John S. Knight started one of the nation's largest newspaper companies in Akron by keeping people of all classes — his readers — in mind. He believed it was important to provide news and information to help them lead better lives in a democracy.
The Akron Beacon Journal has continued that tradition with its detailed look at the shrinking middle class and the threat it poses to disrupt ''the American Dream.''
The threads of Greater Akron's community tapestry are woven, in part, through the work of charitable foundations, which help to stabilize the lives of residents during economically difficult times.
Akron Community Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and other local foundations weave such threads throughout all sectors and classes of the population. They fund programs that encourage economic development, provide safety-net food and shelter services and enhance educational and cultural opportunities for all, which otherwise might not be available — at all.
The Fund for Our Economic Future, a collaboration including Akron Community Foundation and Knight, recognizes Akron's industrial legacy and its already fertile base for new industries in polymers and health care. This is a thread that foundations wove because, without a willing regional and political driver, it might not have happened.
Foundations, along with universities, may well be the major drivers to the new economy in Northeast Ohio. A joint venture of the foundations is the $10 million University Park Alliance project. Through it, a university, health institutions, the city, county, public school system and housing agencies have collaborated to shape a better future in the community around lifelong learning and health, both imperative to living the American Dream.
The 25 new town house units at Spicer Park Village are nearing completion with two additional phases planned. The final result will be up to 100 new town home units that will provide opportunity and benefits for the squeezed middle class. This is just an example of many significant grants supporting important projects within the inner city.
The Akron-Canton Foodbank could have been built anywhere. But the foundations supported refurbishing a vacant downtown building to provide a more efficient system for distributing fresh and nonperishable food items to people and agencies that previously had to turn people away.
With more residents finding themselves in need of such basic services, foundations acted at just the right moment. In that same geographic area, the foundations also supported the capital campaign of the new Urban League.
The proven success of the robust after-school programs at Perkins Middle School has led to its expansion at two other public middle schools. That program has become the national model for schools serving all classes and economic groups.
Programs at Perkins overlap programs of Project GRAD, weaving those threads together throughout the Buchtel Cluster — from Project GRAD's grade school literacy programs to college scholarships for Buchtel High graduates completing the program. Thanks to these programs, a new generation of Akronites is on track to experience its own version of the American Dream.
Foundations also provide funds that subsidize local cultural institutions and events so they remain accessible to all. The new Knight building at the Akron Art Museum provides access for all citizens to enjoy a shared, quality-of-life experience.
Foundation dollars bring students to theaters, museums and symphonies. These children might never experience such artistic works without our support, and the creative seeds might not otherwise be planted in these young minds.
The Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival brought four top-notch local and national ballet companies to Akron's parks. It could cost more than $100 for a family to see even one dance performance in a theater. In Akron, residents could enjoy all four for free thanks to the generosity of local foundations.
Akron Community Foundation joined Knight in supporting the newly launched Knight Center of Digital Excellence in Akron. The national center is designed to ensure that everyone has access to the Internet in the 21st century. We firmly believe that no one should be a second-class citizen in the digital Public Square of the future.
Additionally, Knight and Akron Community Foundation have supported grass-roots programs to refurbish used computers donated by businesses to put them in the homes of low-income children, many within the footprint of Akron's future wireless community.
Although for some, the American Dream hangs by a thread, the Akron Community Foundation and Knight Foundation remain committed to weaving a tapestry in which Greater Akron's middle class remains a viable force in the future of this country.
Vivian Celeste Neal is Akron/Fort Wayne program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
John T. Petures Jr. is president and CEO of the Akron Community Foundation.