Akron2Columbus: elevating young leaders

Brittany LaPointe \
March 10, 2016

What’s one way to inspire young leaders to think of creative ways to address some of Akron’s challenges and opportunities?

Put them on a bus and take them on a road trip.

Last month, GAR and Knight Foundation took over 30 emerging leaders on a study trip to Columbus. The trip is the third in the Akron2 series, following the Knight-sponsored Akron2Detrioit and Akron2Pittsburgh trips.

Hopping on a bus with my peers, taking a head count, asking people to buddy-up, I couldn’t help but liken these visits to my school field trips (minus the High-C and Lunchables). They give young Akronites a chance to interact with others from different disciplines to learn together and participate in group activities.

The lightly structured trips include a mix of pre-scheduled visits and a DIY portion that allow participants to delve into issues they are passionate about. They have proven to be effective in elevating emerging leaders to explore and observe policies, issues, and projects that may not be available in Akron.

The idea is to be inspired, avoid reinventing the wheel, and most importantly, learn from our neighbors’ experiences.

Columbus City Council members, Zach Klein, Liz Brown, and Shannon Hardin addressed the group in a panel discussion

So why Columbus?

I personally haven’t visited Columbus in a number of years. Eight years ago, my mission to explore Columbus was pretty narrow, i.e where’s the next OSU party? So I was pleased to learn of the many successes the city has since celebrated; the development of the Short North, strong public-private partnerships, a diverse City Council, being named 20th best city in America by Bloomberg Businessweek, one of the top 10 cities for black-owned small businesses in America; and the 8th best city for women entrepreneurs by Forbes. It’s also home to the second largest Somali immigrant population in the U.S.

Representative Emilia Sykes and Senator Tom Sawyer address the group at the Ohio Statehouse

The overarching theme of the trip to Columbus was neighborhood development and branding, a topic that’s been bubbling up in small group discussions and one that has been on the radar of Akron’s new Mayor Horrigan. It’s also a topic near and dear to Akron2Akron.

Akron2Akron is an initiative that developed after the Akron2Detroit trip in 2014.  The idea behind it was simple: let’s invite the community to explore Akron’s neighborhoods through informal walking tours. Every month we select a neighborhood to tour and a neighborhood champion to lead it.  Having a new voice and perspective every month keeps the tours interesting and authentic. We explored over 12 neighborhoods and engaged hundreds of Akron residents since our first tour of Firestone Park in the winter of 2014.

Walking tour of the Columbus Commons

One of the many great things about the tours, aside from the colorful conversations among the participants, is that sense of discovery and learning both the critical and quirky things we didn’t know about Akron neighborhoods. By becoming a network of “tourists” in our hometown for one Saturday every month, we can offer, in some small way, a solution to the stagnant growth problem Akron has been facing, particularly with its younger generation. We may not be able to solve some of the critical problems a neighborhood may be facing (job access, crime), but we can at least break the barriers and continue the important conversation about the many ways we can make Akron an even better place to live.

This trip sparked a few new ideas and questions to tackle some of the smaller challenges facing our city.  What role can Akron2Akron play in identifying and building on the existing assets in our neighborhoods? How can we work harder to identify and partner with neighborhood champions who have been quietly advocating for Akron behind the scenes?

There are a number of exciting walks in the works for 2016, including Goodyear Heights, Summit Lake, the Merriman Valley, and a preview of the new and improved iTowpath project. We hope to identify neighborhood advocates to develop walks to help connect University of Akron students to the surrounding neighborhoods, collaborate with the Downtown Akron Partnership to offer a behind the scenes tour of downtown’s residential living spaces, and maybe even a Masala Bhangra neighborhood dance party led by a local fitness advocate.

So pack your juice boxes and join us for a field trip in our own backyard.


Photos by: Tim Fitzwater