The pandemic has tested the strength of the community, but the care shown by many Clevelanders who came to the aid of their neighbors has been a bright spot. In truth, the foot soldiers of this hyper local care giving — who are knocking on doors to check on seniors , donning masks to deliver food or finding answers such as where to access funds to avoid utility shut offs — have been working tirelessly and away from the spotlight for years.
“It’s their belief in something bigger than themselves,” observes Joy Johnson, Executive Director of community development organization, Burten, Bell, Carr Development (BBC). “When they see a problem, they want to help. Not everyone is like that.”
In the Central and Buckeye neighborhoods served by BBC, super volunteers are twin sisters Dolores and Deborah Gray, who are the go-to for food or WiFi service for school and roll up their sleeves to deliver it.
Cleveland is home to many a community activist. Some join statewide groups, like Lakeview Tower resident Brian Mallory, who works for Organize Ohio and as a co-chair of the Ohio Poor People’s Campaign. Some, like Joyce Cummings, spent the last 15 years picking up trash while walking and talking to her neighbors in Slavic Village. Others, like Priscilla Shields, go knocking on doors to check on the elderly, deliver Christmas cards or food to those in need.
Giving voice to the voiceless
It seems like every neighborhood has (or should have) their own Diane Howard, a 71-year-old activist who is a proud, card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and who recently fought against trucks kicking up dust into the lungs of children living in her public housing estate on the Near West Side. That campaign led to a victory, Howard said.
“Some of our residents never had asthma. Some had to move and some things CMHA brushed under rug,” said Howard, who uses her position as a Precinct Captain to advocate with Cleveland City Councilman, Kerry McCormack. “We are doing something. Trucks have to have coverings over their (beds). And, they send the water truck to water down the road.”
Howard is a trusted figure — she has known domestic violence and loss in her family due to illnesses that strike at a higher rate in communities with fewer resources. Known as “Mama D” to her neighbors, she speaks as much to parents about listening to their kids as she does in the halls of power.
“As a community activist, someone has to stand up and fight for those who are scared to speak,” she said. “I keep talking to (neighbors) about speaking up for themselves.”
She traces her activist roots to her mom, who was involved in social and environmental justice issues in Cleveland in the 1960s.
“At the age of 15, with a welfare rights organization, my mother took me protesting with her.”
Some issues have improved while others have not in the intervening decades, Howard said. Of the former, she mentioned childhood lead poisoning, and pointed to the work of Spencer Wells, a volunteer with Cleveland Lead Advocates for Safe Housing (CLASH), which is part of DSA. She said Wells has taken soil samples “all over the city” presumably for analysis.
Turning conflict into a community event
Like Howard in Ohio City, Joyce Cummings is still going door-to-door in Slavic Village to check in on neighbors. Cummings likes to tell the story of how she and a neighbor organized a big block party over the summer, turning a minor nuisance on Fourth of July, when fireworks landed in her yard, into an opportunity to defuse a potentially tense moment. Instead of getting angry, she started talking to the young men who popped off the rockets and found common ground in health and food.
“One of them was a weight lifter and the other shared that he ate quinoa, so, we organized a healthy food walking tour of the neighborhood that 60 people attended,” Cummings said. “Just from a conversation. That’s how a community ties together. (The young men) were hosts and offered their yard.”
Cummings moved from independent actor to joining with Slavic Village Development as a community steward two years ago. She sees the grassroots nature of her many years of walking around picking up trash as a ramp up to a neighborhood beautification project she wants to spearhead.
“We would like to open the doors to ask our neighbors, ‘what would you like to have?’ Some say trees, some say art. Great, where can we get the resources we need? Helping hands, that sounds good, but nothing comes without creating that opportunity.”
Fighting for justice is his cause
Like Cummings, Mallory is a self-described “joiner” who spent years organizing on his own in Cleveland as well as Baltimore, D.C., the Atlanta area, Jacksonville, Florida and Columbus. Like Howard, he traces the roots of his organizing to his mother, a pastor and an activist.
“My mom was involved in areas of social justice and food security, and, being a Black woman in the ministry and a single mom, I was modeled a lot of stuff and encouraged to participate,” said Mallory, who added that his experience with homelessness and starting a family of his own were formative in his choice of careers.
One of his current roles is to advocate for Northern Ohioans for Budget Legislation Equality (NOBLE).
“It’s about the state budget and how it affects poor people who don’t have a lot of power or special interest groups,” he said. “We work on kinship care, for example, in the State of Ohio if you have a minor child who goes into minor care (there are) better benefits than if someone in their family takes them into their homes. You would think we would want to encourage relatives to stay together, but the system is not set up that way.”
Mallory draws from Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermons about “bringing in the light as the way to drive out the darkness” when considering how he can help his neighbors who are in need.
“My neighbors in Ohio City organized care packages of PPE and easy to prepare food and are making calls to check in on folks,” he said. “That kind of care is going on. People rolling up their sleeves.”
His counsel to those in power is to reach out to those affected by poverty and injustice. “Who best to tell you than those who are closest to it and survived it,” he said, “and rebounded from it. They usually have great ideas and, when empowered, can lead to equitable and just solutions.”
Sowing seeds of community
Like Cummings, Priscilla (Pat) Shields moved to Slavic Village from an inner-ring suburb where they were active as community volunteers. In Shields’ case, righting racial and economic injustice can be traced to the Cleveland Catholic Diocese Church in the City initiative of the 1990s. Her recently deceased husband served as Chair of the Diocese of Cleveland Racism Committee, and was part of Broadway Diversity and Progress (toward racial justice).
“They used an Appreciative Inquiry approach to share the positives,” she said about the pioneering work of David Cooperrider at Case Weatherhead School of Business. “A lot of that is what Slavic Village is trying to do.”
Food security is a justice issue that connects for Shields, who was raised on a farm in South Amherst in Lorain County, and that translates into delivering food to seniors and a forming a community garden eight years ago, after she wrote a Neighborhood Connections grant.
“It helps to connect people in a socially non-threatening way,” she said. “We have kids from the (local) school where they train them about gardening and the convent (of the Church of Holy Name) recovery from AA who need to do community service and a lot of senior citizens. It’s 50% African American and non-African American. People get to know one another. There’s a hunger center right next to the garden, so we take whatever is left over to there or to the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) house. If you live in the city, you get free plants (through the Cuyahoga County Summer Sprout program).”
The common bond in their community work is a desire to spread the sense of possibility to others, Johnson said. She pointed out that youth sports coaches, like the Central area’s Michael Mason and Danny Solomon who volunteer as coaches and organizers of a popular youth football league, are a mainstay of the community.
“I think (a network of caregivers) has always existed, but has been magnified by the pandemic and times of tragedy,” said Johnson. She added that the city and those with resources could do more to enable citizen involvement. “Our ways of gauging community needs have been impacted. We need a new, COVID-friendly structure.”
Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability consultant with over 15 years of experience as a researcher, project manager, and thought leader who has been driving community conversations in environmental sustainability. Lefkowitz led the GreenCityBlueLake Institute (GCBL) at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where he helped the public explore sustainability, natural history, and how to change human systems to address the existential climate crisis.