CityWorks (X)po

Interview by Sarah Lawson
Issue 32 • October 2015 • Roanoke

Bringing together innovators, researchers, artists, and entrepreneurs, this annual conference is a breeding ground for ideas that turn places into communities.

“People come here and these really remarkable connections occur and lead to real collaborations. We call that the (X)po magic,” says Amy McGinnis. For the past two years, McGinnis has led the coordination efforts for CityWorks (X)po in Roanoke. The conference focuses largely on social entrepreneurship, creative placemaking, and community leadership. Addressing big themes like these during the three-day event, individuals and businesses discuss shared struggles, learn from others’ successes, build relationships, and exchange ideas that they take back to their own cities. It’s not your typical conference, though. It’s something closer to a rollicking brainstorm session, mixed with bike rides, walking tours, and street festivals. Josh McManus, a returning speaker at the event, says, “(X)po has more heart than other events that I’ve spoken at. The attendees are more doers than networkers, so I feel like I’m at home with the crowd.”

Founded in 2011 by local developer Ed Walker, the annual event subscribes to the premise that, as McGinnis summarizes, “The ideas that are going to help a community the size of Roanoke are also going to help smaller and bigger ones.” Often, when community development efforts are successful, the conditions are replicable. In other words, community members can learn what works and what doesn’t by collaborating with others exploring similar efforts. The (X)po is just one way to facilitate the conversations, idea-sharing, and relationships that are necessary to build these networks of change.

Celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, the change brought about by the (X)po is noticeable. It can be witnessed in Greensboro, North Carolina’s night market, an initiative launched by past conference attendee, Lee Mortensen. When Mortensen attended the (X)po three years ago, she engaged with the idea of a night-time city market through a presentation by Kennedy Smith. McGinnis recalls, “Lee got fired up about this night market concept and it became hugely successful in Greensboro.” Other initiatives that have launched or grown as a result of (X)po include the McDonough Community Garden in Richmond, which focuses on neighborhood revitalization through improved accessibility to fresh food, as well as Project: Real Talk, a nonprofit that works with underserved girls in low-income neighborhoods. McGinnis says, “In order to have healthy, thriving communities, you have to address the parts that aren’t working. When you have a section of town that’s not functioning, that has to be addressed, too.”

The (X)po has revitalized specific neighborhoods and cultural sectors in Roanoke as well, including the Grandin Village historic district. Grandin Theatre Foundation Executive Director Ian Fortier explains that the (X)po has helped the foundation expand its mission to the “more broad, sweeping notion [of] a cultural community center. We are far greater than a sleepy, nonprofit independent movie palace.” Across the street, another (X)po mark exists in Walker’s own development of the Grandin CoLab, a co-working space and venue that opened in 2014. As Fortier explains, “The CoLab helps foster community in Roanoke by providing a brick-and-mortar hub for innovation and community connections.” The CoLab is also the site of year-round conference activity including the (X)po Wednesday meetup series. These smaller weekly presentations help to keep alive the momentum generated at the big event.

The ideas that are going to help a community the size of Roanoke are also going to help smaller and bigger ones.

Amy McGinnis

Each year, the (X)po hosts roughly two dozen guest speakers; this is quite a feat given their limited budget. McGinnis stresses, “We get people who come to speak for the love of it,” and this year promises to be no exception. Katherine Fulton is one of the biggest highlights on the 2015 lineup. A seasoned journalist and Roanoke native, Fulton is also an expert in innovative approaches to social entrepreneurship and philanthropy. She spoke at the 2007 TED conference, and McGinnis says, “With a 35-year career in placemaking, she wants to come to (X)po and reflect on that.”

Another highlight will be the New Majority Community Labs co-founders, Derwin Dubose and Vedette Gavin. Together, they work to harness data-driven civic participation, placemaking, crowdfunding, and leadership development as tools of empowerment. Focusing on communities of color, their initiative works to create change and build representative structures for communities around the country.

Other speakers will address civic participation initiatives for children, environmentally conscious development, and community-building through arts or sports. Rounding out these more formal presentations, five-minute pop-up talks take place as well, offering stage time to start-ups and new leaders who are still in the early stages of their work. The hope is that these younger organizations will be nurtured by their (X)po experiences and eventually return as an official speakers for future conferences.

From year to year, the (X)po brings together a diverse group of established and emerging innovators, artists, and leaders, as well as community members who are looking for inspiration. Each conference provides a different combination of interests and experience, offering unpredictable interactions that can provide a creative recharge and community catalyst. Fortier has attended the conference every year since it launched. What is it that keeps bringing him back? He says, “It puts registrants and visitors who have a profound interest in improving their communities in the same room with local, regional, national, and international change agents. You not only can sit and listen to these inspiring presentations from citizens who push the boundaries every day, but you can then interact with after in the multiple situations designed to bring people together.”

This year, Fortier has been invited to be a speaker at the event as well, a sure sign that the (X)po magic is working.

CityWorks (X)po will be hosted at Charter Hall in the City Market Building on October 1-3. For a full schedule and ticket information, visit cityworksxpo.com.

Photography by Jeff Hoffmann

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