Future 50 class of 2021 pursues projects on broadband, mentoring and food access

The Future 50 are off and running on projects to advance the community.

Katy Smith
Columbus CEO
The cover of Columbus CEO's Future 50 special issue in 2021

The 2021 class of Future 50 has convened, and what a class it is. The annual Columbus CEO program bringing together 50 of the region’s most vibrant thinkers and doers held pitch sessions in February for their annual projects, and the class selected three fantastic ideas.

The first project comes from Anna Sanyal and Bridget Tharp, neighbors in Weinland Park who both happen to be committed to fighting hunger. Tharp’s day job is with the Mid-Ohio Food Collective, while Sanyal is an attorney with Vorys.

It’s been a tough 12 months of pandemic life for so many Ohio families who’ve lost jobs, struggled to collect unemployment and seen their income slashed. New families who have never before needed food assistance represented more than 30 percent of those served by the Mid-Ohio Food Collective during 2020—usually it’s 5 percent, Tharp says.

That’s nearly 200,000 households served across the organization’s 20-county footprint, with 50 percent of them in Franklin County. It took courage for those families to seek help despite the stigma. Unfair, incorrect assumptions about people who rely on food pantries abound.

Tharp and Sanyal envision a series of community refrigerators that are unstaffed and filled with fresh produce. They would be open 24/7, helping people whose work and child care schedules do not permit them to visit pantries. The program could draw from models successfully implemented in Houston, Los Angeles and New York City, and would be in collaboration with community partners like restaurants and, of course, the food collective.

The second project comes from Elon Simms, vice president of community impact at the Crane Group, and Tasha Booker, executive director and vice president with City Year Columbus.

In Columbus, in some neighborhoods, roughly 30 percent of households do not have internet, especially in Linden, Franklinton, South Side and the Eastland area, Simms and Booker said in their presentation to the Future 50. Many say it’s because they can’t afford it.

In the not-too-distant past, many of us saw home internet access as a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. But that’s changed. The internet is a utility. Today, lack of digital access means we can’t work or look for a job. We can’t go to school.

There are efforts to address this issue underway, including the city of Columbus, Partners Achieving Community Transformation, Smart Columbus, Columbus Foundation, Central Ohio Transit Authority and the Columbus Metropolitan Library.

Members of the Future 50, which includes a hospital president, venture capitalists, the state’s health director, law firm leaders, people in nonprofits and more, could leverage their networks and their considerable energy and expertise to tie together and advance these existing efforts.

The final project comes from Chenelle Jones, assistant dean of community engagement for Franklin University and a researcher calling for racial equity in criminal justice. It’s a simple idea, and so powerful: What if each member of the Future 50 was paired with one Columbus City Schools student as their mentor for one year?

The benefits of mentoring are well established. Children who may not have stable home or school lives gain self-confidence and are exposed to different life experiences and viewpoints through their mentor. By interacting with someone who’s living in a situation of safety and stability, someone who is building or has built a career, children can imagine themselves doing the same.

The Future 50 are just the people to engage in such a mentoring project. I wish I could go back in time and be one of their mentees—or maybe I don’t have to, maybe it’s not too late. I can absorb their positivity and power now.

Katy Smith is editor of Columbus CEO and business editor of the Columbus Dispatch.