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Meet the new team at OPEN

Megan Holmes



St. Petersburg was introduced to the Open Partnership Education Network (OPEN) in late 2016. OPEN is a collaborative effort inspired by the Aspen Institute, and housed within the University of South Florida St. Petersburg

Jim Aresty, philanthropist

The brainchild of transplant philanthropist Jim Aresty, OPEN seeks to break down barriers and broaden horizons for the citizens of St. Pete – to create a smarter, better connected society by gathering us together for intellectual discourse.  

Fast forward to 2018, and the relationships OPEN has built under its founding executive director Walter Balser speak for themselves. The organization has convened world-renowned speakers, and co-produced events featuring names like U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, educator Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone, author Jeff Goodell, urban farmer Will Allen and many others.

Benjamin Smet, Director of OPEN

On Tuesday, OPEN announced Balser’s exit – as he takes on a new role at the University of Denver – and the entrance of new leaders to take his place. Two USFSP faculty will head up the new leadership team. Frank Biafora, Ph.D, will be the new Executive Director, and Benjamin Smet will be in the newly created position of Director. Jenny Fessler will continue in her role as Associate Director.

According to Smet, the leadership change will substantially increase OPEN’s capacity to do the work – but the vision remains the same. “We’re staying the course, continuing what Walter and Jim started” he says. “We plan on growing it and refining it as we go”.

“Now after the proof of concept phase,” he said. “I’m coming in to fine tune the engine in revenue, marketing and technology, so that it’s sustainable over time.”

Sustainability will be key moving forward, as the investment provided by Aresty is meant to last just five years. After that time, the hope is that OPEN will be self-sustaining. For now, despite the impressive speakers that the organization has brought in, OPEN flies under the radar. You certainly aren’t alone if you haven’t heard of it. It isn’t the sort of entity that can be neatly summed up in a tagline.

“The thirty thousand foot vision,” according to Biafora, is that OPEN “provides the opportunity to see what’s on the other side of potential – through collaboration.”

Frank Biafora, Executive Director of OPEN

Collaboration is the end game – and it’s no secret that society needs it – because we live in silos. We surround ourselves with people who are like us. People with similar backgrounds – socioeconomic status, educational attainment, political bends and biases. Even Facebook algorithms show us the opinions and news stories we agree with, more often than those we don’t.

The same is true for the organizations that comprise a community. Nonprofits, government organizations, universities and private entities are often positioned to work on solving the same problems. Many times these organizations fail to fix these problems because they fail to communicate. They fail to pool resources, share best practices or bring in innovative approaches for the benefit of all parties.

OPEN was created with the colossal task of breaking down those silos, removing barriers and re-opening minds and organizations to receive information in an objective manner – and to do it without ego or agenda.

“I like thinking of OPEN as Switzerland,” says Fessler. “We are neutral, we don’t have a political bend, or a ‘what’s in it for us.'”

Geoffrey Canada, Aresty Speaker – RadSchools

The growing list of OPEN’s many partners includes the City of St. Petersburg, Et Cultura St. Pete, USF College of Marine Science, St. Petersburg College’s Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions, Poynter Institute for Media Studies and John’s Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.  Everything OPEN does is collaborative.

OPEN focuses its efforts on a few broad themes each year. Its inaugural theme was Seeds, which launched at the Et Cultura St. Pete festival in 2016. The other major theme launches took place during the 2017 Et Cultura St. Pete festival, including Rad SchoolsLive Well and Future City.

Author Jeff Goodell, an OPEN Aresty Speaker

This year’s focus is on two new themes: Civility and Frontiers. In the current political climate, Civility has been a major focal point, providing the opportunity to convene both students and community members around solutions-based approaches to problems that transcend St. Pete.

“We are the megaphone for what is already happening. We are the convener,” says Biafora. “We’re convening groups of people that are already on a mission to do great things – to do even more great things, together.”

Thanks to OPEN’s generous benefactor, the organization can bring in world-class speakers and produce materials that allow the information to live on in the OPEN Wiki– an online, open-source community – where it can be shared and used by anyone, anywhere.

“We’re the high tide that raises all ships,” says Fessler. “We have resources to bring in the intellectual firepower to elevate the conversation. That’s why we co-produce.”

View OPEN’s upcoming calendar of events here. 

If your organization is interested in partnering with OPEN, contact Jenny Fessler, Associate Director at or 727-873-4727


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