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Evelyn Burnett and Mordecai Cargill Are Not Here to be Polite About Cleveland Leadership and Racial Equity 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY EMANUEL WALLACE
  • Photo by Emanuel Wallace

If you got rid of Evelyn Burnett and Mordecai Cargill, the first floor of the Medical Associates Building on East 105th Street would be virtually empty. But the building's not getting rid of Evelyn and Mordecai. Nor is Glenville. Nor even, despite its time-honored tradition of ignoring, suppressing or expelling its fiercest and bravest emerging leaders, is the city of Cleveland.

At least not yet.

They've just finished up a long conference call with a client, and they're now seated at a plastic folding table responding to emails (Evelyn) and organizing notes in one of several large beige notebooks (Mordecai).

Per the floor mats and exterior signage, the building where they currently sit is called the Madison, named in honor of Robert Madison, Ohio's first registered black architect. Madison designed this building in the early 1960s for African American doctors, who financed its construction.

It has recently undergone a substantial renovation as part of a new Glenville "arts campus," unveiled in 2017. PNC Bank and the Cleveland Foundation are both involved in this effort, having contributed funds to reinvigorate a dormant commercial district along the formerly bustling eastside corridor.

The arts campus is also part of the micro-neighborhood known these days as Circle North. It's the poster child for Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. Circle North is an "edge" neighborhood — or is it a "hinge" neighborhood? — that connects University Circle and Glenville.

But the first floor of the Madison is not yet permanently activated. That is to say, it feels a little sparse. In December, it came alive for a holiday bazaar and party that featured local black small-business owners, gratis Goldhorn brews, a DJ, and tours of the sleekly renovated apartments upstairs. The hope, though, is that the ground floor will soon be home to a full-time coffee house or cafe. Khrys Shefton, of the Famicos Foundation (the Glenville area CDC), told Cleveland.com in late 2017 that they had been "in discussion with local entrepreneurs" to conceptualize and operate the space.

Those entrepreneurs are Evelyn and Mordecai, and the Third Space Cafe is a vision that Evelyn has been turning over in her mind, she estimates, since 2007, when she moved to downtown Cleveland after graduating from the University of Akron and immediately encountering "aggressive, highly specific, institutional racism" vis-a-vis the Warehouse District.

"The Warehouse District is, like, the epicenter of a lot of interesting racial dynamics to watch," Evelyn tells Scene, asking that we bear with her. "This was a phenomenon we called 'black night /white night.' On Fridays you could go out and be a black male. You know, maybe your Tims could slide. But on Saturdays, you'd roll in with your crew and the black men would be stopped at the door. This happened all the time. Meanwhile, the cats at the door would be letting in white dudes in Bermuda shorts and flip-flops."

Evelyn says she and her friends generally laughed off these indignities, "because we had to," but that she became acutely aware of the need for spaces outside of the home and the workplace — third spaces — where black people could simply exist.

Her dream was nurtured in Washington, D.C., where she traveled regularly for work, and where she was instantly drawn to hip gathering spaces like Tryst, the coffee house-slash-bar in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, and Busboys and Poets, the famous bookstore.

"It was still Chocolate City back then," Evelyn reminisces, noting in contrast that when she would return to Cleveland, she and her friends tended to be the only black people in the Tremont bars they frequented.

She took a job in New York City. And when she returned in 2014 to work for Cleveland Neighborhood Progress as the VP for economic opportunity, she began talking with Famicos and saw the potential for a third space in one of Cleveland's historic black neighborhoods.

"We want this to be a cool space, but a cool space in and of itself isn't enough," she says. "I mean we do want it to be beautiful. You're out on a Friday night spending your hard-earned money. It shouldn't look like a shithole. But there has to be nuanced intentionality. We want to see different kinds of black people here. I was very nervous about the idea of creating a space in a black neighborhood that my own brother wouldn't feel comfortable coming to. So that's a new challenge. How do you create a space for that low-income black male with a GED that doesn't alienate black people who grew up in Beachwood?"

There are few people in Cleveland, a city without a single active black real estate developer, asking these sorts of questions.

And those who are, aren't doing so publicly. But these are crucial questions, and they're the type of questions that Evelyn and Mordecai are now probing, and inviting others to probe, as they launch their new venture, the Third Space Action Lab. The Cafe is only one small piece of this venture, which is broadly concerned with community collaboration, strategy development and both temporary and permanent space activation.

At its core, Third Space Action Lab is premised on a simple, radical idea: There are not enough spaces in Cleveland designed with people of color in mind.

Both Evelyn and Mordecai worked at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress before they set out on their own last year. There, they helped facilitate the Racial Equity and Inclusion trainings — a four-hour crash course and a two-day extended workshop — that have become popular with local nonprofits.

Mordecai says that after those sessions, participants would often emerge with significantly altered or destabilized views about the endurance of racism. "Most people walked away more sensitive to the fact that racism is still a problem," he says, "and that it affects their work in some ways."

But he says the trainings rarely led to action.

"Some people felt like they didn't understand the issues well enough," he says. "Others felt bad about it, but it just wasn't their bag. And then others were like, 'I get it, I want to be supportive, tell me how.' And we realized we had to try to demonstrate it."

Third Space Cafe, then, should be the concrete example of what a space could look like if it were designed specifically for black people.

"And it's going to be," Mordecai says, "because me and Evelyn are black. And this is a predominantly black community. We want to do something that's a tribute to this community but also is designed with this community."

* * *

In August 2018, Evelyn Burnett spoke at an evening event hosted by the City Club of Cleveland, part of the off-record "Dinner + Dialogue" series. It was billed as a continuation of the conversation Jon Pinney had kick-started with his June City Club talk about Cleveland's woeful economic performance and the angst-y disunity of city leaders.

Evelyn's comments about local leadership that evening were challenging — far more confrontational than anything Pinney said — and the small audience nodded along. These were comments that a huge number of civically engaged younger Clevelanders know to be true but are fearful of saying out loud.

Both Evelyn and Mordecai's ideas deserve space to breathe.

We've decided to include an extended portion of our conversation with them, conducted at the Madison earlier this month. (This conversation has been edited for concision.)

Scene: I'm curious about people like you guys who seem skeptical, at least, of local institutions, and who have abandoned the standard leadership trajectory to do their own thing. What can you do at Third Space Action Lab (TSAL) that you couldn't have done at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress?

Mordecai Cargill: Even though our background is community development and philanthropy — nonprofit work — there are certain challenges that are innate to the social sector. It's why we wanted to launch as a for-profit rather than a nonprofit. We still work with non-profit partners and foundations, but one of the limiting factors which prevents us from being as bold and audacious and visionary as we want to be is that, in a very real sense, the foundations aren't necessarily organized to cultivate that orientation.

Scene: How so? Isn't the general assumption that you can be bolder at a nonprofit because you're not worried about ... profit?

MC: You have the runway to do work that is not explicitly about making money, sure. It's not revenue driven. But a lot of the underlying philosophy for how nonprofits are funded is driven by market logic. There is an idea rooted in the presumption that there's not enough resources to go around, and that there's not going to be more resources, so the limited resources have to be spent in the places with the highest returns. But that's very much disconnected with the reality of need.

Coming from the community development ecosystem, we see a tremendous need for services and resources in places like Union-Miles and Mt. Pleasant. The whole southeast side is fucked up. And these problems are distinctly more severe than the problems of Ohio City or downtown, or even Glenville. I think the closer you get to it, the more appreciation you have of the complexities, and the more ambivalence you have about what to do.

This doesn't make for good boilerplate, but like, on one hand, I can understand the impulse to maximize your investments. But on the other, I'm confronted with this reality that if our purpose of community development is actually to create better neighborhoods — safer, stronger, more resilient, more vibrant neighborhoods — then every neighborhood should have the same opportunity to be that ideal community.

Evelyn Burnett: I had a lot of autonomy at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress. I had a good setup and was given a lot of latitude to bring more black and brown people on staff. But we were confronted with systemic issues in really tangible ways.

Scene: Systemic racism?

EB: I'm talking about funding. The relationship with philanthropy. It's hard to untangle in a philanthropy town like Cleveland, but it's not like this in other cities.

Scene: Like what, exactly?

EB: The funders make the decisions here. Like we've got data and we've got observations and we've got experiences telling us one thing, but then as an organization we're acting in a different way. This really bubbled over with the Race, Equity and Inclusion (REI) work. Once you put race on the table, you can't unring that bell.

REI did an incredible job synthesizing this information — putting racism in a historical context, helping people understand what it means to be white — but after going through those for more than a year, I became increasingly uncomfortable with my peers not seeing the emotional and psychological toll on black people, who are sitting through these trainings every month and then watching their institutions uphold the status quo.

Scene: So that's why you left?

EB: It was just too much cognitive dissonance. I knew there was no way I could get at the issues I wanted to get at inside an institution. Too often, I need to oppose, or call out, or organize around, or agitate against, the institution itself. And that's when stuff gets messy. People get uncomfortable. It starts to get very personal. But it was just like, we have to leave.

Scene: This was June of last year?

EB: Right. And June through November was crisis-mode. Dealing with fallout. People were like, 'What could you possibly be upset about? You have a great job. You're making a lot of money. You're sitting on panels. Why are you so angry?' And I'm like, 'Ain't y'all been sitting in these mothafuckin' REI trainings every month?' None of the natural allies seemed to be there. This is for sure a leadership growth opportunity, a collision with reality. What do you call it, Mordecai? A violent collision —

MC: — between theory and practice.

EB: Right. We are learning and thinking about a lot of things.

Scene: Thinking about anything around here is kind of a radical thing to do.

EB: Right? But thought is important. It's work. At a lot of institutions, it's just blind action. It's just, show that you are busy, just doing stuff. And I'm like, to what end? This is a theme across Cleveland, from the highest levels of nonprofits down to people doing the day-to-day. It's like, we're going from meeting to meeting to meeting. I'm busy as shit! But with what? With going to meetings? Then I'm exhausted at the end of the day, which is when it's time to do some actual work, which is thinking and writing. Nobody recognizes that. They think working means going from meeting to meeting and then patting each other on the back for meeting and setting up more meetings. Look at infant mortality. Look at lead poisoning.

Scene: Let's form a committee. Let's plan a summit.

EB: Yes! And most of these institutions — not all, I want to be fair, but most of them — aren't designed for you to act on the problems you see.

Scene: You left CNP right around the time that Jon Pinney and Bernie Moreno were starting to get a ton of buzz for their leadership and economic development talk. Through the fall, these discussions were at least gesturing toward the idea of 'inclusion.' Does that seem sincere to you? Or do you think it's lip service?

EB: I hate to be pessimistic, but I think it's a lot of lip service. One of the hardest things about racial equity awareness building — not even the action, just the awareness building — is the acknowledgement that people learn language pretty well. They learn, 'Okay, we're not supposed to say this sort of thing about black friends,' or, 'Okay, we can't submit anything to the foundations without gesturing toward equity and inclusion, toward D&I [diversity and inclusion].' But we've been talking about D&I since the '80s!

The racial equity and inclusion work continues to feel very different for me, because it's not just about who you hire and what board seats you have. It's about understanding the systemic challenges. We're not trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are still programmatic things you have to do. But we have to acknowledge that we're going to keep getting the same results if we try to address systemic problems with programmatic solutions. We're not going to address the wealth gap by getting black businesses some mentors with one $100,000 grant in a single grant cycle.

MC: I'm always the person who tries to complicate things, so let me just add that it's difficult for me to say objectively whether or not the inclusion efforts are sincere or lip service. Through this work, you become more aware that people are trying to do right, even if they're doing it in the wrong ways. Like with Bernie or Jon, what is really unique about them as Cleveland figures, and why they're drawing so much attention, is because they're saying shit. Taking a position — any position — is rare in this city.

Scene: That's for sure true, but I personally don't see these new economic development strategies or leadership prognoses as all that different from the past 40 or 50 years.

MC: Oh yeah, I mean I wish they took a position in service of a more noble cause. This shit hasn't worked. There's no magic involved in what makes a strong regional economy. There's no magic in what makes a neighborhood safe or vibrant. You can quantify it. You can calculate exactly how much it would cost to fix lead contamination. There's a number you can put on what it would take to renovate every fucked up house in Glenville north of Superior. But it's not important to enough people.

EB: That leadership conversation was so offensive for a couple of reasons. For one, Jon Pinney can get up on the City Club stage and say some shit that people have been living forever, and that other leaders have been working on for decades. Which is why I was less mad at Jon Pinney and more mad at the people who were calling it brilliant. Mordecai's right. We have a mentor that talks about Cleveland as a 'consensus city,' and so taking a stance, right or wrong, is a thing. What I resent about a Bernie or a Jon Pinney is that they can do that without retribution. When we did that shit, back in May and June, our livelihoods were threatened.

Scene: Who are you working with now? At TSAL?

MC: We have a diverse mix of clients.

EB: It's a hodge-podge.

MC: We're working with CDCs — Famicos, Midtown — trying to figure out how might we create an equitable development framework, considering how rapidly these neighborhoods are changing, and the economic development pressures on them.

EB: We're also working with JumpStart. They're really interested in access to capital for diverse entrepreneurs.

Scene: That's cool.

EB: It is! But this conversation has been happening for a long time among black-and-brown serving organizations. So this is kind of a test, to see if an organization of JumpStart's size and magnitude can do anything about the access to capital problem, given that they have so much of it.

Scene: Who are your ideal clients?

EB: My ideal clients are places like the Hispanic Business Center, Mt. Pleasant CDC, Union-Miles CDC, Mrs. So-and-so with her small business, and Resident-X up the street. But those people don't have any money. And this is a tough pill to swallow. I think one of the biggest problems we have in America is capitalism — now hyper-capitalism — which makes this a tricky dance. It's complicated to live your values when you need funding to do your work.

We have to be thinking about approaches we can take that will actually begin to, quote unquote, 'move the needle.' I'd love to know one thing in Cleveland that we've moved the needle on in 50 years. Just one. Just one systemic thing.

Like, everyone loves this term 'low-hanging fruit.' But what does that even mean? Low-hanging fruit is hanging so low because it's either really ripe or because it's rotten. And I'm like, damn, everyone around here is talking about the low-hanging fruit, but maybe we're just gathering a whole bunch of rotten-ass fruit and calling it a fruit salad.

Scene: At least you're out here growing fruit from scratch. That's cause for optimism.

MC: What I'm optimistic about is that there are leaders here in Cleveland who are not speaking at the City Club because they're doing work. And when they get ready to emerge and lead, they will. All of our work is about organizing, and we want to connect with people who are willing to think, and do things, differently.

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