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Introducing the 'Open Places' Initiative

April 08, 2013

(Kenneth H. Zimmerman is director of U.S. programs for the Open Society Foundations. This post originally appeared on OSF's Voices blog.)

Headshot_Ken_ZimmermanAcross the United States, local communities face an ever more challenging environment: dramatic shifts in federal and state funding, advances in technology, and large-scale demographic change. Each of these affects how low-income communities and communities of color are able to access political, economic, and civic opportunities. In response to these shifts, the Open Society Foundations is launching a new effort, the Open Places Initiative, to advance the ability of local communities to achieve equal opportunity and promote vibrant democratic practices.

As part of the initiative, planning grants of roughly $100,000 each have been awarded to eight sites. The awards will enable an assortment of nonprofits in each of these places to plan how to create sustainable change in areas such as effective and accountable government, civic engagement, criminal justice reform, and equal educational opportunity.

In late 2013, OSF will award up to five of these sites long-term implementation grants of up to $1 million a year, for a minimum of three years -- and, potentially, a full decade.

The eight sites selected to receive grants are Albuquerque, New Mexico; Buffalo, New York; Denver, Colorado; Jackson, Mississippi; Louisville, Kentucky; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; San Diego, California; and Puerto Rico. We are pleased with the geographic diversity of these sites as well as the diversity of communities represented.

The Open Places Initiative begins with the premise that local knowledge and assets are fundamental to the creation of inclusive and open places. Yet, local conditions are changing significantly. Local governments face unprecedented demands due to budget constraints, and the nonprofit sector is facing significant funding challenges. At the same time, increased access to information is transforming community engagement on pressing issues. Nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and civic groups need to adapt to the new circumstances. One of the primary goals of the initiative is to increase the ability of each place to extend beyond current agendas, strategies, and capabilities.

The initiative draws on our experience with our urban social justice laboratory, OSI-Baltimore, which tests the effectiveness of various place-based strategies to address some of the biggest challenges facing Baltimore and other urban centers in the U.S. We are also drawing on the experience of other foundations and public-sector efforts, and look forward to collaborating with them going forward.

During the next few months, each site will select its specific areas of focus in response to pressing local priorities -- and, in each case, will incorporate multiple issues and tools into its planning.

While the sites are just now beginning the planning process, they have already noted some areas of focus. In addition to increasing local civic capacity to bring about long-term change, the preliminary goals of the different projects include advancing fair and inclusive economic development and fiscal policy, integrating immigrants into the larger community, reducing rates of incarceration, helping high school students graduate in greater numbers, addressing the enduring impact of residential segregation, and creating pathways to the middle class for low-wage workers.

We anticipate the initiative will enable the collaborations to identify and address needed skills and capacities, effectively access national and local resources, and further develop the approaches needed to address complex issues. In doing so, the Open Places sites will successfully develop more innovative and coordinated approaches to these and other challenges over the long term. While local equity and justice issues are likely to vary over time, what will remain constant is the need to bring together different groups -- residents, business leaders, state and local officials, nonprofits -- to mobilize and advance needed reform.

We are committed to supporting the Open Places sites as they develop and refine their approaches to making lasting and positive change. In addition to financial resources, we will be providing technical assistance as well as facilitating connections among sites and introductions with leading national organizations and institutions.

We heartily congratulate the groups that won planning grants. We look forward to gleaning lessons from the work that comes out of the initiative for replication in other cities, regions, and states, and believe that work has tremendous potential to help all of us chart a new course for our cities and regions.

-- Kenneth Zimmerman

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