Profiling the Winners of the 2016 Renewal Awards

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Today, we put up a new project page on The Atlantic, collecting together a series of profiles on the winners of this year’s Atlantic Media Renewal Awards. Our hope for these awards is that they represent a compelling counter to the fear that the United States no longer can solve its toughest problems.

Watching the systemic stalemate between the parties in Washington, or the cresting vitriol on the presidential campaign trail, it’s easy to reach that despairing conclusion. Despite a few bipartisan breakthroughs late last year (particularly on education and highway funding), and other instances during the past two decades when one party has temporarily accumulated enough political power to impose its agenda on the other (Bush’s tax cuts in 2001, Obama’s health-care law in 2010), Washington since the mid-1990s has been defined mostly by its inability to act. Restoring solvency to the federal budget? Overhauling immigration laws? Devising a sustainable strategy for balancing energy and environmental needs?

On issue after issue, our political leaders have proven unable, or unwilling, to mediate our differences. Too often, as a society, Americans have viewed deadlock and drift as an easier alternative than compromise and action.

The private sector hasn’t inspired much more confidence among average Americans. While many iconic U.S. companies continue to formulate innovations that inspire the world, collectively they’re no longer producing the expanding employment opportunities or rising living standards for American workers that were common in the first decades after World War II.

These failings at the pinnacle of business and government have convinced many, both at home and abroad, that America has lost its capacity for self-renewal. That’s an understandable verdict. But it’s wrong. Move the lens from the treetops of American society to the grassroots and the picture looks very different.

Despite all the attention its national stalemate has drawn, the United States today is experiencing a golden age of local initiative. Frustrated by inaction nationally, inspired by an ethos of direct action, and using the new network-friendly means of communication, Americans at the grass roots—in the biggest cities and the smallest towns—are coming up with new answers to the challenges their society faces.

Across the country, nonprofit organizations, small businesses, local governments, tech-enabled start-ups, and partnerships among them are engaging the toughest problems—from expanding opportunity for low-income children to stabilizing neighborhoods. For more than a year, The Atlantic and National Journal have looked for the most dynamic and effective of these local civic entrepreneurs. This week, we’re happy to present six of them with the first annual Renewal Awards.

To identify our Renewal Award winners, The Atlantic and National Journal searched extensively, with the help of a distinguished panel of judges and extensive public input. Approximately 160 potential nominees were identified through profiles by Atlantic and National Journal journalists. We met others during lunches with local leaders in cities around the country. Another 70 were nominated by the public. A team of Atlantic and National Journal editors sorted through the nominees and picked 25 finalists.

The five Renewal Award winners were selected from among the finalists by a combination of public online voting and ratings from judges who were asked to consider four criteria: the program’s impact, its potential to grow, the ease of replicating it elsewhere, and the national importance of the need it addresses.

The judges were: Wellington E. Webb, the former Denver mayor; Manuel Pastor, director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California; Ellen Alberding, president of the Joyce Foundation in Chicago; Amy Liu, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution; Juliet Stipeche, the outgoing assistant secretary of the Houston Independent School Board; Eric Liu, founder of Citizen University, a Seattle-based group that promotes civic participation, and director of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program; Raul Vazquez, chief executive officer of Oportun, an organization that expands Hispanics’ access to credit; Bruce Reed, former chief domestic policy adviser to President Clinton; Jan Epstein, executive director of the Allstate Foundation; and myself.

Allstate, the sponsor of the Renewal Awards, then chose a sixth winner from among the remaining finalists, to receive a Youth Empowerment award. Each of the six winners will receive a $10,000 grant from the Allstate Foundation and will also appear at a “national summit on local innovation” that The Atlantic and National Journal are convening in Iowa this week.

As these profiles show, the programs that emerged as the winners from our search differ in their focus, structure, and strategy. But they share a powerful commitment to direct, locally guided, creative action that an earlier generation of Americans might have waited for a bigger institution—the federal government, say, or a global company—to address. With these awards, we hope to show how far a new surge of grassroots initiative has already spread and how many innovators are already working to renew the places they call home.

This note is adapted from an article that appears in National Journal.