Unforgettable Moments: Next City’s Staff Reflect on Past Vanguard Conferences

As you likely already know, applications are open for Next City’s 2023 Vanguard Conference taking place in Richmond, VA on September 19 - 22. The Next City team is thrilled to meet the 40 changemakers who will be joining us in the fall for four days of inspirational cross-sector collaboration. Applications are open until June 7 at 11:59 p.m. Eastern

The Next City team eagerly anticipates each year’s Vanguard, an extraordinary gathering of urban leaders from around the world. As we look back at the transformative experiences we’ve had in the past, it’s impossible not to reminisce about some of our favorite moments. From inspiring keynote speeches that reignited our passion for urban innovation to thought-provoking panel discussions that challenged our perspectives, these conferences have left a mark and remind us of why we do the work that we do here at Next City. 

Join us as we take a trip down memory lane, and reflect on Vanguard moments that have shaped our commitment to building sustainable and equitable cities of the future.

Eleanor Barba
Administrative Manager

Thanks to Vanguard, I fall in love with a new city every year. During the conference, you are oriented to a new space and meet the folks who are working to make the city you’re in better. The experience is hands-on: In New Orleans, it was terrific to get a personal tour of his Paper Monuments from Bryan Lee Jr., and in El Paso/Juárez, we learned about health initiatives across the border from outstanding leaders doing the work.

Sara Schuenemann
Events Director

Each year I look forward to planning the Next City Vanguard conference. From discovering a new city to reading through the applications to gathering in person for the in-person event, each step provides new insights into the fantastic work people do worldwide. Dedicated practitioners working to improve cities gather to learn from local experts and advocates about the historical and future solutions being developed.

Over the years, there have been many stand-out moments in the conference, such as keynote speakers Brandan “BMike” Odums, an artist, activist, and mentor in New Orleans, hosted in his art studio, to Dr. Flojaune Cofer, public health advocate who is currently running for mayor of Sacramento and Chanowk Yisrael, an urban farmer and community activist, transforming his neighborhood and the Sacramento region by using urban agriculture as a tool to engage, employ and empower communities. Each speaker, venue, tour guide, and participant has a unique story to share, and we work to showcase the incredible work pushing our nation toward a liberated future throughout the entirety of the conference. Don’t miss your chance to join us this year in Richmond.

Aysha Khan
Senior Editor

At the dinner table one night in Ciudad Juárez last year, I sat alongside three urban leaders, all Black men, all on the upswing in their respective spheres: Brandon Greene (director of the ACLU of Northern California’s racial and economic justice program), Alex Horton (founder of Albuquerque’s International District Economic Development Center) and Durell Coleman (founder of social impact design consultancy DC Design). 

I’d read their bios when Next City selected them to be part of our Vanguard cohort. I knew them to be driven, equity-minded, knowledgeable, accomplished, with strong careers ahead of them – exactly what we’re looking for in our Vanguards. But as I watched them casually and frankly discuss their personal experiences and professional efforts over dinner in ways that is rarely afforded to them, I realized these three men are literally the future of their cities. 

Their work creating jobs and housing en masse, addressing homelessness at scale, taking legal measures to halt racial and economic injustices by city agencies…it’s what keeps us all from succumbing to hopelessness. That dinner showed me that one of the most impactful things I can do in my career is foster opportunities for people like them to meet one another, rub elbows, spark ideas, collaborate, co-conspire, and spread solutions that work. Our aim, and what we hear from attendees, is that Vanguard gives justice-oriented urban leaders a reason to stay in this difficult line of work. Join us in this quiet revolution.

Pardise Amirshahi
Integrated Sales and Marketing Partnerships Director

I didn’t know what to expect when I attended the Vanguard Conference for the first time as a part of the Next City staff last year. At the welcome event and dinner, I felt lucky in the company of greats to my left and right: A lawyer who dedicated his life to defending people experiencing homelessness and a foodbank expert moving on to help a giant food company’s foundation to end hunger in the US. As the evening progressed, I found myself in a room full of giants in the business of equity and justice in cities.

I spent the week watching presentations from each Vanguard, attending discussion panels from local government and nonprofit organizations, taking walking tours of the town, and meeting locals and their issues face-to-face. Several times, I was brought to tears to find how determined and fearless the new generation of urbanites are infusing their solutions for cities into the mainstream, like raindrops on the soil. It is heartwarming to see this difference, as my age group hasn’t always felt as focused as this new wiser generation on solutions that move us forward.  If you are doing something good for your local community, I highly encourage you to apply to become a Vanguard. It will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share your wins and build long-term relationships with fellows.

Melissa Simpson
Audience Engagement Editor

I was three weeks into my role as the new audience engagement editor at Next City when I flew across the country to Sacramento, CA, to meet 40 brilliant and dedicated urban leaders. I was just beginning to develop an understanding of who our audience was, their work, and the successes and challenges that come along with making cities more equitable places. I found myself in the best position possible — I was surrounded by the ideal Next City audience member. 

Vanguards are the people we’re doing it for when we report on things like successful housing-first initiatives in small Canadian cities or violence intervention programs that started in Chicago but are being replicated in Philly. Vanguards are the ones who make change happen!

Among the numerous highlights of the Vanguard Conference, one particular segment captivates my attention every year — the 1- and 10-minute Vanguard presentations. Their experiences and ideas leave me filled with a sense of hope for the future of our cities and remind me of the remarkable possibilities that lie ahead.

If I had to choose one moment in particular I would highlight the public health panel during Vanguard El Paso at a nursing school in Juárez, Mexico. The speakers illuminated the porous nature of the U.S./Mexico border and how during the peak of COVID-19 the border community found opportunities to share resources in ways that one might not have even considered.

Oscar Perry Abello
Senior Economic Justice Correspondent

My favorite part about Vanguard is all the collective nerding out that happens around the shared experiences of unjust systems and the things Vanguards are doing or want to do about it. Folks can go on all night about it and I’m here for it. As part of Next City’s editorial team, it helps me as a journalist when I get to hear so much in just a few days about what Vanguards are doing and what questions they have for each other about their work. And the sessions that go on all day, going around different parts of the city, help seed those conversations we have later over dinner and drinks.

Lucas Grindley
Executive Director

Calling the Vanguard conference merely a ‘conference’ is an understatement. No one is passively attending. We’re immersed together, venturing into the city, and absorbing insights directly from the changemakers who are creating and leading local solutions. Everything we hear is partly why I leave inspired. But the true heartbeat of the experience comes from relationships. We connect with so many impressive people working in the host city, with the Vanguards themselves, and I always leave with a palpable optimism about our shared vision for the future.

Will you be one of the next urban leaders to join us in Richmond to participate in engaging workshops, one-of-a-kind tours, and conversations about the newest innovations and most pressing questions in urban development, infrastructure and public policy? 

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