Detroit’s natural beauty and its undeveloped spaces are enjoyed by all residents. Now, as a member of the 2019 Emerging City Champions cohort, Sherill will expand upon her work to make residents rethink the way they experience the city.

Sherrill is one of twenty community leaders from around the country chosen as 8 80 Cities’ Emerging City Champions. The Champions were selected for their innovative and inclusive ideas about how to improve the cities in which they live, in ways that would benefit people whether they’re 8 or 80. The program is funded through Knight Foundation, and it provides the opportunity for individual activists and leaders to try out projects that have great promise for their particular cities.

Sherrill’s fellowship year will be spent expanding access to nature for black and brown people who are too often overlooked when it comes to green spaces about town. She explains, “Our bodies and narratives have been primarily excluded from mainstream imagery of outdoor recreation and engagement; however, we have such deep cultural ties to land and the outdoors. Our experiences and traditions are intimately interwoven into our relationship with nature. Reconciling that relationship, and reaffirming our place and position in these spaces, is critical to our collective healing journey.”

The fellowship supports the belief that young people who live in a place should play a role in fostering equitable and engaged communities. The fellows selected will receive $5000 to fund and support a small-scale project that can show real community impact as well as to nurture future leaders. These leaders will undergo training and support and join a network of other like-minded practitioners who are helping to connect and improve the places where they live.

In San Jose, California, Lucila Chavez is reinventing some wheels for girls and women’s recreation space in skate parks. She said, “I am all about the roller skating visibility since it is a dying sport. I wanted to focus on the women who are not encouraged to take up their own space. Since the skate parks are heavily dominated by our male counterparts, Chicks in Bowls San Jose-California chapter aims to bring the existing community and uplift the neglected skate park on the East Side of San Jose that gets overlooked by other neighborhoods.”

For Xia Xiong of the Twin Cities, Minnestota, her work is centered upon providing space and voice to her Hmong community, and helping them to engage civically. Her podcast, “Digital Story Cloth” seeks to strengthen ties among the community as well as general Minnesota society. She says it’s important to recognize the culture and traditions of the Hmong, while helping the community to talk about serious issues such as mental health. She says, “We will facilitate open and honest conversations about what we can do collectively to help support and lift up our community, how we can honor the past, bridge understanding of the present and elevate the future so that the Hmong can thrive and excel for generations to come.”

At the end of July, the participants will spend four days together in Toronto for the Emerging City Champions Studio. They will meet with city leaders, attend workshops and sessions led by program alumni and national experts, and have the opportunity to hone their skills and ask the questions that will let them be successful when they return home to create more vibrant and engaged cities and foster stronger community relationships.

Meet the 2019 Emerging City Champions

Spencer Sommers of Aberdeen, South Dakota, is a designer at Co-Op Architecture. His project, “Signs of the Times,” is an endeavor to visually revitalize Aberdeen’s downtown while connecting the present and the past. In collaboration with local artists and community volunteers, the faded, historic advertisements painted on building walls will be restored to full color once again. These refurbished “ghost signs,” some of which have already been brought back to full visual appeal, have become local attractions. The funding will allow Signs of the Times to refurbish bigger, higher signs.

Sheri Yearian is a resident of the Kenmore neighborhood in Akron, Ohio. That neighborhood’s streets are being redeveloped to include bike lanes. Yearian brings her desire to make her community a healthy and thriving one to her project aimed at getting her neighbors some physical activity via bicycle. Her project, the “Pop up Bike Shop on the Boulevard,” will promote cycling by installing bike racks and a bike repair stand. Yearian hopes to involve as many residents as possible, promising an earn-a-bike contest and bike repair workshops for adults and children.

Caroline Burgett is an environmental analyst with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services. Her project, “Reclaim CLT,” turns trash collecting into a more interactive endeavor than anyone might suspect. This project creates lively, sculptural garbage receptacles along a greenway, and turns litter pickup into an art game. The object of this game is to collect as much garbage as possible and then to crowdsource which receptacles are full so they can be emptied by maintenance staff. This functional art is designed to mitigate plastic waste at its source before it can pollute waterways. Encouraging passers-by to play by feeding and filling the sculpture makes trash pickup less of a chore for everyone, and improves the environment.

H. Lyn Kim will run pop-up mobility events for older adults held on accessible one-mile outdoor courses across the city. GO CLT! encourages older adults of all abilities to get active and moving with friends, family, and/or caregivers. Seniors are encouraged to invite supporters of all ages and abilities to walk/move/travel alongside them at the event. The accessible outdoor course will be safe for people with walkers, wheelchairs, strollers, and other mobility devices. Granted a new sense of accomplishment, participants and supporters will stay engaged with their local community and continue a healthy lifestyle.

In Detroit, three projects take varying tacks toward transforming the city. Briana Mason is an urban planner in Detroit who plans to work directly with residents and a local artist to reenvision the city’s Dexter Avenue. Her program follows a year-long planning process with residents of the Russell Woods and Nardin Park neighborhoods about what changes they wished to see to make their neighborhoods more attractive to businesses. Mason plans to and create a public art installation along Dexter Avenue with local artist Dabls and residents. Also among the possibilities are a music festival in the space and healthy food options brought to the area.

Whitney Sherrill’s program Black to the Land brings together Detroit organizations that promote culturally relevant outdoors events for black and brown residents. Last spring, BTTL hosted a pilot camping program in which twenty youth and their caregivers experienced a collective camp-set-up, intergenerational storytelling and a plant-based community meal. The intention is that more black and brown youth and the people caring for them will be able to participate and continue to share skills, explore the local environment together and engage in community building in outdoor spaces both within and outside the city of Detroit.

Jamii Tata is an educator who is also a writer and a trainer of entrepreneurship in Detroit. His project 50 Banners, 50 barrels will create 50 vinyl poetry banners and 50 poetry rain barrels. Youth and elder members of the North End neighborhood community will create poems about the topics important to them: Detroit, water, food and farming, land, displacement and resilience. The poets will then work with graphic designers who will adorn rain barrels with art and the poems. The barrels will then become a traveling exhibition, and will be displayed at festivals, parks and community centers to encourage further thinking on the topics.

Moira Villiard is a designer who wants to bring together people of diverse backgrounds to enjoy Goody Nights in Duluth, Minnesota. These evenings use storytelling and meaningful conversations so that the audience may collaborate with artists to take part in shows to create art and music, and then share a community dinner. Villard’s background is in the visual arts, and she currently works at Duluth’s only American Indian center as the arts & cultural programming coordinator. She serves in her community as an organizer and focuses on Indigenous land acknowledgement in creative placemaking. Villard is passionate about giving space and voice to underrepresented communities and allowing them to share their stories.

Nancy Cleveland is devoted to destigmatizing mental health in her Georgia community. Her project, “Head Space,” uses the model of a trial gym membership to help introduce people to therapy and mental health techniques. She will bring a “mental health gym” pop-up to Macon so that people will have the chance to try out therapy and learn techniques to manage and reduce their stress. Walk-in clinics and physical fitness centers will be part of the dedicated space. People who participate will be able to find a therapist or decide if therapy is right for them. The key aim of the pop-up is to help reduce the stigma of seeking mental health care, and to make therapy accessible to everyone.

Steven DeGeorge, also of Macon, Georgia, is bringing people together to overcome a legacy of hate in his town. The Field of Hope is situated in the mostly black community of Pleasant Hill. Eighty years ago, the field was willed to the city by a man who stipulated the field be for the use of whites only. The park was never made, and the land was left unused and neglected. Today, DeGeorge hopes to build a performance venue in the abandoned park in and rehabilitate the surrounding green space, with local community organizations. DeGeorge and friends decided that using the space so it may be enjoyed by everyone is the greatest purpose the park can serve.

Kat Regnier wants to promote easier navigation and mobility to the people in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. Regnier’s project, Friends of Flagler, will promote access to community assets and active transportation options in Little Haiti by installing collaboratively designed wayfinding signs and sidewalk decals. A large percentage of the residents of Little Haiti rely on public transit, walking, carpooling or biking. The primary goal of this project is to increase residents’ mobility options and to help build support for active transportation and the Flagler Rail Trail.

Kyle Maharlika is a software developer and tech lover who recognized that there is a gap in digital access in the Overtown section of Miami, Florida. Black and brown citizens don’t have access to high-speed internet there, and this disadvantages them in their daily lives.
His program, Parks Connect, will install a solar/wind-powered Wi-Fi pole in an Overtown park and work with community partners to provide digital literacy programming to residents to combat the technological inequality gap. The decision to put internet access in parks is to both combat the stereotype that tech requires isolation from other people, but also to make certain the Wi-Fi is easily accessible.

Marcos Lomeli has designed Eastern North Tours to give people a better look at the Latinx community in Philadelphia too few even know about. Lomeli is a native of Mexico who has lived in Philadelphia since he was a teen. His project seeks to show tourists a part of the City of Brotherly Love they probably didn’t even know existed. The project partners with community leaders and neighbors to codesign walking tours showcasing Eastern North Philadelphia’s food, art, music, history and unique Latinx culture. In addition, the tours will highlight some of Philadelphia’s historic art and activism that traditional tours often miss.

Molly van den Heuvel recognized that people already congregate at the library, but not enough had access to the library’s programming about nature and the outdoors. Bringing Out the Library solves this issue by creating a thoughtful, accessible community space outside of Philadelphia’s Andorra Library. In this way, people of any age who get to the library will be able to experience the existing nature programming at the library.

Shawn Sheu describes a vision in which people take what they know and share it with a neighbor they don’t already know to encourage cross-cultural engagement in Philadelphia’s new Rail Park. The Neighborhood Learning Lab will encourage residents to enjoy the new space, but also to mingle and form new relationships within communities. Residents are invited to lead outdoor workshops for their neighbors teaching skills from Mahjong to salsa. Instructors will be paid a stipend for their time. The goal here is to remove barriers of age, language and socioeconomic status so that members of the community can come together, learn from one another and form a stronger community overall.

Somaly Osteen describes a vision of safe streets and colorful and vibrant commerce along Philadelphia’s South 7th Street corridor. South 7th Street Shops will tap into diverse and inclusive artwork to celebrate the culture and visual traditions of the residents and local immigrant entrepreneurs. Not only will the project be visually appealing and attract more people to the area for shopping and sight-seeing, but it will also promote pedestrian safety along the corridor by painting crosswalks with colorful designs reflecting the input of the neighborhood. Painted bump outs will also be part of the design and will keep shoppers safer.

Ellina Yin lives in the “super commuter” town of San Jose, where two hour commutes aren’t uncommon. She also lives near the Diridon Station, the biggest transit hub west of the Mississippi. Her project is to produce a funny, digestible podcast about development and civic engagement in the city. In a town where smart and well connected people love to listen to podcasts, they often don’t know enough about their neighbors and what’s happening civically. Yin’s podcast wants to bring the conversations about the happenings of the town and the politics of the place to the people who need to know. Her inspiration comes from comedians, so the podcast will bring high entertainment value along with the civic information.

Lucila Chavez is a big believer in the confidence and fear-conquering mindset that comes from the fun and freedom of roller skating. However, skate culture at large and skate parks in Plata Arroyo didn’t always feel inclusive. Welcoming Skate Parks will solve the issue at one neglected skate park. The initiative invites more women skaters with murals by local women artists, community programming, and decorative lighting. The end result will be a fun and inclusive skate park where every human with an interest in skating is free to be.

Xia Xiong will produce a podcast called the Digital Story Cloth to promote connection and civic engagement in the Hmong community in the Twin Cities, which has the highest concentration of Hmong people in the US. With the hope to facilitate honest conversations about how to collectively support and lift up the Hmong community, the podcast will focus on helping listeners to better understand the community, its history and its current place in Minnesota life and culture. In particular, Xiong plans to do a deep dive into Hmong mental health and economic issues faced in the community. Providing a space for those conversations is a major element for the project. Finally, Xiong will consider the future of the Hmong in Minnesota and the U.S.

Jay Mundinger wants to use dance to explore the people and cultures of the world, and to connect like-minded people in State College, Pennsylvania. His Centre Social Dance project is a cultural exchange program that seeks to bring people to dance in public spaces with live local bands, teaching diverse dance styles at weekly social events. Dancers, teachers, DJs and musicians all have a place to come and share in one another’s culture and learn together how to form community around an activity that humans have enjoyed from the beginnings. The community is comprised of students and locals who seek out opportunities to enjoy social dance.

Since the first Emerging City Champions fellowship six years ago, more than 180 projects have been funded and implemented, building more civically engaged and resilient places, with greater equity and access for all.

Jamila Bey is a journalist and radio talk show host based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and various other outlets.