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On the eve of Cleveland Rising, consider how far we’ve already traveled on our journey toward social justice in Cleveland


Posted October 26, 2019
1:42 pm


Written by Chris Quinn in Cleveland.com on 10/26/2019

The unprecedented Cleveland Rising summit that begins Tuesday is staggering to consider: Up to 1,000 people will spend three days together planning a Cleveland future that leaves no one behind.

What other city has taken the remarkable step of making social justice its priority?

But here’s something I think we fail to recognize: Cleveland Rising is not the start of our social justice movement in Cleveland. We’ve been working on it for years.

I’ll argue that Frank Jackson was the first to actually articulate the concept, in a March 2016 City Club speech, when he called on Cleveland to make a “paradigm shift,” to stop measuring success based on infrastructure, tax collections and other traditional metrics. He challenged people to measure success based on the lives of the people who live here.

“I’m talking about how can everyone participate in that quality of life and that prosperity and standard of living we create,” he said.

Long before he spoke those words, though, efforts were under way to shift that paradigm he talked about. It’s just that no one stopped to think about those efforts in the aggregate as a movement.

Consider education

Twice, in 2012 and 2016, Cleveland voters approved significant taxes for a school transformation plan that has, albeit incrementally, shown real progress.

In 2015, this region pumped $22 million into high quality pre-K, to get many more children a head start on life. County Executive Armond Budish kicked in $12 million and persuaded the private sector to contribute the other $11 million. We did our part at cleveland.com, working with The Plain Dealer, ideastream and PNC Bank to produce yearlong Cleveland Connects series about the value of early education. We called it the First 2000 Days.

Then, last year, this community became the final Say Yes to Education city, in which students get a battery of services for school success and then receive college scholarships. Cleveland’s elected, non-profit and business leaders rallied to beat out other cities seeking the Say Yes designation. Organizations like the Cleveland Foundation and Key Bank poured in the dollars to make it happen.

Education is, perhaps, the greatest social justice issue, because a quality education is a path out of poverty. We’ve been working together for most of this decade to redefine it here.

Think about criminal justice reform

The word justice is part of the phrase social justice for a reason. For decades, our courts have not treated people equally. The system is stacked against people in poverty.

For three years, a large group of Cleveland court experts headed by chief county judge John J. Russo has been devising an end to the bail system’s bias. For decades, judges have used bail to ensure the accused return to court. People with money post bail and go home. Destitute people stay in jail, losing their jobs and, sometimes, their children. Next year, reforms designed by that group of experts will send far more people home without requiring bail. And our courts will finally be more fair.

In another example of criminal justice reform, Budish, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley , MetroHealth Systems and the ministers of the Greater Cleveland Congregations have dedicated themselves to getting people with mental illness out of the county jail and into treatment. Perhaps no one has worked hard to find a solution than the ministers, but the goal of all is to reduce criminalization of mental illness.

Then there are people facing eviction

Little causes indigent families more hardship than getting kicked out of their homes, but the eviction system is stacked against tenants. Landlords have lawyers. Most tenants do not. The tenants almost always lose, even if they have strong cases.

For more than a year, the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley and others have built a system to provide lawyers to impoverished families facing eviction. If it works, more families will stay in their homes, giving children a better chance by keeping them in their schools and their neighborhoods, close to their friends.

Also on the issue of housing, because of work done by The Plain Dealer, those homes where the indigent live will eventually be free of lead, which today damages the brains of Cleveland’s children. The newspaper’s Toxic Neglect series launched the work to get rid of the lead, a social justice movement that gained momentum this year.

Finally, think about the conversations that have permeated this town about an inclusive economy

Jon Pinney kicked off the conversations. He gave a City Club speech last year to say that, economically, we’re behind other cities because we don’t talk to each other, don’t work together and don’t have any idea what each other is doing to help Cleveland prosper. The sold-out speech launched a number of good-faith efforts to plan for Cleveland’s future, and every one of those efforts prioritizes opportunity for all, especially those populations always left behind.

One such effort is Cleveland Rising. It’s a true grassroots creation, and I’m one of the blades of grass. In the days after Jon’s speech, a number of us were talking to each other daily, wondering how to break free of our morass, and a half dozen of us – including Jon -- got together for breakfast one morning to talk it out. That breakfast is where Cleveland Rising was born.

While no one has been the “leader” of Cleveland Rising -- it’s run by a big committee -- I think David Gilbert of Destination Cleveland deserves a tip of the hat. He kept the conversation from stalling, ensured that the planning group was diverse, hosted the meetings and scheduled the phone calls. Thanks, David.

I also want to note the role we’ve played at cleveland.com

I think people should know the value we bring to this region. It’s no secret that media organizations like ours are challenged. We have fewer resources than we’ve had in decades. Our future is anything but certain, even though millions of you visit us each month for your news, sports and entertainment. We’ve got to convince you that we bring value worth paying for.

Nothing matters to us more than public service, and I think we’ve proven our worth in recent years. People in the newsroom here had a moment of reckoning back in 2016. We acknowledged we might not survive in the long term but determined that while we are here, we have a duty to you to use our platforms to make a difference.

We set social justice as our overriding goal, and I believe we have made that difference.

We launched our Justice For All series in 2016, highlighting the unfairness of our courts and ways to fix them, and the series successfully sparked the bail reform movement I mentioned earlier.

We put a big team on the project we call A Greater Cleveland, to examine the challenges faced by children living in poverty today with an eye on how this community might help them break free. I feel certain that the series has helped change the narrative around here on our need for an inclusive economy.

We’ve become a national leader is experimenting with the Right to be Forgotten, to remove from our website dated stories about minor crimes and other mistakes made by people who have atoned and are trying to move on with their lives.

And we’ve actively participated in the conversations that are mapping a path to Cleveland’s prosperity by 2030. We have published a Cleveland Connects series all year about solutions in other cities, like Louisville, PittsburghIndianapolis, and MinneapolisWe even hosted the packed two-day event last December to begin designing Cleveland Rising.

We are just one of the many in this town trying to bring change. My point in all of this is that as community we did not come to this eve of Cleveland Rising overnight. We are not a community at the beginning of a journey toward social justice. Many people and have invested time, energy and money for years walking along this path.

Tuesday could be a big moment in the collective defining our city as a place that guarantees opportunity for all. But as we gather, let’s acknowledge how much we already have done.

It’s a hell of a foundation upon which we can build.

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