State College and Philly projects win Knight Cities Challenge

    John Stitzinger

    John Stitzinger

    The grants are for projects that engage the community.

    If you had $50,000 to improve your community, what would you do? Would you invest in infrastructure, build a park or fund a non-profit organization? Or might you try something a little more creative?

    The Knight Cities Challenge pushes urban thinkers to do just that: think creatively about how to engage their community. There are 26 Knight Cities around the country, including Philadelphia and State College, and anyone in those cities can submit a project to the challenge. The winners, announced Tuesday, get a portion of $5 million.

    The parameters for the challenge are very wide. Each project must address at least one of three issues:

    Talent, through ideas that help cities attract and keep the best and brightest
    Opportunity, or ideas that expand economic prospects and break down divides
    Engagement, ideas that spur connection and civic involvement.

    State College

    It’s that third point that captured John Stitzinger’s interest. Stitzinger runs the Make Space, a community workshop where residents can build, create and test out new technologies and products. They have a 3-D printer, a laser cutter and whole lot of tools and construction equipment. What they don’t have is enough community involvement.

    “The simple goal was to make the Make Space known to the community,” said Stitzinger. “It’s a great resource that very few people know about. We’ve tried to do various demos and events, but there’s still a lot of people that don’t know it’s available, and what kind of possibility a maker space can be.”

    There are a lot of community spaces in State College that aren’t being utilized by a wider audience: start-up incubators, an arts and crafts studio and even the library. Stitzinger wanted a way to bring the services of those places to the community, and the community to the services. So he proposed creating ice luminaries.

    “We’ve been doing some demos with ice luminaries and vacuum forming, and [thought] we could turn this into an interesting community project,” said Stitzinger.

    The equipment needed to make a luminary mold is easy to transport and set up at community events. Once residents make the mold, all they have to do is fill it with water and stick it in the freezer.

    This summer and fall, Stitzinger and other ‘makers’ in State College will help residents make their own luminary mold. By winter, he hopes enough molds will be made and shared that everyone can bring an ice luminary out to an event and set a record for most ice luminaries in one place at once.

    “We want to show that the community can come together and do something spectacular that an individual could never do on their own,” said Stitzinger.


    Four projects were awarded grants in Philadelphia, including some repeat winners.

    Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers: Anuj Gupta, general manager, says Reading Terminal Market is one of the “most diverse places in Philadelphia.” As new immigrant communities begin to sprout up around the city, Gupta wants to make sure everyone feels welcome in this community space.

    Gupta and the Market were awarded $84,674 to host cooking demonstrations with different immigrant communities around the city.

    “In South Philly, we have an emerging Mexican and Vietnamese community, they’re literally growing side by side,” said Gupta. “Maybe we bring the two of them together for a shared cooking demonstration and facilitated dialogue over dinner, so that those two communities start building a deeper appreciation for each other, and for Reading Terminal Market.”

    Gupta won a Knight Cities Challenge grant last year when he was working for Mt. Airy USA, a neighborhood organization in northwest Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Immigrant Innovation Hub offers low-cost business space and entrepreneurship training for recent immigrants.

    The Little Music Studio: Everyone loves street music, unless you’re trying to make a phone call on the bus. The Little Music Studio was awarded $334,050 to make street music accessible to everyone by setting up instruments around the city.

    “Let’s put some guitars, a piano, some tambourines out together and see what happens,” said Ben Bryant, the creator of the project. “Music brings people of all stripes together, and can hopefully bring a neighborhood together. Young, old, talented or never played before, they’ll start jamming together and through that, start talking to each other.”

    Bryant hopes to try out a prototype this summer and launch little music studios around the city next summer. Two years ago, Bryant won a Knight Cities Challenge grant to create pop-up pools in Philadelphia.

    “We learned from [the pool] project just how important it is to get the word out and get people talking about it,” said Bryant. “People share on social media and have the conversation there as well.”

    20 Book Clubs, 20 Co-Op Businesses: Caitlin Quigley, co-founder of the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance, first had the idea for this proposal while doing research at Swarthmore College. She found that, in Philadelphia in the 1940s, study groups often formed consumer food co-ops. Quigley decided to bring that idea into the 21st century. 

    “We’re going to organize people in 20 different neighborhoods in Philadelphia to read books about cooperative businesses for six months to get inspired, and then identify a business need in their neighborhood and form a cooperative business to meet that need,” said Quigley. 

    Her project was given $146,000 from the Knight Foundation.

    The Institute of Hip-Hop Entrepreneurship: Tayyib Smith is an entrepreneur who loves hip-hop music. He proposed teaching small business skills and entrepreneurship through the medium of hip-hop, and the Knight Foundation offered him $308,640 to try it out. 

    “We’re going to deconstruct all the ways that hip-hop has influenced business practices,” said Smith. “That could be tech innovation, like Grandmaster Flash taking apart his parents record player to learn how to make a scratch, or even video, and the use of street-teaming for marketing and promotion.” 

    Smith says hip-hop doesn’t get enough credit for the creation of those ideas. Over nine months, 36 entrepreneurs will work through how they can implement the lessons of hip-hop into their own businesses. 

    “If you look at how fast something can become viral or an idea can become mainstream through hip-hop versus how hard it is to get something through an antiquated educational system, there is a tremendous opportunity at hand,” said Smith.  

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