December 22, 2016
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7 stories that defined American renewal in 2016

From art that lifts up the community, to design solutions to homelessness, these are our favorite stories of the year

We launched The Renewal Project this summer with the aim of inspiring people across the country who care about their communities—the civic and business leaders, nonprofit organizers, volunteers, and engaged neighbors.

Along the way, we have discovered some amazing stories of creative problem solving that’s making cities and towns thrive.

It wasn’t easy to pick seven stories from a lot that included so many inspiring tales of community renewal, but we gave it a shot. Below is a mixture of fan favorites and editors’ picks.

Artist Stacey Williams sells portraits on ArtLifting. Photo courtesy of ArtLifting

Giving people the power to create and market their talents

What if people who struggled with homelessness were given the opportunity to earn a living from marketing their talents? Liz Powers saw incredible artistic talent in some of the people she met while volunteering at homeless shelters. She thought, “instead of focusing on the negative, why don’t we focus on the positive? Instead of obsessing over the fact that someone happens to be homeless, why don’t we open up our eyes to his or her talents?” So in 2013, she and her brother Spencer founded Artlifting to provide a platform for homeless artists to market and sell their work. Since then, Artlifting has expanded to 80 artists in 11 cities across the country.


The House Life Project engages Indianapolis neighborhoods with arts programming in abandoned homes. Photo by Jessica Kartawich/The House Life Project

Artists take over of abandoned homes

A group in Indianapolis is energizing neighborhoods where abandoned homes have overwhelmed the landscape. The House Life project hosts several “resident artists” at an abandoned home, where they create art and lead community workshops. As contributor Scarlett A. Martin wrote, “artists are tasked with much more than installing an exhibit; they host weekly porch parties with neighborhood residents and lead arts-based programming at the HLP site.” The project “approaches these forgotten homes as sites of value,” she wrote, “where art and community can flourish until the next owner comes along.”


Whirlpool is partnering with schools to provide students with better access to clean clothes. Photo courtesy of Whirlpool

How a washing machine can change a student’s life

One of our most popular stories on The Renewal Project featured a creative fix to one school’s problem: student absences. Dr. Melody Gunn, the former principal of Gibson Elementary in St. Louis, discovered that her students were staying home because they didn’t have clean clothes to wear. She reached out to the Whirlpool Corporation for help, and the company donated a washer and dryer to the school. “After just one month, we saw an impact,” Gunn told CityLab. Whirlpool’s Care Counts program is now in 17 schools and is expected to expand into 20 more schools.


Tim Rinne and his neighbors in Lincoln, Nebraska, replaced their grass with gardens, and now they produce fruits and vegetables for the whole community. Photo courtesy of the Hawley Hamlet Facebook page

‘We’re growing community on our block’

It started out small: in 2009, Tim Rinne decided to tear up his lawn and convert it into an edible landscape. Today, 20 households have joined Rinne, transforming their Lincoln, Nebraska, neighborhood into a community garden. “More than food, we’re growing community on our block,” he wrote. “As city dwellers, we now have a better idea, for instance, of how much work goes into growing food and what it takes to get it to the table. Having just been ‘eaters’ most of our lives, we’re trying our hands at growing what can be grown in the city to help supplement our food supply.”


Students gather at Young Chicago Authors. Photo courtesy of Young Chicago Authors

The power of the pen

Demetrius Amparan serves his community as a mentor with Young Chicago Authors, an organization that supports thousands of students every year through seminars, workshops, mentorships, and open mic events. Amparan discovered YCA as a high school student and credits his enduring success as an artist to the organization: “I could have wound up on the corner slinging dope; instead, my poetry was featured in an HBO documentary series,” he wrote. “I could have been another young man memorialized on a RIP t-shirt; instead, I went on to complete college and tour the country showcasing my art. Helping youth learn to heal and empower themselves is a powerful privilege that YCA doesn’t take lightly.”


Champlain Housing Trust built a statewide collaboration that delivered results. Screen grab from Champlain Housing Trust video

Erasing a 7-year rise in homelessness

“We’ve been spending more to keep people homeless than it costs to provide a home,” wrote Chris Donnelly of the Champlain Housing Trust. The organization, an inaugural Renewal Award winner, is committed to ending chronic homelessness. Through a collaboration with a variety of state partners, Vermont saw an overall drop in homelessness by 28 percent in 2016. Chronic homelessness dropped 25 percent and the number of families with children without a home dropped 20 percent. “With the partnerships and collaboration underway, tackling big problems like ending chronic homelessness in Vermont don’t seem so insurmountable anymore,” Donnelly wrote.


A California homeless housing project is built using shipping containers. Image courtesy of SVA Architects

A recycled house, but still home

As in the above story, The Renewal Project regularly featured innovative solutions to homelessness. This story featured a southern California nonprofit that president and CEO Donna Gallup believes can be replicated in communities across the country. American Family Housing, which provides housing and services for the homeless, is developping a 16-unit multifamily housing project that will serve homeless veterans—and it’s all made from shipping containers. But, said Gallup, it will feel like home. “We are not putting people in shipping containers,” Gallup told the Los Angeles Times. “We are putting them in housing—very energy-efficient, very structurally strong, very beautiful multifamily housing.” Potter’s Lane, designed by SVA Architects, is due to open in January.


Next week, we’ll share our picks for innovators of the year.

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.