Cincinnati skyline
People’s Liberty takes an innovative approach to social change in Cincinnati, above. (Photo via Shutterstock

People’s Liberty is a philanthropic lab funded by The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./ U.S. Bank Foundation and the Johnson Foundation. Each year, individuals in the Cincinnati area receive grants to work on projects related to civic improvement. Operations Director Jake Hodesh spoke to Techonomy about the organization and its mission of funding the people of Cincinnati.
What makes People’s Liberty different?
All of our grant-making is Cincinnati based, so it’s hyper-local. The foundations have allocated grant-making dollars for individuals, so non-profits can’t apply. No established organization or entity applies for People’s Liberty dollars. They’re truly dollars directed at an individual who has a civic or philanthropic or charitable idea that they want to implement inside the Interstate 275 Beltway.
This is your first year. What are your different grant opportunities and how many people have applied for them?
We have what we call the Haile Fellowship, which is a $100,000 full-time one-year commitment where people are literally quitting their job and focusing on a civic project for an entire year. We do two of those a year, and we had over a hundred applicants for those two spots. So it was pretty competitive, given that no one had ever heard of People’s Liberty. It was a pretty large leap of faith for over a hundred people to spend a lot of time and energy applying, so we’re pretty happy about that.
We have 8 project grantees working right now. They each receive $10,000 grants for work here in 2015. Those are 10-month opportunities, and for that one we had a couple hundred applicants for 8 slots.
Then our Globe Grant application is where you get to take over our storefront in downtown Cincinnati, in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, for three months. And you get $15,000 to transform that storefront. And we’re just in the process of closing that application, so I don’t have any numbers on that yet, there are three of those a year.
You are hyper-local. Do you have any intentions of expanding beyond Cincinnati, or are you more hoping for other cities to just follow your lead?
The latter. That being said, the materials that we’ve developed at People’s Liberty,——he methodology, the work that we did with the IRS leading up to our approval, all of those elements of this thing that we call People’s Liberty were developed in such a way that we’re happy to share that with anyone and everyone in any community that’s interested in replicating this work.
What are some of the winning projects that you’re personally really excited about?
It might be a little selfish, but in my position I spend the most time with our two fellows, the $100,000 grant award winners. They happen to both be named Brad.
Brad Schnittger is developing a music library for greater Cincinnati, where independent musicians, by uploading their music catalogue onto this platform, basically instantly commercialize their music. Cincinnati is the home of Procter & Gamble and Macy’s and Kroger. These big consumer brands, plus all the agencies that support them—that whole engine consumes a ton of music, very little of which is local. So Brad is developing a platform whereby agencies and big brands and commercial giants can purchase music locally, and easily.
Then Brad Cooper is taking on affordable housing. He’s building two tiny homes, approximately 250 square feet, on Peete Street. This has been an incredible exercise in permitting, in dealing with historic preservationists, among many other things. And it’s been an incredible exercise in, how do you fund tiny homes? How do you build tiny homes? How do you design tiny homes? Who lives in a tiny home?
Both your grantees are white men. Are you working on broadening your pool of awardees?
We’re working towards having as diverse an applicant pool as possible, each grant cycle. We’re sensitive not just to the color of skin of the grant award winners, we’re also sensitive to what neighborhoods they’re coming from, and their age. Age, race, gender, neighborhood representation, those are all metrics that we’re paying very close attention to. This is a five year experiment and we are going to host many different types of events. We are going to change the application criteria, change the submission process, throughout the five years, to try and get as many people inside the Beltway as much opportunity as possible to participate in this amazing opportunity.
Why is there such a definite timeframe of five years?
We want to place a sense of urgency on the people of greater Cincinnati. If they’re sitting on an idea, if they have a vision for something they want to see or do, there’s five years to apply. We want to create a sense of urgency. Come and apply. Do this now.
People’s Liberty is among the organizations currently funding fellows from Venture for America, whose annual City as a Startup conference will immediately follow this year’s Techonomy Detroit.