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The Process of Community Innovation

Big challenges require not only big solutions, but more effective and equitable approaches. Pollen has reached out to three organizations that role-model innovation in how they address advancement of a community need in their work. 

These organizations understand a key element to reaching innovation: it’s not the solution or idea that is innovative, it’s the process of inclusivity, collaboration, and resourcefulness throughout all stages of problem-solving that transcends a solution into breakthrough change.

Innovation is not linear, but operates on a continuum


African Immigration Services, the Brookings Supports Breastfeeding coalition, and the Plains Art Museum have each identified projects that address a need and are emboding a community-centric, problem-solving process to create new solutions. All three projects received Community Innovation grants from the Bush Foundation and are examples of certain stages within the community innovation process. 

Stage 1: Increase Collective Awareness

Stage 2: Generate Ideas

Stage 3: Test and Implement Solutions

Communities across our region should consider how Community Innovation grants could act as civic R&D in bolstering their development and testing of new solutions.  

Applications for the Community Innovation grants close March 13, 2014. More information and application here.

Stage 1: Increase Collective Awareness

African Immigrant Services has institutionalized a culture of community innovation and inclusion in how they better understand and take action with issues directly impacting their communities. Abdullah Kiatamba, executive director of AIS, believes the key is access to information and then mobilizing for action. 

Below you will find a storygraphic that outlines AIS' work and how they plan to use community education and engagement to change the roles of African immigrants and other underrepresented groups in the northwest suburbs of Hennepin County from observers to active leaders.


The AIS African FOTL Project seeks to shift the roles of people of color, especially African immigrants, from the sidelines to the heart of community-driven problem-solving, co-creating  new realities on issues aligned with their interests and passion. Community members will participate in cohorts or community circles that match their areas of  interest (education, community-police relations, information gaps, economic opportunity, etc.).  Each cohort, focused on a particular interest, will first engage in a process of agenda-setting. These cohorts will identify a list of problems for which community-driven solutions should  be applied. They will then prioritize those issues, set timelines, and then activate existing  community resources and assets to solve them. The project will also identify, prepare, and  match a cohort of leaders with leadership positions in public institutions, where their roles will help advance racial equity (closing a host of disparities, including access and opportunities).


Stage 2: Generate Ideas

Through a cross-sector collaboration, institutions across Brookings, South Dakota have organized to discuss ideas and solutions around a community problem: better support for breastfeeding mothers.

Here’s how the Brookings Supports Breastfeeding project utilizes collaboration and engagement to generate ideas ultimately leading to breakthrough solutions around this important issue.


Stage 3: Test and Implement Solutions

In the heart of downtown Fargo, the Plains Art Museum is reimagining its borders and relevancy as a flagship institution and rethinking its contribution to the thriving vibrancy overtaking the local community. The museum has identified public art as a key to break through barriers of inclusion and access with surrounding communities that are often isolated from one another. Implementing projects through the Public Art and Community Engagement program, the museum will set out to shape a more expansive vision for the role of public art in Fargo-Moorhead.


The Plains Art Museum's Director, Colleen Sheehy, has brought on a new key position, central to the community work. Earlier this year, Karis Thompson started as the museum’s community engagement liaison. She will act as a continuous thread blurring the line between institution and community.


Karis' work within the community will touch each project:


National and local Artist-led initiatives will reimagine vacant urban venues for demonstration projects in public art. Importantly, the museum won’t control the sites. The museum knows involving the community as caretakers will be critical for creating continued advocates for the sites’ preservation and protection. 


The Fern Grotto will be onsite of an old trainstation, and a boxcar will be transformed into a garden. The site will serve as public art space that is open all year round—especially in the winter.


The Moorhead Power Plant will be torn down, and the new site design will serve as a reminder of the power plant while drawing new communities in and linking the site to the river and adjacent park.


The Pollinator Garden on Museum Grounds will create a landscaped amenity within the hardscaped neighborhood, but also a place for education and modeling of sustainable design.


This will be an artist and community engagement exhibition that will bring people together to create and experience temporary art and activities that address community needs. The project will spark community discussion around a simple question.


A symposium will bring together Midwestern artists to discuss and demonstrate social engagement art practices occurring in the Midwest. Colleen Sheehy believes this event will show our region what’s possible through the medium of public artwork without looking to New York for ultimate validation.


In communities where catastrophes, like flooding, are main catalysts for bringing people together for problem-solving, it’s critical to reimagine how public space can build community around commonality. Public art and the institutions like the Plains Art Museum can provide the framework. It is deeper than just trying to gain a robust, diverse audience. It’s about investing in the people who live in the shared community.

Photo credit: Abby Bischoff