Founded in 1950 the Knight Foundation is a private, independent foundation that originated with the Knight family’s belief in the value of education.
In Detroit, Knight Foundation’s work is focused on the historic North End, toward creating an equitable, thriving and connected residential and commercial corridor. Investments focus on commercial development, the creation of sustainable public spaces that strengthen the neighborhood, and the development and implementation of a comprehensive North End framework plan.
Knight also invests in Detroit’s arts and culture as a way to connect people to place and to one another.
LaTrice McClendon joined Knight Foundation in August 2023 to serve as director of the Detroit program. Now, nearly five months into her new position, Detroitisit spoke to McClenon to gain a better understanding of Knight’s role in Detroit and how McClendon intends to shepherd its impact on the city.
DII: How does Knight Foundation’s commitment to informing and bettering the communities you work in take shape today? What is the role of a social investor in our city?
McClendon: Throughout most of the twentieth century, John S. and James L. Knight built and ran one of the most successful newspaper companies in America. They built a profitable business that supported great journalism and were early and smart adapters of new technology. Knight newspapers thrived because they were committed to their communities and because they were committed to independent journalism, but they were always clear about its limitations. For them the work was never simply about journalism as a field or an industry, but how to meet the information needs of communities so that the people might “determine their own true interests.”
That’s the true goal behind what we do as social investors. We support the development of engaged, inclusive and equitable communities toward a more effective democracy in the 26 cities where the Knight brothers owned and operated newspapers. That means spotting and advancing community trends, acting as early adopters of ideas and supporting the individuals and spaces that shape our cities’ futures.
In Detroit, we’ve catalyzed commercial development, created and reimagined innovative and sustainable public spaces, and invested in arts and culture. Prioritizing the well-being of our community, we invest strategically by actively collaborating and listening, to ensure that our investments align with the true needs of our residents and contribute to our city’s unique and ongoing story of recovery.
DII: What role do you see technology and also innovation playing in the projects you support and stand behind?
McClendon: An engaged community is one in which people participate in civic affairs, are attached to the place where they live and are invested in their community’s future––and technology can power that work. At Knight, we recognize that technology is an ever-growing force in society, permeating various aspects of our daily lives.
We’ve invested in tech and innovation programs that increase resident participation in addressing climate solutions in Miami and pushed arts groups across the country to expand their reach and deepen their impact with tech. I was excited to see that here in Detroit, we are just starting to test out new tech that equips bus stops with solar power to bring heat and charging stations to residents.
These are the ways to approach investments in innovation. It’s never about innovation for the sake of innovation; rather, it’s about using technology in intelligent ways that build trust and ensure full inclusivity. At Knight, we advocate for the smart use of tech and innovation implemented in partnership with a cross-sector of stakeholders.
DII: Does Knight’s work in Detroit correlate with that of other cities Knight works in? Are there parallels? Are there collaborative projects between cities?
McClendon: I’ve already mentioned a few. Our city’s diversity allows us to learn and apply learnings across the country. For example, in 2016 Detroit was one of six Knight cities that participated in Reimagining the Civic Commons, an effort to rethink public spaces and address the needs of “once stable middle class neighborhoods [that were] sliding toward disinvestment, neglect and isolation.” Across Knight we’ve been particularly focused on the changing role of downtowns. We believe that a successful downtown is no longer just a place where people work, but also offers living spaces and exciting reasons for people to spend time there. We have seen this to be true in Knight cities and imagine it is the same in communities everywhere.
And more recently, we’ve taken a hard look at our local news ecosystem through Press Forward, a national effort co-led by Knight to revitalize local news. We expect Press Forward will make its mark on Detroit soon.
DII: What was the career path that brought you to Knight?
McClendon: My journey to Knight has been deeply rooted in my passion for serving Detroit, a commitment that has shaped my career from an early age. Born and raised in the city, the drive to contribute to its revival became evident during my high school years. Even as I pursued education elsewhere for a brief period, the pull to return to Detroit remained strong. At that time, my exact path wasn’t clear, but the overarching goal was unmistakable––to play a role in revitalizing the city I call home.
Since then, I’ve immersed myself in engaging with the community, meeting with hundreds of thousands of residents to understand their needs and aspirations. The experience on the ground provided invaluable insights into the multifaceted challenges and opportunities facing Detroit. Transitioning to the business side, I had the privilege of serving as an appointed public servant and later as the market executive and community president of Detroit for Huntington Bank. This unique blend of roles allowed me to combine the financial acumen gained in banking with the deep community engagement and policy understanding acquired through public service.
This diverse career path has equipped me with the well-rounded skill set that I bring to Knight. I believe that the intersection of finance, community engagement and policy expertise is a powerful nexus for driving more holistic and impactful initiatives. It’s a journey marked by a genuine connection to the people and the city, and I am excited to continue contributing to Detroit’s resurgence through the work we do at Knight.
DII: Why were you drawn to working with Knight?
McClendon: I was irresistibly drawn to the prospect of working with Knight due to the organization’s mission-driven nature and its commitment to impactful initiatives. As someone deeply rooted in the city, I sought a position that would allow me to continue working closely with the residents of Detroit. What particularly resonated with me about Knight was its dedication to leveraging the best business acumen to address the genuine needs of communities.
I saw a unique opportunity to contribute to projects that go beyond superficial impacts, focusing on initiatives that foster informed citizenship, amplify voices and drive positive change at a grassroots level. The organization’s emphasis on making a tangible and lasting difference aligns seamlessly with my own aspirations to play a meaningful role in the betterment of the city. It’s not just a job; it’s an avenue to apply sound business strategies to meet the diverse and evolving needs of communities, and that alignment with my values and goals made joining Knight a natural and exciting choice.
DII: The 4 Knight programs of journalism, community, arts, learning and impact seem to be intertwined at Knight, is there a common thread that runs through them when considering Detroit?
McClendon: Knight’s programs in journalism, community, arts, and learning and impact all come together to make life better in Detroit. Even though each program has its own goals, they share one big idea: giving people in Detroit what they need to make good choices about their future. Our main job is to help communities stay informed and involved. That could mean making sure they have access to good information or it could mean working on projects to improve downtown and support the arts.
In Detroit, you can see this happening with the Michigan Central project. It’s a place where different groups like startups, experts, teachers and community leaders all work together. This project is a good example of how we team up to solve problems and invest in Detroit’s future. It’s about making the city more open and lasting for everyone.
DII: How do you see the work Knight is doing as evolving as you move into the future and continue to fund more opportunities?
McClendon: I get asked that question a lot. The truth is Knight is both prescriptive about how it likes to invest and open to new and innovative ideas. We want to get a sense of what a community is doing organically and then help power that work. As social investors, we constantly seek out authentic trends we can accelerate for the benefit of our communities.
DII: What examples of the support Knight has done in Detroit has inspired you personally?
McClendon: I am a big fan of Knights’ arts challenges––there are two. Knight New Work provides grants to artists, collectives and arts organizations of all genres who use technology in their practices to create, disseminate and enhance the way art is experienced. We will announce the Detroit New Work recipients in just a few weeks, so stay tuned. The Art and Tech Expansion Fund provides artists with the hardware they need to integrate technology.
In Detroit, we have such an important and unique story to tell through arts and culture and we have been lucky to benefit from Knight support to do just that.
DII: Do you think this will help further set Detroit apart as a leader in arts and culture?
McClendon: Knight’s continuous support for arts and culture in Detroit, combined with the city’s inherent creativity and resilience, can indeed further solidify its position as a leader in the arts.
When we invest in music and museums, in poetry and performances, we are investing in the fiber that strengthens our communities. Really good art inspires and explains, ennobles and challenges, and helps us understand and connect to a place and to one another.
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