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(Credit: City of Newark)
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an edited version of the keynote address Citi Medina gave at Next City’s 2019 Regional Vanguard Conference, in Newark, on Friday, June 28, 2019.
When I think about all the leaders in this room and talk about innovation, I think your first collaborative project is really yourself. When I first looked at who I was and who I was becoming, I really looked at my tribe who contributed to the man I am today. See, I grew up in Brooklyn, and Brooklyn is so much culturally just like Newark. It’s a mix of black and brown voices, immigrant voices all living together.
It was a cultural mix I had never experienced anywhere else until I came here. Those streets taught me so much. It didn’t take long for me to understand the saying, “The streets is real.” And as much as those streets gave me, as much as I learned, my parents were my first and foremost teachers in my life. They put me in every experience imaginable, from art to tech to music. And it’s not a Brooklyn story if you don’t talk about all of the afterschool programming you attended, and the teachers who became mentors. Or your “Auntie” down the block who was always patrolling you. Those things really contributed; that was my first village. With their help, I moved forward. I went from living in the projects to attending private school, from traveling the world to working in corporate America. That momentum was always about how I could stitch the different parts of myself together to make a better outcome. That stitching is what makes me a strategist today. For me, it’s about the ability to create harmony within a given environment. Bring everything together, from the visuals to the messaging to the people who come together for the common good
Funnily enough, all of those collaborative moments are actually what brought me to Newark. I thought the idea of being a part of a community, of an effort to make a great American city great again, was going to work. And that call for me first came from Cory Booker. He wanted you to not only embed yourself in the city. He wanted you to believe in it. I decided to move here after what was a four-hour tour. In 22 days I left Brooklyn, the home that I had known, and set up shop in Newark. I wasn’t going to look at what was, I was only going to focus on what could be.
We all know Newark has a past. It’s a relationship of trauma and discouragement, and it’s heavy. But I don’t want to focus on that. I want to focus on the facts. Newark is the third oldest city in America. It has been home to great inventors like Seth Boyden, who perfected the invention of patent leather, to Hannibal Goodwin, who created celluloid, the precursor to the film and movies we enjoy today. More importantly, we had the fortune of having the Thomas Edison set up his first lab here, on [what is now called] Edison Place. But more than that, we had amazing artists like the late, great Amiri Baraka, Stephen Crane and Pulitzer Prize winner, Carl Newman Diggler. And of course, we can’t forget the Newark-born musical darlings of the great jazz musician, Sarah Vaughan or “the voice,” Whitney Houston.
Citi Medina (Photo by Chrystofer Davis)
You need to understand that when you come to Newark, the public servants, the educators, the citizens are just so aware of how great their city is. Equity, respect, effort and civic engagement are all wrapped up in what it means to be a Newarker, and that’s how these positive changes are happening. You can see that happening now, with all the uplifting changes developing around you with the passion and the vigor of the people who speak on behalf of Newark. This has become my new village.
I learned that you have to earn the right to advocate and lead in the city. So with the new roots I planted in Newark, I wanted to set a clear path. What could I contribute, not only for the citizens but also for the future of the city? I’m not a native Newarker, but I sure as hell feel like one, and I became a part of this city because it allowed me to work alongside everyone from titans to CEOs, from philanthropists to politicians.
I’ve advocated for the local Newark citizen and I’ve taught at Rutgers. I have structured strategy for not-for-profits and I’ve broken bread with some of the amazing creative artists that are here. This is the thread that unites my work: it’s always been about collaborative effort. The common goal is to move our city and its citizens forward. They all became my tribe. Our mayor Ras J. Baraka uses what I think are the pillars of innovation — equity, diversity and inclusion — in every aspect of the city’s initiatives.
Through his vision, our city has surged forward. Newark itself was called a ghost city, when we pursued a bid for a little company you might’ve heard of: Amazon. Being one of the lead strategists on the team [that recruited] Amazon was powerful because we didn’t pander to the company. We created a brand and we wrote the public-facing language of an entire campaign based on an ecosystem that we activated in our capacity not just to leverage technology, but also to bring together our human capital. We got everyone behind a mantra: “Yes, Newark.” It directly addressed the naysayers, directly countered all the media we faced. “Yeah, it’s Newark. Get behind it. We’re good.” The Amazon bid was never about the win. It was about, how do we align our city in the same space as a global brand like Amazon?
I was able to speak directly to Amazon. What I told them was, it’s their opportunity. Coming to Newark, you’d actually do something different. You would work with multicultural people who have so much to contribute and are such an undiscovered world. Alas, Amazon chose unwisely, and they moved in another direction. But ultimately the network we created and the way we activated our city sent a global message, and that message was: Newark is doing new and innovative things. Check it.
Not every result that you anticipate when you collaborate is going to be what you expected, but new and exciting things will emerge in Newark. When I came here, I was able to embed myself in the city. I met with creatives, I fostered startups, I met with women entrepreneurs, and I was given that capacity by this great city. This led me to see a need — the pain point of so many startups and entrepreneurs of color being overlooked. So many women entrepreneurs I encountered were underinvested and flat-out denied access to funding. There were so many marginalized voices that I worked with who were unable to find traction for their companies. Remember, innovation and collaboration do not always come from a pleasant story. Sometimes they will come from loss or even defeat.
That’s when I saw a need for change, and I had a solution. I wanted to create a dialogue, a movement toward collaboration for the entrepreneurs of my city. That was the catalyst of my founding Equal Space. Our mission was clear from the start. We create opportunities and resources for talented multicultural founders. We didn’t want to just find a place for them to go or an office for them to rent. It needed to be more than that. Because sometimes you don’t know where to start. Sometimes you don’t know how to execute. Sometimes you just want to be in a room with people who have been through what you have been through. That was really where I created the vision. That is how we’ve created an immersive and important counterculture to what exists.
Innovation can come from a place of abundance or scarcity. As a person of color, I’m intimately aware of this notion. I’m aware of what it feels like to have my intellectual chops discounted by my outward appearance. So I wanted to create a physical space for my members — our spacers, as we call them — to not only further themselves, but to collaborate with and empower each other. How do we do that? It’s not just the physical space. We promote and program. Out of 365 days, Equal Space programs half of the year, through a series of events that are equal parts, education, inspiration, and a whole lot of culture.
Let me give you an example of how we bring that on. We have a signature event called Women-in-novation, a one-day immersive program that is completely women-led. These women come from public and private sectors; they share their stories and through their personal narrative, allow the youth who are attending to really alter their trajectory. One of the biggest collaborators in my career is Aisha Glover, president of the Newark Alliance. She did something spectacular. She purchased 20 tickets [to Women in-novation] for young women. These young women were involved in a nonprofit that helped them to strengthen themselves because they’ve considered thoughts of suicide; this [nonprofit program] helped them deal with their personal obstacles.
One of the young women during a panel stood up and she floored the entire room with her question. So much so that one of the panelists, Judith Sheft, the associate VP of technology development at NJII here in Newark, actually granted her a speaking slot at this fall’s TedX conference. So that’s what can happen at Women in-novation. It’s not just another event. It’s about how we engage in a mutual dialogue of change. That is how I’m reminded that I have purpose. Don’t get so bogged down in the mission that you forget that you have purpose.
For the last three years, Equal Space has been the biggest collaboration in my life. There is always a tale of two cities. You see it — the haves and have-nots, the privileged and the downtrodden. Equal Space belongs on the side of the creatives and the founders who have unique perspectives. The dream is to create an innovative space throughout the entire country. And I believe that to create these multiple spaces, my future partners are actually in this room. You are my tribe and my village.
The outcome of collaboration is that you have given me more than I’ve given you. We are changed and enhanced because we give each other the best we can in the moment. Be the best version of yourself. Don’t be afraid to allow yourself to be the project of collaboration.
I’m the biggest work in progress ever. The more we bring into our lives, the better we can be. Because every day you’re going to do the work and every day you’re going to remember your mission. Sometimes those days will change someone’s life. Then the next day it might feel as if you’re keeping pace. But understand that when you do get the win, those wins are no longer yours. The wins belonged to your collaborators. The wins belong to your city. At the end of the day, your win belongs to your village. And now you’re part of mine. Thank you.
Citi Medina is a creative strategist and has worked in the design and strategy industry for more than ten years. Citi’s work is featured in many campaigns, including Yes Newark and Amazon’s HQ2 bid. He is founder of =SPACE, a co-working space for tech and media that focuses on founders of color, LGBT-led startups and women ventures.