Recap: Next American Vanguard Conference

A look at the people and proceedings of Next American Vanguard, a conference NAC hosted in late May that brought together the nation’s most promising and accomplished young thinkers and doers.

Members of the Vanguard class of 2010 participate in a breakout session in front of Philadelphia’s Painted Bride.

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On May 26 and 27, 32 of America’s most promising and accomplished urban leaders, all under the age of 35, convened in Philadelphia for the Next American Vanguard conference. The participants, selected following a competitive application process, represent federal government, local governments, arts organizations, community development corporations and advocacy groups. They hail from 25 cities including Chicago, Boston, Fargo, Allentown, St. Louis and Austin. (To learn more about the class of 2010, click here).

During the two-day conference the members of the 2010 Vanguard presented their work, learned from experts and each other, toured Philadelphia, and, most importantly, identified strategies to leverage the group’s collective impact and experience to effect positive change in their cities and nationwide.

Next American City advocates for economically, environmentally and socially sustainable cities. As one Vanguard member put it, the advantage of this particular gathering is that this extraordinary group understands how everything is connected in cities – how the sectors of education and heath care and climate advocacy and governance and business and physical development must all work together to make livable places – and how confident, ambitious leaders can combine forces to make cities better.

Day One

The group gathered at AIA Philadelphia for quick, three-minute introductions (at left, David Rand, a farm forager in Chicago, introduces himself), which immediately established the group’s extensive experience and expertise. After lunch, the group split up to tour the city of Philadelphia. The first group, guided by Todd Baylson of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, rode a trolley to the Kensington and Fishtown areas of Northeast Philadelphia. Here, they saw several examples of effective community transformation, including Greensgrow Farms, a community-supported-agriculture project. The second group, led by PennPraxis’s Harris Steinberg, toured the Delaware riverfront by boat, looking at efforts to revitalize the central riverfront area. The group then dined on local fare at Farmicia.

Day Two

On the second day, the Vanguard members focused on sharing and enhancing their professional skills. In the morning, they gathered for expert-led breakout sessions (pictured at right). The first, hosted by i-LEAD founder David Castro, challenged participants to think about the way they use and define terms like “leadership,” “entrepreneurship” and “sustainability.” Castro then advised the group to closely consider how their respective organizations create value, and how this value can sustain a lasting business model.

A second group, led by Christian Madera of Next American City, strategized how best to use new media tools to engage constituencies and clients. Among other things, the group covered privacy and legal issues in the online realm, reaching across the digital divide, and launching effective new media efforts in their workplaces.

The Vanguard gathered next to hear Arts & the City: Cities and the Creative Economy, a panel presented by the Penn Institute for Urban Research. The panel, which brought together Gary Steuer, Philadelphia’s Chief Cultural Officer/Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, Rebecca Campbell, Executive Director of the Austin Film Society, Randy Cohen, Vice President of Local Arts Advancement for Americans for the Arts, artist Janet Echelman and Ed Lebow, Director of the Public Art Program, City of Phoenix, discussed the role of art in the social and economic fabric of cities and the potential of art to revitalize cities. The panelists pointed out the economic importance of art, noting that over 4 percent of businesses nationwide are arts-centered and that local businesses benefit from art-generated traffic. The panelists noted that the discussion of art in public spaces is uniquely American; in many other countries, public art is a given. The open discussion prompted questions about how different styles of art appear in different socioeconomic regions and how we can transcend these boundaries. This led to the question that, given the adage ‘where artists go, real estate follows,’ how can cities add art without causing gentrification? Participants and panelists alike cautioned that neighborhoods are a different kind of public space. Neighborhoods are extensions of people’s homes, they said, and must be treated with extra care.

To close the conference, the Vanguard leveraged its collective intelligence to teach one another lessons learned through professional and personal experience. In informal group discussions, participants covered local climate-change preparedness; African-American-led gentrification; the needs of post-industrial communities; crafting a message for the media; revenue-generating for nonprofits and methods for engaging diverse communities.

If you are interested in learning more about the individual members of the Next American Vanguard, please visit here. The application process for next year’s event will begin in Spring 2011.

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Tags: philadelphiachicagolos angelesdetroitgovernancebostonnew orleansaustinnext city vanguardnext american city

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