By Gabriel Muñoz, Forward Cities’ Local Director – Kansas City, MO

Forward Cities is a national capacity-building and learning network working within and between cities and micropolitans to create more inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem development. This is the mission of Forward Cities. It sounds impressive when you read it, but what does it really mean?

The Racial Equity Institute training workshop during the Pittsburgh conference was an influential vehicle for raising the profile of equity and inclusion issues that have led to the racial inequities that exist in the United States today.

I was fortunate to attend the annual Forward Cities National Conference in Pittsburgh this past June 12th – 14th. The annual conference attracts 200+ leaders from over forty cities from around the country, including 33 Forward Cities member cities. During the 3-day conference, I was able to experience the mission actualize in real time. 

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto kicked-off the conference with inspiring remarks during the opening reception. Photo by Ray Carrington

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto kicked-off the conference with inspiring remarks during the opening reception. He spoke about the struggles the City of Pittsburgh has endured – losing over half its population over the last several decades and the economic distress it has caused on the city and its citizens. They could have curled up and continued to decline, but instead, they chose to roll-up their sleeves and get to work. But this time around they wanted to make sure the decisions they made were inclusive of all Pittsburgians. They adopted the quote: “If it’s not for all, then it’s not for us.” 

Brett Brenton, Senior Director of Community Innovation, guides participants through a mock ideation session that participants could use in their community to generate innovative ideas and solutions to community problems. The aim is to generate a large quantity of ideas that participants can then filter and narrow into the best, most practical and most innovative ideas in order to inspire new and better community solutions.

The first workshop was the Community Entrepreneurship Accelerator (CEA) Snapshot, which provided an insight into the work Forward Cities is doing in Indianapolis, Kansas City, New Kensington, Columbus, and Pittsburgh. Each of the local directors spoke to the CEA process, the triumph and tribulations in their cities and the work moving forward. This gave an opportunity for attendees to learn of actionable, concrete ideas that could be used in their communities to create more engagement especially in communities of color. For those that feel they are the only ones experiencing a disconnect, this was an opportunity to ask questions in a safe place and talk about real issues in our communities. The CEA Snapshot served as a catalyst for insightful conversations throughout the 3 days that lead to new relationships and exchange of ideas and tools to create a more inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem. 

Fay Horwitt, Vice President of Community Innovation explains the Forward Cities’  Theory of Change model. Photo by Ray Carrington

Some of the connections that I was able to make and learn from that I am going to be bringing back to my town of Kansas City are: 

  • The first evening during the opening reception, I met Beth Zimmer of Erie, PA who runs the Innovation Collaborative. We had a great conversation. I advised her that I thought procurement was an underutilized tool for growth and of the Living Cities accelerator focused on providing technical assistance and guidance to cities to create a more inclusive procurement department. I’ve now connected her to the grant and hope to see Erie, PA in next year’s cohort. 
Group tour of the Hilltop Urban Farm. The three core programs of the farm are: youth-centered education; a workforce training program for new adult urban farmers; and an active, accessible farmers’ market. The farm is located on 107 acres of land (former abandoned public housing) – with 23 acres dedicated to farming. 
  • During the tour of Allentown, we were told how at its worst, retail occupancy was at 20%. They shared the innovate tools they developed to combat the vacancy and I am looking forward to learning from them and seeing how we may be able to create similar tools. Their occupancy is now at 80%. The tools include rent abatement, T&I (Tenant Improvement) subsidies, facade grants, community event grants to create local events to draw people to the community and other such programs. 
  • I met Shawn Nicholson during one of the evening receptions. He is the founder and principle of SMN Square headquartered in Richmond, VA. He runs a black-focused co-working space. I advised him of one of my local start-up’s problems of figuring out the financials to get a black coworking space up-and-off the ground. He stated his strength is understanding financials and would be more than happy to provide her guidance and mentorship. I’ve now connected the two and currently scheduling a time to meet via Google Hangouts. I’m anxious to see where this will go. 
  • Through the Kauffman Foundation, I had heard about the organization Mortar based in Ohio. In fact, during our community convening, we played a video highlighting the success of Mortar. But I had never spoken or met anyone from the organization. During the conference, I was able to meet and connect with Tim Barr and Sadell Bradley. We exchanged a lot of best practices. I connected Sadell to PTAC (Procurement Technical Assistance Centers) a federally-funded program that assists small businesses with the procurement process. And she is excited to learn more about PTAC and begin getting their clients connected to PTAC. I was able to learn more about their business model and see how we might be able to get something similar started here in our community. 

These are only a couple of the many connections I made and partnerships I’m looking forward to growing. None of this would have been possible without attending the Forward Cities conference. As the saying goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” With the fellow connections and learning I gained, I definitely look forward to taking the Forward Cities mission far.