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Looking back: Kresge adds New Orleans, Memphis and Fresno as focus cities

American Cities

In 2015, the Kresge Foundation formalized its focus on place-based community development outside of Detroit by forming the American Cities Practice – an evolution of the smaller community development portfolio that was previously housed within the Detroit & Community Development Program. The Practice, which later became the American Cities Program, was instrumental in expanding Kresge’s community development work to the focus cities of New Orleans, Memphis and Fresno.

Externally, the practice signified Kresge’s commitment to building opportunity in places across the country. It led to grants, conference sponsorships and executive speaking engagements that provided an opportunity to assert the foundation’s institutional commitment to expanding opportunity in cities. Internally, the practice assisted the various program teams in the construction of investments that met the needs of specific cities by leveraging the full breadth of Kresge’s programmatic and social investment toolkit, including the practice’s own grantmaking. The practice’s responsibilities would range from opportunity identification to site visit logistics, grantee and relationship engagement, and internal/external knowledge dissemination and exchange. It was also intended to hold a grant portfolio in support of the cities it served.

New Orleans

As in many other cities, Kresge first invested in New Orleans many decades ago through capital challenge grantmaking. Much of Kresge’s support was concentrated in higher education – as early as 1959, Kresge invested in Dillard University’s library, followed by grants to Tulane, Loyola, Xavier, Methodist Hospital, the Museum of Art and others.

Hurricane Katrina proved a seminal moment for Kresge’s engagement in New Orleans. The federal government, scores of local, regional and national nonprofits and multiple corporate and private foundations moved to respond to the immediacy and seriousness of the crisis. A number, Kresge included, sought to take a more strategic, long-term approach to recovery and rebuilding – both helping the civic leadership to implement the Unified New Orleans Plan (2006) and strengthening community capacity through the establishment of a community organizing and planning fund, the creation of the Central Cities Funders’ Table and the creation of a Gulf Coast fund. Even though Kresge was still working through its capital challenge grant program when Katrina hit in 2005, the foundation participated in the first wave of philanthropic support, stretching beyond that tool to make nine grants totaling more than $12 million.

The urgency of New Orleanians wanting to return home led Kresge to make a $2.5 million contribution to the $23 million Community Revitalization Fund established by the Greater New Orleans Community Foundation (GNOF) and that attracted investments from 22 national and local foundations, together with public sector funding. The Fund prioritized investments in mixed-income neighborhoods, each anchored by community amenities, health-care facilities, and dynamic public spaces.

At this time, Kresge also made direct investment in highly impacted neighborhoods:

  • Supporting a community planning process in New Orleans East and a strategic plan in the Lower 9th Ward
  • Investing $1.7 million in the redevelopment of housing and childcare centers
  • Contributing to small business closures and homelessness through the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Fund

The Practice became responsible for convening the foundation’s New Orleans working group, ensuring that each team understood how the other teams were investing in New Orleans and identifying possibilities for coordinated or joint action, learning and investment. It also acted as liaison to city-wide local partners, enabling the foundation to form deeper relationships with local foundations and nonprofit partners.

Through the American Cities team, Kresge became a co-founder of the Greater New Orleans Funders Network, which by 2020 included over 35 local and national foundations meeting regularly to collaborate and align funding. Within Kresge, the American Cities Program also began to run point on several cross-team grants, including the GNOF investment in nonprofit capacity.

“For Kresge, the city offers a chance for each of our national programs — supported by the glue and grantmaking of our American Cities Program — to come together and create lasting change in a great American city that is kindred to Detroit,” said Kresge CEO and President Rip Rapson.

Kresge has worked to help grantees and partners undertake work related to corridor re-development, intergenerational wealth building, cultural preservation, climate change mitigation and green infrastructure, creative placemaking and place-keeping, entrepreneurship and racial justice.

Kresge has invested $53 million in New Orleans since 2005 and is one of the few remaining national foundations still invested in the city.

“It’s a great partnership with a group of people who are very thoughtful, who study, who understand their role and our role, and how we can be change-makers in this world,” said Rashida Ferdinand, the executive director of Sankofa Community Development Corporation. “Kresge is a funder that is not just bringing resources in a funding sense, but they provide information that can help us be our best selves and know that there are other links to groups that are doing similar work that we can learn from. It’s a mission-oriented and mission-aligned approach that we appreciate and respect.”

New Orleans grantee: The mission of Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans is to use art and culture to support human, community, and economic development.
New Orleans grantee: Thrive New Orleans’ Green Workforce Training Program helps equip participants to launch careers in green infrastructure and stormwater management. (Photo courtesy of Thrive New Orleans)
New Orleans grantee: Sankofa CDC works to increase access to fresh healthy produce and educate residents about the importance of growing and consuming healthy foods.
Memphis grantee: The I AM A MAN Plaza sculpture at the Historic Clayborn Temple pays tribute to Memphis sanitation workers protesting working conditions during a 1968 strike and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Memphis grantee: Carpenter Art Garden’s mission is growing young creatives through art, education, and vocational programs.
Memphis grantee: New and old developments in Memphis' Edge District, a neighborhood in the Memphis Medical District: The Rise Apartments, a new 200-unit complex, and the Cycle Shop, a historic building being renovated and rehabbed.
Fresno grantee: Since 2010, the Fresno Housing Authority has developed 2,100 new multi-family units, including the 14-unit 541 @ South Tower.
Fresno grantee: Live Again Fresno youth groups created choreographed song and dance performances during a 2023 Christmas Celebration.
Fresno grantee: The Betting Big on Small Black Businesses program by Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce gives startups led by women and people of color opportunities to gain access to community, education, mentorship and capital.


Between 2015 and 2019, Kresge’s work in Memphis began to take its current shape. Within Kresge, a desire to fully implement the Urban Opportunity Framework and a burgeoning commitment to working in cities outside of Detroit drove internal operational changes and shifted Kresge’s grantmaking. By the end of 2017, Kresge’s investments in Memphis had expanded to $7 million among the American Cities Practice, the Arts & Culture, Education, Health, and Human Services teams and the Social Investments Practice.

An aerial drone view of the renovated Tom Lee Park on the riverfront in Memphis with a sunset canopy, trails, fitness area, playground. A bridge spanning the river and the downtown skyline is seen in the background.
The renovated Tom Lee Park on the riverfront in Memphis officially opened after in the fall of 2023. (Photo by Tom Harris)

In 2016, American Cities brought on Carol Coletta, a native Memphian, as Senior Fellow. Coletta identified ways to improve opportunity in Memphis and leveraging her personal relationships to bring in notable local leaders to advise Kresge teams and provide the necessary context of the city.

In 2015, the Kresge cross-team Memphis working group took another important trip to the city to learn, identify major gaps and funding opportunities and lay a foundation for a more clearly defined strategic approach.

Kresge’s cross-team working group identified three strategic points of intervention in Memphis:

  • Strengthening the enabling environment, including civic and community development corporation capacity and the community investment system.
  • Undertaking coordinated programmatic grantmaking within and at the intersection of arts and culture, education, health, human services and community development.
  • Leveraging targeted neighborhood-level interventions.

The Memphis workgroup provided opportunities for Memphis to receive additional funds and resources from Kresge by launching the Kresge Funding Opportunity for Memphis initiative, an open call for funding to increase Memphis-based civic and nonprofit organizations’ access to Kresge and uncover organizations Kresge was not yet aware of but that were doing impactful work in the city. Kresge selected ten organizations to receive a total of $1.3 million in grants. Some of those organizations, such as BLDG Memphis, The Works, Knowledge Quest, and Klondike-Smokey City CDC are still grantees today.

Kresge’s total grantmaking in Memphis by 2016 was $3 million.

Kresge’s experience in Detroit and its grantmaking dollars were particularly timely and useful with six local efforts, including: the Memphis Riverfront, the Memphis Medical District anchor strategy, Kresge Innovative Projects: Memphis, fortifying the local community development sector, the Memphis 3.0 Comprehensive Plan and setting up a local data intermediary.

Kresge also worked closely with Memphian nonprofits who were leading the city’s response to the twin crises of COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd. Kresge’s social investment team has also been leading efforts to strengthen Memphis’ CDFI infrastructure.


Kresge’s connection to Fresno began in 2011 through the Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Initiative.

“The SC2 collaboration laid the groundwork for some of the community development programs we see in Fresno today,” said Kresge Detroit Program Managing Director Wendy Lewis Jackson. “It transcended mere financial aid. It fostered a cross-city knowledge exchange network and a two-year fellowship program, both supported by Kresge’s Detroit Program. This investment allowed Detroit and Fresno to learn from each other’s successes and challenges. Detroit, with its experience in community development, urban planning and community engagement, shared its expertise with Fresno. In turn, Fresno’s agricultural know-how and focus on environmental sustainability offered valuable insights to Detroit.”

This cross-pollination of ideas led to the development of tailored programs that addressed each city’s specific needs. A site visit to Detroit by Fresno leaders further reinforced this connection and laid the groundwork for Fresno’s DRIVE effort, which was, in part, inspired by Detroit Future City.

In 2014, the Environment team’s Climate Resilience and Urban Opportunity Initiative made a grant to Fresno’s Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a community organizing, research, communications, legal representation, and policy advocacy organization focused on addressing the inequalities impacting California’s low-income, rural regions.

In 2015, the Arts and Health Program’s Fresh Local and Equitable (FreshLo) initiative included Fresno Metro Ministry in their 23- organization cohort. FreshLo sought to improve access to healthy food, ignite entrepreneurship and economic development, and integrate arts, culture, and community-engaged design into neighborhood revitalization.

The Education team joined with the Lumina Foundation to select Fresno for a $350,000 grant as part of a 17-community cohort of Talent Hubs, part of the Education team’s Urban Higher Education Ecosystem grant strategy in 2017, which sought to create environments that attract, retain, and cultivate talent among students, many of whom are people of color, the first in their families to go to college, and from low-income households.

In 2018, Fresno was selected as a site for the American Cities Program-designed Shared Prosperity Partnership. The Partnership—comprising Kresge, Brookings Metro, and The Urban Institute— sponsored local convenings, offered bespoke technical assistance, and networked leaders focused on driving shared prosperity in their cities.

After 2018, the foundation’s fuller understanding of the need, opportunities and potential partners in Fresno (created through the Shared Prosperity Partnership) aligned with the foundation’s desire to diversify the portfolio of its place-based practice. This effort led to deepening Kresge’s investments and engagement in Fresno.

Between 2019 and 2023, the volume of the American Cities Program’s comprehensive community development grantmaking in Fresno evolved to be closer to the team’s investment level in New Orleans and Memphis. The American Cities Program now maintains a consistent portfolio in Fresno spanning cross-sector planning and collaboration, community and economic development and community organizing and advocacy.

The team has worked to increase the capacity of the local community foundation, strengthen the community economic development ecosystem, layer support from national community development technical assistance providers, and invest in under-resourced, multi-racial base-building organizations.