January 12 2016

When Hurricane Sandy quietly developed from a glistening tropical wave in Cuba, most of us had no idea it would become the deadliest and most destructive storm of 2012, ripping its way up the eastern seaboard to New Jersey and New York. In New York City alone, the storm caused a colossal $19 billion worth of damage.  Out of shuttered businesses with water up to their windows, RISE:NYC was developed to fund local ways to make New York more resilient in the face of future storms.

In May 2015, RISE:NYC awarded grants to install storm-related technologies that keep small businesses from flooding, automatically control plumbing valves to protect critical utilities, and connect small businesses with storm-resistant Wi-Fi networks. Along with community members, the city itself opened the competition for RISE funds, selected winners, and is continuing to test innovative new ways to keep businesses open and operating when the next storm like Sandy pummels the region.

Around the country, city-led efforts like these are bubbling up from communities tackling problems that Congress or federal agencies seem to have dismissed as insurmountable.

A porch swing at a bus stop in Charlotte., NC.
A porch swing at a bus stop in Charlotte, NC.

It’s happening in Charlotte, where Tom Warshauer, the city’s Engagement Manager, has installed porch swings at bus stops.  The goal is to turn the stops into “civic front porches where community interaction is encouraged and celebrated.”

Detroit, too, is teeming with community members, artists, builders, and students who are remaking the city from top to bottom. Take Brick + Beam Detroit, which is creating a group of Detroit rehabbers who reactivate vacant buildings. Animating empty building space is one of the most transformative actions on behalf of a city where one in three properties have been foreclosed since 2005 and where taxpayers pay for demolition costs, declining property values, and the sheer emotional drain of seeing so many empty buildings.

Detroit's Brick & Beam creating a new community of Detroit rehabbers who will work together to combat blight, reactivate vacant buildings and improve their city
Detroit’s Brick & Beam creating a new community of Detroit rehabbers who will work together to combat blight, reactivate vacant buildings and improve their city

The community leaders who have built initiatives like these are the public problem solvers that we hope to support with the recently-announced New America CA Fellowship. Whether they are leading cutting-edge organizations, developing technology to be applied in new ways, championing fresh ideas, or pioneering methods to engage the public, we hope our fellows will inspire others with the powerful impact of their work.

We have chosen to launch this fellowship in California, our country’s most populous state, because it is brimming both with a cornucopia of problems and with just as many social entrepreneurs working to solve them. City governments and clear-eyed citizens in California are collaborating to address urgent issues like homelessness, wealth inequality, rising housing costs, crumbling schools, and huge prison populations. They are working to open government data, create better tools to interact with government, and to revitalize their state’s urban centers. With this fellowship we are thrilled to highlight the go-getters doing this inspiring work and, just as importantly, the Californians who are benefitting from it.

We believe that think tanks like New America should motivate all of us to believe in power of public problem solving. We are re-making ourselves into a new kind of civic enterprise that engages with community problems in communities themselves and tells the stories of this positive social change. We are all barraged by the overwhelming power of the negative stories about government we see and hear every day. But what about the story of RISE:NYC or porch swings in Charlotte? Telling stories like these is what we will do with our fellows. By supporting and amplifying their work, we will  move the narrative about public problem solving away from the impossible toward the inspirational. It is our hope that such inspiration will help everyday people see engaging in some public problem solving as a little more possible in their own lives.

The core of the fellowship will be working deeply with each fellow to develop a communications strategy to tell the story of their work through articles with our media partners like Slate, Time, Medium, and others and to create video, blogs, social media content, or whatever is necessary to reach our fellows’ audience. All fellows will have the opportunity to headline dynamic events in San Francisco, the East Bay, and Silicon Valley that stoke engaging conversation about the problems they are trying to solve. And we will spark momentum for broader application of their local efforts by integrating  our CA fellows into our national network of policy experts, journalists, change agents and decision-makers.

If you or someone you know would like to apply, information about the fellowship and the application can be found at https://www.newamerica.org/ca/.


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