“If you just don’t go under the bridge, you’ll be fine.”
Delaney Jones says the disconnect between Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) students and the surrounding Cleveland community seems to start the second you step foot on campus.
“A lot of the students I’ve talked to have said their first experience with the narrative that exists about the surrounding communities happened during their campus tour,” Jones said. “They would ask about campus safety and they’d be told by whatever representative of the university that, ‘If you just don’t go under the bridge, you’ll be fine.’”
The comment refers to the bridge between East 120th and East 118th Streets on Euclid Avenue that separates University Circle from adjacent communities of color. If students cross under the bridge, they’re supposedly entering the dangerous territory of East Cleveland; if they stay on the other side of the bridge on campus, they’re safe.
“People will [say] the only time they’d go to East Cleveland is to go to Nemo’s, which is this liquor store that’s down there, or go to Taco Bell. They call it ‘Ghetto Bell,’” she said. “There’s just a lot of rhetoric like that. If you’re a Case student, you’ve definitely heard it.”
Jones, who graduated in 2020 from CWRU’S Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences with her master’s in social work, also attended CWRU for her undergraduate degree. She said she heard this rhetoric herself when she arrived as a freshman and didn’t venture out into the surrounding community much because of it.
“I remember going to Coventry and Little Italy and stuff, and I considered that going off campus, but I never went anywhere in Glenville or East Cleveland or anything like that,” she said.
Students refer to this as the “Case bubble” — they’re encouraged to stay within the campus community and not venture out beyond the Heights and downtown. The restaurants, small businesses, and arts and culture that exist in the surrounding neighborhoods like Glenville, Hough and East Cleveland are considered a “no go.” When students are engaging with the surrounding neighborhoods, it’s typically just for service programs through the university.
Jones studied community organizing and until she started working in those surrounding neighborhoods, she also hadn’t engaged with the community. “I met some of the coolest people through that work in those neighborhoods,” she said. “That’s when I really started to become aware of the disconnects because it just feels like a different world going into those neighborhoods and then going back the two minute drive to campus. And those worlds don’t really communicate.”
From idea to action
This led Jones to start Know Your Neighbors, a student-led initiative at CWRU striving to build community between the campus and neighborhoods that directly surround it, which mainly include Glenville, Hough and parts of East Cleveland.
Jones is also part of the Ohio Students Association (OSA), a group of college students from universities across Ohio that focus on grassroots organizing. This summer, along with some other students and CWRU alumni, Jones met with a group to brainstorm and talk about issues in their communities and how to address them.
“This issue of the Case bubble and the negative stereotypes and rhetoric that exist on our campus and neighboring communities kept coming up,” she said. “So [we] decided to do something about it.”
CWRU students along with a few residents they identified had a meeting to discuss starting the group and what the goal would be. Since then, the group has had several meetings with students and neighbors. More than 60 students and upwards of 40 neighboring residents are involved in the group.
Portia Brown has been a resident of one of the surrounding neighborhoods for 33 years. She said when she heard about Know Your Neighbors, she joined because she believes it’s important to band together.
“Isolationism doesn’t work. I can’t think of a place where isolationism works,” Brown said. “…There are a lot of great resources at Case Western that I actually use…but there are also people in my community that don’t, that are not aware of it, that don’t cross certain boundary lines. And I think that’s a very futile way of living.”
Brown, who holds a PhD, conducts research in the libraries at CWRU and she and her kids attend events and utilize facilities like the fitness center.
“I’m frustrated by the environment we live in nowadays,” she said. “Back in the day when I was growing up not far from here, on my street everyone knew everyone, spoke to everyone and knew your extended family. Where I am right now, and we’ve been here three decades, there’s a new crop of people coming in and what I’m noticing with my new neighbors [is] folks stay to themselves.”
Brown said this mindset is an impediment to the work Know Your Neighbors wants to do. “It’s work to get people to shift out of this mode of staying unto themselves, to stepping out of what they are familiar with, which is so small…to see something different.”
Undoing harmful narratives
Jones said she doesn’t think the rhetoric that causes this disconnect between the University Circle and the surrounding neighborhoods is intended to cause harm. University representatives want students and their parents to feel safe. Know Your Neighbors exists to build bridges with neighbors and break down the racist perception that because surrounding neighborhoods are poorer and communities of color, there’s also more crime.
“There’s different types of crime and it’s a lot more nuanced, but the suggestion that, ‘Off-campus neighborhoods are just automatically more dangerous in every way,’ really isn’t reflected by the data,” she said. “Rather than communicating to students that certain neighborhoods are an automatic no-go, reinforcing negative rhetoric around race, students should be aware of the risk of crime and ways to keep themselves safe, while also knowing about strategies for them to explore neighborhoods and connect with residents safely.”
Jones said that’s part of the overall goal of Know Your Neighbors, to expose students to the actual residents living in these surrounding neighborhoods and break down these stereotypes.
A variety of programs from CWRU in the past have tried to achieve similar goals to Know Your Neighbors. But Jones said residents have told her that some of these previous programs were short-lived and never led to any significant work being done. Jones hopes her student-led approach will create a cultural change between CWRU and surrounding neighborhoods.
“Getting students to be able to actually see the local residents as neighbors, community members and people, is something that has to be driven by students,” Jones said. “We’ve been working a lot with the Office of Local Government and Community Relations at Case, but they’ve really never been able to do anything like what Know Your Neighbors is doing because they’re not students, they don’t know students.”
Mark Chupp, co-director of the Social Justice Institute at CWRU, has been working to strengthen the relationship between CWRU and the surrounding neighborhoods for over 10 years. He said a university-wide dialogue series with Know Your Neighbors about creating better, more equitable relationships between students and the surrounding neighborhoods was held last fall and summer.
“Delaney’s work and the Know Your Neighbors initiative is really an expression of doing that, so we’re very supportive,” Chupp said. “We like the way it is kind of self-organized and it’s not coming from the institution saying, ‘This has to be done,’ but it certainly supports the approach the university is wanting to move toward.”
In 2009, Chupp formed the East Cleveland Partnership to bring CWRU and other University Circle institutions together to support East Cleveland in its redevelopment efforts. This led to a partnership with the Northeast Ohio Alliance for Hope (NOAH) for CWRU’s Mandel School students to engage in an assessment of every residential property in East Cleveland, which was used to secure over $2 million in demolition and rehabilitation funds. Chupp said a neighborhood development plan for the city was also facilitated redevelopment of Euclid Avenue and the area where demolition plans were concentrated.
Chupp also assisted with the development of Cleveland’s MyCom Plan for Youth, which “encourages all sectors of society to take responsibility for children’s development and transition into productive adulthood,” according to the program’s website.
CWRU’s Community Innovation Network has also provided scholarships to residents to go through CWRU’s nine month certificate program, Foundations of Community Building, and provided them a stipend to participate in the five intensive trainings that go along with the program. Two cohorts have completed the certificate with residents from Fairfax, Midtown, Hough, Glenville and East Cleveland, Chupp said.
The Social Justice Institute at CWRU has also partnered with the CWRU Office of Local Government and Community Relations to strengthen community engagement at the university. This partnership led to the establishment of a Neighborhood Advocacy Council with its own charter and stipends for resident council members.
“This is the first university approved body of this kind and will have ongoing impact,” Chupp said.
So far, Know Your Neighbors has hosted monthly Zoom meetings where students and residents can gather to discuss issues, experiences residents have had with CWRU in the past, and what they hope for in terms of future relationships. They’ve also educated students on local history.
“At each meeting we’ve had, pretty consistently, about 12 to 15 students and 12 to 15 residents,” Jones said. “It’s been a good size for us to be able to have meaningful conversations with everyone.”
Because these meetings are virtual, they’re not accessible to residents who do not have access to the internet or a computer. Jones said she and the team have been working with residents to determine their preferred means of communication and how to include everyone who wants to participate. Once it’s safe to gather in-person, she said they’ll be planning ways to meet, likely in an off-campus location to be easily accessible for all residents.
Current Know Your Neighbors projects include:
A pilot program through the Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship (SAGES) department to connect professors with residents who have expertise in the content area of the course, to guest lecture and facilitate discussion for the students;
A task force to examine how CWRU representatives (like orientation leaders, tour guides, etc.) communicate to students about the neighborhoods that surround Case’s campus and propose specific language to CWRU entities that should be used to address safety concerns in a way that does not reinforce negative stereotypes about local communities;
Social media initiatives on Instagram and Facebook around educating students on local history, spotlights on local residents and local business promotion, and a 1-1 buddy system for students to be matched with a local resident to form a more meaningful, personal relationship.
Brown said that while students are transient, with the right framework and achievable goals, she believes it’s possible for Know Your Neighbors to build bridges between students and neighbors.
One potential impact of the long term work is to combat the “brain drain” of students moving out of the area after they graduate, Jones said. “If students feel more connected with the community they probably will feel more inclined to stay in the area. A lot of the students that were my peers when I was an undergrad all really were eager to get out of Cleveland. But maybe that’s just because they didn’t know Cleveland very well.”
Maria McGinnis is a senior journalism major at Kent State University and an editorial intern at The Land.