November 3, 2017
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A Chicago developer proposes a new use for vacant school buildings

Three inspiring stories of innovation and ingenuity across America

Students from a Chicago magnet school gather before the first day of class. Several of the city’s public school buildings are vacant, but a developer has an idea for turning them into community spaces. Photo by Scott Olson via Getty Images

Every Friday, The Renewal Project shares three stories from around the country that highlight the innovative solutions individuals and organizations are creating in their communities. Want to share a story from your hometown? Email us at info@therenewalproject.com.

Transforming vacant schools: In 2013, the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 “underutilized schools and programs.” Since then, most of the buildings have remained vacant, but some developers have expressed interest in purchasing and renovating the lots. One of these developers may have a positive model for others looking to engage the community in the renovation of their new property. Ghian Foreman, purchased the building that previously housed Anthony Overton Elementary School, where Foreman’s aunt had taught. He decided to convert the building into an office space and business incubator: the Overton Business and Technology Incubator, named after the school’s namesake, a prominent black businessman and founder of the black newspaper The Chicago Bee. Foreman has started fielding potential tenants—many of which are local businesses—and he is searching for local minority- and female-owned contracting companies to help in construction. Foreman also hopes to engage the community with programming around the space. “Let’s get the lights on at night,” Foreman told NextCity. “Let’s not lock the gate, so dog owners can bring their dogs in. Let’s open up the gym and have Crossfit in there.”


Diversifying the future of architecture: According to The Directory of African American Architects, in the entire history of the United States, only 408 African-American female architects have been licensed. Tiffany Brown, who is currently studying to receive one of those licenses, is trying to pave a pathway for the next 400 African-American female architects. Last month, thanks to a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Brown’s ambitions inch closer to fruition. Brown’s project, 400 Forward, will introduce students to architecture from a young age through classes, workshops, summer camps, and other educational programming, with a focus on students in inner cities. “A young actress by the name of Yara Shahidi once said, ‘If a child grows up never seeing themselves represented as successful or as the hero, they are the anomaly if they succeed and the expectation if they fail,’” Brown told Curbed. “I use this phrase as a tool for motivation whenever I work with kids in those neighborhoods.”


Decoding biases: According to a recent survey, fewer than 10 percent of women in tech “have never experienced gender bias in the workplace,” and only one in four tech jobs are held by women. A recent profile in Civic Hall shows how the social networking site Meetup, which facilitates meetings between like-minded groups of people, adjusts its algorithms to avoid perpetuating trends like this. The site uses a type of sorting called collaborative filtering in its search algorithm. According to Zachary Cohn, machine learning lead at Meetup, collaborative filtering assumes that “people who like this like that. It’s essentially making inferences about individuals based on a larger dataset that contains them.” When gender factors into this, problems arise. “If you let the algorithm auto-optimize, it would see that men are more likely to join tech groups than women,” Kristin Hodgson, communications director at Meetup, told Civic Hall. Instead of simply relying on these search algorithms, Meetup carefully calibrates what assumptions it includes in its search.

Mikhail Klimentov

Mikhail Klimentov is a contributor for The Renewal Project.