The Tom Tom Foundation’s Cities Rising Summit is a seven-week, free, virtual event that offers opportunities to connect, collaborate, and confront critical issues impacting cities today.
The Tom Tom Foundation hosts events each year focused on innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship, bringing together multi-sector city leaders from across the country to exchange ideas and develop solutions.
“A hometown is the product of the people who live there,” Executive Director Paul Beyer said. “We care about citizens who are engaged in envisioning the future of their community. Creating bridges for people to connect is important.”
This year, Tom Tom’s Cities Rising Summit is completely virtual — and free. The goal is to increase accessibility, ensuring all people have a seat at the table to discuss critical issues brought to the fore by the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 movement for racial justice.
“We are trying to broaden access as much as possible, to empower change-makers across the country to come together,” Beyer said. “This new virtual format is amplifying and extending the number of connections that are possible.” Marketing Manager Chelsea Woodfolk added, “We’re in a very difficult time right now. Not everyone can afford to participate in programming if we were to put a price tag on it. By keeping it free, everyone can be a part of it.”
The Cities Rising Summit kicked off on September 15 and runs through October 30. The event features 50 sessions over seven weeks, with each week exploring a different theme: like criminal justice reform, education, applied machine learning, healthcare, localism, and more.
“What we felt people needed most was an opportunity to connect around these issues, and through relationship building, try to come up with some new ideas,” Program Manager Ben Wilkes said.
One week is devoted to small businesses and how to support them, particularly those owned by people of color. Speakers include September Hargrove, Vice President & Head of Michigan Philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase; Wendy Jackson, Managing Director for the Detroit Program of the Kresge Foundation; and Nick Davis, Founder & Photographer of Sidekick RVA. Discussion topics include creative pivots, small business recovery, and the future of restaurants.
Another week focuses on the importance of arts in the community. Hear from Twiggy Pucci Garçon — community health specialist, organizer, filmmaker, and runway consultant for Ryan Murphy’s hit FX series, POSE — about protecting authenticity, creating space for others, and how artists can come together to create change. Dominic Asmall Willsdon, Executive Director of the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, will participate in a panel discussion about how art institutions can be better community partners. Discussions will also include ways creatives can give back to their communities, and how artists can build their networks through telling their own stories.
The Cities Rising Summit covers many topics and issues, but there is one common thread that runs through all of the events: interpersonal connection.
“This is a great platform for people to share their ideas, hear other people’s opinions, and acknowledge that we need to work together to achieve the goals we want to see,” Woodfolk said.
To ensure that connection isn’t weakened by a virtual event, Tom Tom organizers innovated ways to communicate and collaborate. “All of our sessions are live,” said Wilkes. “We thought it was important, for the people who are able to make it, to have organic input into the conversation. It’s for them and about them.” Attendees can participate in real-time conversations with individuals from around the country, including elected officials, entrepreneurs, doctors, educators, non-profit organizers, data scientists, and more.
Each session includes opportunities for engagement. Breakout meetings after each panel make it possible for discussions to continue. Weekly changemaker sessions bring together participants to form concrete action items around each theme, and virtual mixers offer informal avenues to meet.
“Everyone needs to be a part of the conversation,” Woodfolk said. “We’re bringing in leaders, but we also need constituents to be part of the conversation. That’s what we’re trying to achieve with this programming — making sure everyone can have a say in things that are affecting them.”
If you can’t attend the live events, you still have an opportunity to get in on the conversation. Each session will be available on YouTube, with discussions continuing on social media.
“A lot of these sessions will have an element of positivity, of hope,” Wilkes said. “If all people can do is plug in to one session and feel inspired, I think we’ve done our job.”