Foot soldiers for change: 40 young leaders from across the country to gather in Chattanooga

Foot soldiers for change: 40 young leaders from across the country to gather in Chattanooga

January 13th, 2014 by Yolanda Putman in Local Regional News

Katherine Currin, Teal Thibaud, and Rondell Crier, from left, who will be participating in the Next City Vanguard conference to improve Chattanooga this spring, pose for a portrait outside of the Glass House Collective on Thursday.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.


Four slots will be saved for local applicants. More slots could be made available if there is an outpouring of interest, organizers said.

To apply: Go to and scroll near the bottom of the page.

Cost: Application fee is $20.

Requirements: Applicants must be under age 40.

Deadline: Feb. 14

At ages 24 and 28, Teal Thibaud and Katherine Currin founded a nonprofit that has generated more than a half-million dollars in grant funding to revitalize an East Chattanooga community that many developers and urban planners dismissed.

Since they started the Glass House Collective, a nonprofit focused on uplifting Glass Street and the East Chattanooga community, two vacant buildings on Glass Street have been sold, five buildings are being renovated and a new park is under construction.

Thibaud and Currin have worked for two years in the midst of a high-crime, low-income neighborhood to bring revitalization to Glass Street, but they say they look forward to being revitalized themselves.

Thibaud will be among several local people who will host Chattanooga's Next City Vanguard Conference this spring, where 40 young leaders from across the country will come to share their best practices and ideas for strengthening the city.

"If Vanguard does it right, they will bring those leaders to the city who will give that foot soldier who gets tired as heck at the end of the day some new energy and inspiration, and we can all march together to improve our city," said Thibaud, now 26.

The three-day conference will focus on ways to enhance Chattanooga through community development, entrepreneurship, government, transportation sustainability, design art and media.

Local residents are invited to apply for the program. The only requirement is that applicants must be under age 40.

Lakweshia Ewing, 34, is among those planning to apply. She said she looks forward to having "courageous conversations" concerning economic development, inclusion and reconciliation to make Chattanooga better.


What: Next City Vanguard, an annual urban leadership conference sponsored by Next City, a nonprofit media organization based in Philadelphia that provides daily online coverage of public policy and current affairs from an urbanist perspective

When: April 24-26

Local hosts: Besides Lisa Flint of the Footprint Foundation and Teal Thibaud of the Glass House Collective, they include urban designer Christian Rushing; the city's chief policy officer, Stacy Richardson; Transportation Director Blythe Bailey; Director of Economic and Community Development Donna Williams; Tomorrow Today co-founder Kate Creason; Association for Visual Arts media and design director Zachary Cooper; and Bijan Dhanai of

Local sponsors: The Lyndhurst Foundation, the Benwood Foundation and the Footprint Foundation will sponsor the conference.

"We need to have more in-depth conversations," she said. "A lot of times we just whet our palate with information, but we don't continue to peel the onion. The greatest thing I think needs to happen in Chattanooga is reconciliation."

She said there is a population in Chattanooga that feels they don't have access to the economy and no part in the wonderful things going on all around them.

She wants to hear how such a divide can be addressed.

Dekonti Mends-Cole, an alumna of the 2013 Vanguard Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, said she gained a number of contacts and ideas about ways to help rebuild Detroit.

As a result of those contacts, she has flown to Baltimore to speak with code enforcement employees about how they eliminated blight in their city, and she plans to implement some of those ideas in Detroit. She flew to New York in November to meet with a data specialist who created an online portal so the city could have more transparent government information, another idea she wants to bring to Detroit.

The conference will include tours, work sessions and public sessions where anyone who wants to attend may come and give input, said Lisa Flint, who will host the event and who solicited the Vanguard to come to Chattanooga.

Flint, program adviser for the local nonprofit Footprint Foundation, said she promoted Chattanooga as event host because she believes the city's transformation of its downtown and riverfront area could be a model for other communities.

Other Vanguard conferences have been held in Washington, D.C., in 2009; Philadelphia in 2010; and St. Louis in 2012. This will be the first time a Southern city has hosted the event, said Flint.

Local artist Rondell Crier, 38, who came to Chattanooga in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, said he wants to be one of the 40 included in the Vanguard.

His ideas for improving Chattanooga include having more community-based, hands-on trade and educational programs to train people who may not be able to attend college.

Crier has no bachelor's or master's degree but has been successful as an artist because of training he got in New Orleans in an after-school art program. He said he'd like to see more programs like that in Chattanooga and plans to submit his application to the Vanguard this week.

"To be in the room with other bright minds, to see what other people are working on and what they aspire to do, you never know what type of ideas come from that type of engagement," he said.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman or 423-757-6431.