Knight Cities Challenge in Detroit Leaves Locals as Runners-up

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April 29, 2015;Detroit News

Maya Stovall and Alex B. Hill have a complaint about the Knight Cities Challenge, the Knight Foundation’s competition that distributed funding for projects ostensibly geared to promote innovative thinking in Detroit neighborhoods. Both Stovall and Hill were among the finalists for the awards, but were not selected.

In their view, “The Knight Foundation has disregarded community-led innovation to sustain the status quo by funding multi-million and billion dollar corporate and foundation entities in Detroit.” Four out of the five projects selected by Knight were, they say, “resources for hypothetical Detroit newcomers or elite ex-pats.”

While some might consider their complaint the sour-grapes responses of runners-up, their op-ed in the Detroit News makes some important points. “Where is the investment in projects that are run by neighborhood residents and/or community groups with deep-seeded roots?” they ask. “How many times does this question need to be raised?”

“The greatest weakness of all the winning projects,” Stovall and Hill charge, “is their lack of community connection and inclusiveness.”

Among the winners were the hardly-neighborhood-rooted Crain Communications to create a digital “Detroit Homecoming” community, a Quicken Loans/Bedrock Ventures collaboration called Opportunity Detroit to inform potential residents of the corporations’ preferred neighborhoods, and Detroit Future City’s program to “give vacant lots a well-designed haircut.” NPQ wrote about some of these awards earlier this month as a lead-in to the Detroit “Grand Bargain” panel discussion slated for the Council on Foundations 2015 annual meeting.

Stovall and Hill point out that these entities are all big (Crain’s annual revenues are around $260 million, for example) and the modest five- and six-figure grants are small compared to the resources they control or have invested. It is “difficult to see why they would need funding from the Knight Foundation for innovation or civic engagement,” they write.

They conclude with a powerful statement:

“The 2014 Knight Cities Challenge winners in Detroit are yet another example of a growing and disturbing trend. This trend represents the corporate and foundation-level devaluation of existing local expertise and existing local assets. Funding and support have been and continue to be unequally distributed in Detroit. The Knight Foundation is embracing corporate entities whose ‘innovation’ is providing resources to Detroit newcomers and/or Detroiters with already relatively deeper pockets than the majority of Detroiters.”

The Knight Foundation may have some compelling justifications to offer for its Detroit neighborhood awards. Given the decades of history of plans and promises for Detroit neighborhoods that have raised and dashed hopes repeatedly, it would have been important for the Knight Foundation awards to reward the innovation and ideas of neighborhood-based efforts in Detroit, controlled by longtime Detroiters, rather than investing in Detroit’s hoped-for newcomers. The result is a signal to neighborhood residents that, once again, in the plans for neighborhood and overall Detroit city revival, they are demographic runners-up.—Rick Cohen


  • Carla McClure

    As a former Detroiter I am disgusted to learn of this slap in the face to native Detroiters that have hung in there in hopes of reviving a once thriving city. The very idea that preference is being given to those that just pass through the city to work there but don’t actually reside within it’s walls is atrocious. This practice has been status quo for too long. The residents that actually live, shop, and try to work within the city need to be given a chance and the assistance to rebuild the city. Being a part of the true inner city workings gives them a perspective that a passer through would not have. The passer through also has nothing truly invested, it’s just a plan that didn’t work if it all falls through. Actual residents will be nurturing their plan night and day, watching with an eagle eye as the transformation takes place. It’s time big business got out of the way and let those that are truly in the thick of things take the reigns. Help them take the reigns to regain a city that they have not given up on, a city they stayed true to. They didn’t move when they had the chance and most of them have had the opportunity. They stayed because they believed!

  • Carolyn Saxton

    Legacy Foundation, the community foundation located in Lake County IN, works with the City of Gary which is a “Knight city”. Legacy Foundation promoted the Knight Cities Challenge throughout Gary, NW Indiana and to partners from outside the area who are currently working closely with the City on improvement projects. Over 200 innovative ideas were submitted and one was selected for funding by the Knight Foundation.
    Because of the overwhelming response to this challenge for Gary Legacy Foundation convened those individuals and groups that submitted ideas which were not selected. The purpose of that meeting was to encourage continued excitement about possibilities for Gary and to create a collective planning process around common topics of submitted ideas. At that convening 6 common topics were identified and attendees could self-select which topic best met their idea. Based on that selection the attendees were placed in groups to collectively develop a project with a cost of $5,000-$25,000. Each group, or sub-group for those with larger numbers of participants, were encouraged to submit an application for funding of their new project from Legacy Foundation. That deadline is early in May.
    The Knight Cities Challenge enabled Legacy to work with those in our community who were not selected but have innovative ideas for Gary. The Knight Cities Challenge also enabled Legacy to bring these people together to collectively create a project to improve Gary with potential funding from Legacy Foundation. We would not have had this opportunity without the Knight Cities Challenge.

  • Paul Vandeventer

    There’s no quotes from Knight Foundation sources commenting on what they’re being accused of: neglecting local initiative. How are we supposed to know what the foundation’s view of things is unless you source them, Rick? Or did they decline to comment?

  • Rick Cohen

    it was a newswire, pau. for newswires, we’re simply commenting on the source article involved.