Leaders of the pack: Covington empowers residents for good

Sometimes, all it takes to bring a community together is a simple, creative idea.

That’s the thinking behind “creative placemaking,” a community-building tool that involves pairing residential talent with neighborhood projects — but it’s about more than simply painting a park bench. Effective placemaking creates a ripple effect that empowers residents and inspires a sense of belonging in their community.

Dawna Schneider, who lives in Covington’s Levassor Park, had a great idea one day while running errands with her longtime friend and neighbor Gerry Slusher.

While passing a piece of public artwork, Schneider asked, “Gerry, has anyone ever showed you those totem poles?” Slusher has been blind from birth. No one had. So, Schneider parked the car and together, they went to see — and feel — the sculpture up close.

Covington resident Dawna Schneider used a CGN nano grant to create an art walk for the visually impaired.Inspired by the experience, Schneider applied for and received a $250 “nano grant” from The Center for Great Neighborhoods, and in 2015 created Covington’s first guided, hands-on art walk for the visually impaired.

Schneider advertised the event, recruited friends and family as volunteer guides and used the $250 to rent a shuttle bus. On the day of the tour, approximately 25 people — plus some seeing-eye dogs — turned out for an up-close walking tour of various public sculptures around Covington.

Funding the creative ‘ripple’ revolution

To support projects like Schneider’s, The Center provides two types of funding: nano grants and creative community grants.

Nano grants of up to $250, supported by the Kresge Foundation, provide a strategic, low-risk investment to help get creative placemaking projects off the ground.

Kate Greene administrates The Center's nano grant program and believes a grant-worthy project goes beyond creativity for creativity’s sake.

“The process is as important as the product,” she explains. “And the most compelling projects will have long-lasting impact for leadership development, capacity building and a sense of belonging for residents.”

Occasionally, The Center will incentivize grantees to act on an urgent community issue — such was the case with a recent pre-K readiness call to action — but the program is open year-round to projects that address a variety of causes. The Center has the capacity to award about 24 nano grants each year. The grants are small, but they usually cover enough of the cost to get a new project going. Greene says they create the first spark and the thought, “I have this $250. Now how can I use it to bring people together?”

In recent years, The Center's nano grants have funded projects ranging from public workshops and community festivals to honey beekeeping and an afterschool ukelele club. The common thread: using art and creativity to strengthen the community.

Schneider’s art walk exemplifies the “ripple effect” The Center hopes to foster.

“It was a big hit,” Schneider recalls. “Everybody really enjoyed it. So, the next summer we did the exact same thing with the carousel at Smale Park.”

The ripple didn’t stop there. Schneider reached out to Slusher and encouraged her to apply for a $5,000 creative community grant from The Center on behalf of the Northern Kentucky Council of the Blind. The group used the funds to purchase a Braille printer and began printing menus for participating Covington restaurants. Chefs from Kung Food Chu's AmerAsia and Wunderbar jumped in to teach cooking classes to a visually impaired audience. (Click here for a video detailing that project.)

The Braille printer is now housed at The Center’s Hellmann Creative Center (321 W. 12th St.) and is available for community use.

Schneider says the project has brought residents together.

“There are people who have never really been exposed in any way, shape or form to someone with a visual impairment,” she says. “These projects lowered boundaries for people and showed them we’re not all that different. That sort of experience increases our compassion for people.”

Investment grows lock-step with ideas

Like nano grants, The Center’s creative community grants are funded by the Kresge Foundation, and used to fund even larger creative placemaking projects — up to $5,000.

Renaissance Covington's "Look Here!" photo series shows Covington then and now.In 2015, a group of Covington creative professionals won a community grant to fund a program called Different X Design, which places disabled adults in six-month industry apprenticeships.

Austin Dunbar, owner of Durham Brand & Co. was one of four mentors who took on an apprentice. Other apprentices worked at River City NewsHub & Weber Architects and the Baker-Hunt Art & Cultural Center.

Dunbar’s apprentice, Keeva Abernathy, came to the shop once or twice a week for six months. He helped with the program’s branding design and other projects.

“Different X Design did more than just give him a good place to work and good work to do,” Dunbar says. “It helped him with life skills as well.”

Abernathy is a Cincinnati resident. He is autistic, and although he was employed at another job during the program, he had never spent much time outside his own neighborhood. Different X Design paid his transportation costs, and mentors helped him navigate the route to and from work. It gave him a new set of tools to integrate into the community.
“It was cool having him around and being able to share things outside the business,” Dunbar remembers. “The relationship aspect was a lot more personal than professional. I became someone he could talk to and vice versa.”

Dunbar tried to encourage Abernathy’s passion for comic books, introducing him to artist friends — one in particular whose son is also autistic.

At the end of the program, Different X Design mentors threw a party to celebrate their apprentices’ accomplishments. Titled "UnCOVentional: A different kind of party," the event drew attendees from across the region and showcased the program’s out-of-the-box creativity.

Covington residents can apply here at any time for a nano grant from The Center, but its creative community grant program (for awards of up to $5,000) is nearing the end of its next funding cycle. The deadline for applications is June 26; find more details here.

The Center also administers the Catalytic Fund’s myNKY nano grants, which are available to Northern Kentucky residents. These small creative placemaking grants are funded by the Haile Foundation.

Covington placemakers on the rise

Greene says a good creative placemaking initiative “gets legs and then it grows” — referring to how a good idea, in the hands of a creative mind, develops a life of its own. Sometimes those ideas just need extra support — and a little start-up money — to make things happen. Here are just a few Covington placemaking projects to look out for in the coming months:

Emily Wolff, who founded popular Mainstrasse restaurants Otto's and Frida 602, designed this People’s Liberty grant project to activate and improve foot traffic in the CSX underpass that links Mainstrasse to Mutter Goddes and the Central Business District. The first phase is complete and new lighting will be installed soon. A mural is set to follow this fall.

This makerspace, housed in The Center's Hellmann Creative Center, is the result of a partnership with the Kenton County Public Library. It focuses on maker activities, digital library resources and 21st century technology skills like coding, production and design for underrepresented groups and artists in Covington’s Westside neighborhood. Open weekdays and for special events, FORGE is funded by a creative community grant from The Center.

Empower Tools
Local residents can rent gardening and landscaping tools through this partnership between The Center, the Kenton County Public Library and Wolf Tree Farms. Partial funding for the project comes from the Kresge Foundation’s FreshLohealth-focused placemaking program, for which Covington is a pilot community.

Unlock the Block
On July 22, the Latonia community will host this pop-up music festival, made possible by Leadership NKY and the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. This family-friendly event will feature local music, food and drinks, with a goal of activating Latonia’s historic Ritte’s Corner business district.

The Northern Kentucky Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation is proud to underwrite Soapbox’s On the Ground: Covington series. The Northern Kentucky Fund believes that highlighting the successes and challenges in our community fosters effective dialog and action, creating communities where everyone can thrive. Other On the Ground partners include The Center for Great Neighborhoods, which is working collaboratively toward community transformation with series sponsor Place Matters partners LISCand United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Data and analysis is provided by The Economics Center. 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.