How 10 Next City Alumni Are Building Better Cities

Meet a few of our Vanguards – and learn how you can join our network of rising urban leaders.

Next City 2021 Vanguards in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Photo by Betsy Blake Photography)

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Since its inception, Next City’s annual Vanguard conference has brought together a diverse group of young urban leaders, providing them with a platform to exchange ideas and drive positive change in their cities. From our gathering in Philadelphia to last year’s program in El Paso, the program continues to attract passionate and innovative individuals who are helping shape the future of urbanism.

This year’s Vanguard conference will be in Richmond, Virginia, from September 19 - 22, 2023 – applications close on Wednesday, so apply now! You can find a full directory of our Vanguards here. As we gear up for that gathering, we’re taking a moment to introduce you to the powerful work of just a few of our past Vanguards. UPDATE: We’ve extended the deadline for applications to Monday, June 12!

Desi Danganan: Reactivating commercial spaces in San Francisco

Desi is a Filipino community activist and the founder and executive director of Kultivate Labs, an innovative Filipino-led nonprofit that’s creating thriving commercial ecosystems by accelerating businesses that preserve culture and community. In this role, he’s currently leading the strategy for the economic development of SOMA Pilipinas, a newly designated cultural district in San Francisco.

Read more about Desi’s work: Through the city’s Vacant to Vibrant program, Kultivate Labs is using a ‘pop-up to permanent’ model to bring Filipino businesses and artists to vacant storefronts along SOMA’s Mission Street corridor. During the pandemic, they turned a parking lot into a healing garden in SOMA Pilipinas.

Harold Pettigrew: Creating a new future for CDFIs

In 2015, Harold was named a Next City Vanguard. This month, he took the reins at the Opportunity Finance Network, a major national network of community development financial institutions (CDFIs), where he’s now president and CEO. Prior to that, he led the Washington Area Community Investment Fund (Wacif), one of the capital region’s leading CDFIs, and worked with Prosperity Now as well as the D.C. and New York City governments.

“Capital opens catalytic opportunity. Finance is my chosen vehicle for change, for helping people from all walks of life be who they want to be,” he told OFN recently. “What we’re doing with CDFIs is fighting for home — for people and place. CDFIs help communities and individuals realize their hopes and visions for themselves.”

Read more about Harold’s work: Startup and early-growth phases are challenging for any small business, but worker-owned cooperatives face some unique challenges.

Kimberly Dowdell: Revitalizing cities through design

Kimberly is national president-elect of the American Institute of Architects. The first Black woman to be elected to that role, she’s also one of about 500 licensed Black women architects in the country. Currently a principal at the leading architecture, engineering and planning firm HOK in Chicago, Kimberly was also the 2019-2020 national president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, where she worked to increase opportunities for women and people of color to access the profession. She’s also worked as a real estate developer in her hometown of Detroit, as well as in the city’s Housing and Revitalization Department.

Read more about Kimberly’s work: In a Q&A with Next City, Kimberly Dowdell explains the impact of racial disparities in the field of architecture on equitable development in our cities.

Rasheedah Phillips: Working for a future with housing security

Rasheedah is a prominent public attorney focused on housing law. Last year, she joined PolicyLink as its director of housing; previously she served as the managing attorney of the Landlord-Tenant Housing Unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, where she spent about 15 years providing legal advice, representation and resources to low-income tenants in public and subsidized housing, childcare providers and low-income Philadelphia homeowners facing mortgage foreclosure. An expert in subsidized housing law, she has successfully advocated for changes in housing policy affecting the entire City of Philadelphia and beyond.

The author of several speculative fiction books, Rasheedah also founded The AfroFuturist Affair and co-created the award-winning Community Futures Lab project, a socially engaged art and research project that explores communal temporality, futurism and preservation of memory and history in an area undergoing redevelopment, gentrification and mass displacement.

Read more about Rasheedah’s work: Last year, we interviewed Rasheedah about an anti-eviction program in the city that cut filings by 75%. In 2021, Rasheedah published an op-ed about how an eviction filing – even if someone wasn’t actually evicted – can lock someone out of quality housing for years. The Renter’s Access Act, she wrote, could help solve this issue; a few weeks later, the legislation was passed.

Maya Ford: Getting better data on communities of color

Maya is the principal and founder of FordMomentum!, a communications agency that uses data science, culture and creativity to better understand communities of color and inform decision-making. After spending most of her career working in communications, she launched the firm based! around a bell hooks-inspired method called Standard of Love (STOLO) that “uncovers and develops the values already existing within people and their communities and translates them into reports for municipalities and organizations,” as we explained last year.

Read more about Maya’s work: A Black-owned communications firm connected with more than 17,000 residents to guide the future of housing in Houston.

Richard Young: Building place-based civic health

Richard lives in Fayette County, Kentucky, and works at the intersection of democracy, public policy, social practice and creativity. He is the founder and executive director of CivicLex, a civic health organization that has been recognized by the Library of Congress and the American Academy of Arts and Science as a solution for rebuilding American democracy.

Richard is a founding steering committee member and steward for the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange, the United States’ most prominent framework for bringing together rural and urban communities to understand their interdependence. He is also a founder of Kentucky’s first El Sistema-inspired music program and Lexington’s first place-based community development corporation.

Read more about Richard’s work: In the face of dwindling local news coverage and diminishing civics education, CivicLex works to keep Lexington’s public informed on, but also engaged in, local government.

Michael Ford: Bringing hip hop culture to architecture

A Detroit native, Michael was an architecture student at the University of Detroit Mercy, where he wrote his graduate thesis: “Hip Hop Inspired Architecture and Design.” That began a career and a new movement in architecture that offers hip hop as a tool to building a just city. Now an architect, designer and educator, Ford is a professor in the architecture program at Madison College and founder of architecture firm BrandNu Design.

Read more about Michael’s work: Hip Hop Architecture Camps are introducing young people to architecture and design who otherwise would have likely never had exposure to the fields.

Bryan Lee Jr.: Championing design justice

Bryan is a principal at Colloqate Design, a New Orleans-based multidisciplinary architecture and design justice firm. A national design justice advocate with over a decade of experience in architecture, he led the Design Justice Platform, Design As Protest National Day of Action, and programs for high school students through the Arts Council of New Orleans and the National Organization of Minority Architects.

“The principal argument of design justice is that we are creating spaces of racial, social, and cultural justice through the process and outcomes of design,” he told Architect Magazine in 2021. “Complementing that notion is that design justice seeks to challenge the privilege and power structures that use architecture as a tool of oppression. It is people- and justice-focused. It seeks to create radical visions for what living in space with one another means.”

Read more about Brian’s work: For him, “the collective narrative of people who live in a particular place” should determine what story gets told.

Paola Aguirre: Spacial justice with empty school buildings

Architect and urban designer Paola is the founder of the Chicago-based urban design and research firm Borderless, which she founded in 2016, to further her mission of connecting communities with design while cultivating collaborative agency. One of the firm’s projects has been Creative Grounds: “a platform for actionable research to bring visibility to the closure of nearly 50 public schools concentrated in the West and South Sides of Chicago, flagging up issues of collaborative agency and social infrastructure,” per Wallpaper.

Read more about Paula’s work: As Chicago schools shuttered, Paola Aguirre saw an opportunity to get neighbors involved to decide how buildings should be used.

Anton Seals: Creating a better Englewood

Anton is the executive director of the nonprofit Grow Greater Englewood, which works with residents and developers of the Chicago neighborhood to create sustainable local food economies, green businesses and land sovereignty. From a constellation of Black and Brown-led urban farms to a pioneering “agro-eco district” and vacant lot-turned-community plaza, Grow Greater Englewood says it’s “building a network of Englewood cooperative businesses designed to serve a growing food, energy, and environmental market.”

Anton is also the founder of cannabis company Organic Urban Revitalization Solutions, and founder of engagement consulting firm Seals 360.

Read more about Anton’s work: In the Englewood neighborhood, progress is slow but sure toward the area’s first linear park.

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Aysha Khan is the managing editor at Next City.

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