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Solutions of the Year: Part One

Meet People Where They Are. Give Them the Programs They Need.

Well. We have vaccines. And soon a pill! But the virus mutates and persists, as does whatever malignancy prompted some people to kick off the year by trying to overthrow democracy. However weary we may be, can any of us truly desire a "return to normal?" The “normal” of pre-pandemic life tolerated pernicious injustice and structural inequity.

At Next City, we envision better ways of living together — a vision buoyed by the certainty that change is already happening. After scrutinizing the 600+ stories we published this year, we've curated the 21 most promising and inspiring Solutions of the Year. This slideshow represents part one of our 21-Best list. The solutions highlighted here eliminate barriers to getting people the help they need. 

As always, we present this slideshow as the teaser for Next City's Solutions of the Year print magazine. This 80-page special issue celebrates the projects, people and programs that have made headway with the climate crisis, spurred a pandemic recovery, and inspired transformational change in cities.

We look to 2022 with cautious optimism and renewed determination to elevate solutions that liberate cities from systems and cultures of oppression.

Next City rounds out our solutions of the year coverage next week, with a second slideshow that features new solutions for persistent problems. Scroll on, and stay tuned. 

Lyndon Stratford/iStockPhoto

Guaranteed Income Programs Take Off

The urgency and economic desperation of the pandemic likely accelerated the rollout, but guaranteed income is, without question, an idea whose time has come — from a small program piloted in 2019 by former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs to more than 60 cities now either exploring the possibility or already executing on their plan. Check out our graphic that tracks programs in play across the country; new ones are coming online almost faster than we can update the map! 

Newark Water Coalition co-founder Anthony Diaz with one of four new Water Boxes installed at community sites across Newark. (Photo courtesy Newark Water Coalition)

Bringing Clean Water to Newark

Since 2018, the Newark Water Coalition has worked to expose the environmental racism at the heart of the city’s water crisis. Though initially, they distributed bottled water to residents, they soon partnered with the nonprofit 501CTHREE to bring a Flint solution to Newark. The Water Box was designed as “a bridge solution to when systemic change needs to occur,” says co-founder Drew Fitzgerald. (The other founder is musician Jaden Smith.) 

These portable filtration systems filter out lead and other contaminants from tap water; each unit produces 10 gallons of clean water a minute. In the early months of the Water Box, the coalition quadrupled its capacity of filtered water distribution, according to coalition co-founder Anthony Diaz. With four Water Boxes in operation, Diaz expected the Newark Water Coalition to distribute 4,000 gallons per month. "This is community," he says.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

For Seniors, Conference Calls Help Fight Isolation

“It really starts to feel like you’re talking to your friends,” says a participant in the Sharing Network. Contributor Emily Nonko brings us the story of these moderator-led discussion groups in Brooklyn designed for seniors to access by telephone. One Community launched the project amid COVID-19. One-hour sessions facilitate stimulating and friendly conversation to create connection and improve participants’ sense of wellbeing. Topics range from music and civil rights to baseball history and the Latinx experience in New York. “Social isolation isn’t just a manifestation of the pandemic, says Director Daniel Nussbaum. "It’s something particularly older people face.” 

Photo by Bonnie Natko / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Black-Owned Startup “Turning Buildings Into Teslas”

Next City contributor Phil Roberts reported our most-read story of the year. Did you know an estimated 40% of U.S. carbon emissions come from buildings? Brooklyn-based BlocPower is reducing those emissions by swapping out oil and gas for heat pumps — even when building owners can't afford to pay for it. So far, the company has retrofitted more than 1,200 buildings in 26 different cities. Since we published Roberts' story in July, the City of Ithaca, New York contracted with BlocPower to electrify and decarbonize all city-owned buildings. You can also listen to a Next City podcast interview with BlocPower co-founder Keith Kinch.

Photo courtesy Less Is More

Wiping the Slate Clean

This year Next City published a series called "The Clean Slate," about how cities use technology and policy to eliminate unjust fines, fees, and other barriers to economic mobility. These small or bureaucratic changes yielded outsized benefits across the board, among them: California automatically expunged more than 144,000 marijuana convictions in California thanks to Code for America's "Clear My Record;" Durham erased $2.7 million in unpaid traffic debt, putting more than 11,000 suspended drivers back on the road; and New York State effectively ended re-incarceration for non-criminal parole violations, which could save the state approximately $680 million a year. Pay what you wish to download an ebook that collects all of the stories in this series. And thanks to Solutions Journalism Network for their support of this project.

These Detroit Workers Earn As They Learn

The Detroit nonprofit Empowerment Plan produces sleeping bag coats for people who are experiencing homelessness. Beyond that, it employs people experiencing homelessness to sew the coats, moving them into stable housing and providing them with support services to get them on the path to financial stability. Contributor Deepali Srivastava says that Empowerment's "earn as you learn" model is its true innovation. Roughly 60% of an employee's paid work week is spent sewing coats; the rest is dedicated to attending classes and receiving support services. Derrick Meeking, director of workforce development and programs, describes Empowerment Plan as “a social enterprise with a human services organization inside of it.”

A Cherokee language class in pre-COVID times. (Photo courtesy Cherokee Nation)

Getting Paid to Learn Cherokee

In 2021, only about 2,000 fluent speakers of Cherokee remain, and in the last year, more than 100 have died. How do you entice people to learn a disappearing language? Simple: Offer them cash.
Kristi Eaton reports on the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program in Oklahoma, which trains Cherokee Nation citizens — and those interested in their culture — to become proficient in the language. Students are paid $10 per hour for 40 hours of immersive lessons a week. “It’s not a whole lot, but what we have learned is that [for] people who have been really dedicated to learning the language, you have to have that many consecutive hours so they have to have the ability to live and continue to put some groceries on the table and that sort of thing,” says Howard Paden, Cherokee Nation Language Department executive director.

Photo courtesy Queer the Land

Seattle Queer Collective Forges Cohousing Model

From Contributor Emily Nonko comes the story of a group that is organizing the future they want into existence. Queer the Land emerged from a summer 2016 meetup with a vision of collective housing and a safe community space that would operate as an alternative to the healthcare system, government-run shelters, transitional housing and police. “After seeing how much housing instability there was within our communities, and seeing that local government and local nonprofits did not know about our lives or needs, we decided to come together to find our own solutions,” says Denechia Powell, one of the founding members.
At the start of 2021, the collective closed on a 12-bedroom property to renovate into affordable housing and community space. It’s the result of significant movement-building, fundraising and navigating a complex sales transaction that lasted over a year.

Photo courtesy The SPOT

A “Menstrual Hub” Comes to Philadelphia

In Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood, Lynette Medley and her daughter, Nya McGlone, opened The SPOT after raising $24,000 on GoFundMe. Beyond a brick-and-mortar distribution hub for free menstrual and hygiene products, The SPOT serves as a community and education space. There’s office space for Medley to practice counseling and McGlone to focus on education, a computer room, and clean water and bathroom access.

Medley sees The SPOT as a particularly important resource for marginalized populations with less access to the formal healthcare system. “Half of the population I serve have never went to a gynecologist,” Medley notes. She hopes there will eventually be satellite locations to serve even more people who menstruate. Thanks to Contributor Emily Nonko for reporting this story. 

A “vaccine bus” (Photo courtesy Metro Transit)

Solutions on Wheels

Two noteworthy solutions that are constantly on the move. Henry Pan reported on how tricked-out "vaccine buses" were dispatched to places where the Minnesota Health Department found an “obvious gap” in vaccine access. Community partners helped to identify these gaps, whether fear of crowds, lack of transportation access or free time, or poor English proficiency. And Solcyre Burga wrote about how New Jersey's mobile DMV travels to soup kitchens and other places where unsheltered folks go for support services. The mobile units ease the process of applying for an official ID that can unlock access to state benefits.   Both initiatives were necessary to address pandemic urgencies; but both have value well beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

Watch this space next Monday — we'll feature 11 more solutions of the year. That list collects the solutions that represent new ways to tackle old problems. 

Did you know that fewer than 1% of all people who read Next City make a monthly donation?  We cannot survive without more readers willing to make a recurring donation. Will you donate today? Anyone who contributes before the end of this year will receive a free copy of our Solutions of the Year magazine

Thank you for your support. Wishing you peace, good health and justice for 2022.