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Introducing the Open Places Initiative

Throughout 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 and communities of color are able to access political, economic, and civic opportunities. In response to these shifts, the Open Society Foundations are launching a new effort, the Open Places Initiative. It advances the ability of local areas to achieve equal opportunity and promote vibrant democratic practices.

As part of the initiative, eight planning grants have been awarded roughly $100,000 each to select communities across the United States. The awards will enable a collection of nonprofits in each place to plan how to bring about sustainable change such as effective and accountable government, civic engagement, criminal justice reform, and equal educational opportunity.

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

The eight places awarded planning grant awards are Albuquerque, New Mexico; Buffalo, New York; Denver, Colorado; Jackson, Mississippi; Louisville, Kentucky; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; San Diego, California; and Puerto Rico. We are very 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 abilities.

The initiative draws upon 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 United States. We are also drawing upon 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—responding to pressing local priorities—and, in each case, will incorporate multiple issues and identify an array of tools.

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

We anticipate that the initiative will allow 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. By doing so, the Open Places sites can successfully develop more innovative and coordinated approaches to these and other challenges in the long term. While local equity and justice issues will vary over time, what will remain constant is the need to bring together different sectors—residents, business, state and local officials, nonprofits, and others—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 between 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. They have tremendous potential to chart a new course, not just for their region, but for all of us.

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