Op-Ed: If You Value Diverse Voices in Cleveland, Take Action to Support Them

click to enlarge Rally for a Seat at the Table, (12/13/2018). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
Sam Allard / Scene
Rally for a Seat at the Table, (12/13/2018).

Civic leaders behind the upcoming three-day regional economic summit want you to know that they are focused on diversity. It’s an “inclusive” summit of “diverse voices accelerating growth, equity and opportunity” that aims to “reflect our community in terms of race, income and identity” and “every other demographic you can name.”

We know why summit organizers are hammering this issue home: we were part of a community response that called for a “seat at the table” after the summit’s initial planning stages took placed in a closed-door, invitation-only meeting that was drawn from a who’s who of Cleveland’s civic and corporate leadership.

As the summit approaches, we’re seeing a lot of nods to the need for diversity and inclusion, but are the summit organizers prepared to put their money where their mouth is? And will they commit to equity in its truest sense: being accountable to the “diverse voices” they want so badly to participate?

Right now, the answer is no.

The first problem is that the requirements of the summit make participation impossible for many. While registration is free, summit hosts are asking attendees to commit to the full three-day summit, which means three days without pay — an impossibility for many in our community.

We ask that the organizers of the summit fund stipends so that those who cannot afford to take unpaid days off of work can attend. These stipends should include child care, transportation, and food.

Second, summit organizers should recognize that even with funding, labor laws (or the lack thereof) still make attendance difficult for many in our region who have limited access to leave or who risk retribution for taking time off.

That is why we are asking that every major employer who is part of this summit allow any of their employees – from janitors to the CEO – to attend. By way of example, Cleveland Clinic, Keybank, and MetroHealth are supporting the summit by allowing key executives to be part of the planning process. They should let it be known to front line staff that they are welcome to attend and accommodations will be made for those who wish to take the days off to participate.

Summit organizers have recognized some of the barriers to attendance, and suggest that people can still have their voices heard through public conversations such as the Cleveland Foundation’s Common Ground series.

But offering people with “diverse voices” second-rate opportunities to participate only serves to control and extract information from our communities instead of giving them real power.

By relegating participation of people who cannot attend to sidebar conversations, summit organizers are effectively differentiating the city into the deciders and those affected by the decisions. A truly inclusive summit would make those groups one and the same.

Of course, even an inclusive summit with a 1,000 attendee limit cannot cover the true range of experiences of the 1.3 million people in our region: For every success story of raising happy kids on a good salary in a good school district, there’s the story of somebody working a low-wage job catching the bus because he cannot afford other forms of transportation, a story of a senior who can't afford medicine or to maintain her housing stock because everything has gone up but her income, or a story of a family struggling to find safe and affordable housing who feel trapped in drug and crime-riddled neighborhoods.

That’s why summit organizers should be prepared to implement a public oversight mechanism so that the full range of our region’s experiences — especially the experiences of those left behind by the current economy — have actual power over our path forward.

At a minimum, anybody who participates in one of these non-summit conversations should be given the chance to ratify fund distribution or any finalized regional development plan that arises from the summit. A more ambitious summit leadership would put the time and money on the table for an even bolder plan for transparent public oversight.

Finally, summit organizers should recognize yet another barrier they are putting up by relying exclusively on the “Appreciative Inquiry” model to guide the summit. According to the summit’s website Appreciative Inquiry is “a fun and active approach that focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses.”

We're doubtful an approach based on “fun” and “strengths” is able to do the work necessary for Cleveland to move forward. We'll be able to do that only when we face the truth and find reconciliation for the decidedly unfun and unpositive history of racism and increasing inequality that led us to this moment. That learning, and that healing, is necessary for progress. Without it, it’s not surprising that many don’t feel eager to participate in the conversation.

We end with the story from Yvonka, who has worked in the field of racial health disparities for decades. A few years back, she was invited to attend a breakfast event with hundreds of other women focused on chronic heart disease. At a gathering that was whiter and more affluent than the region as a whole, almost every single server catering food was a woman of color, meaning they were at a higher risk of the type of heart issues being discussed at the breakfast. Those invited to attend the conversation ate happily, while the women more likely to be affected by the issue cleaned up the mess.

We are fighting for a regional economic development summit that doesn’t just entrench the same model Yvonka saw at the breakfast. We don’t want two worlds: those who have a seat at the table, and those left cleaning up the mess. Our communities need the inclusive and diverse summit the organizers say they want — but that means taking actions, not just saying words.

Yvonka Hall, Rebecca Maurer, and Jonathan Welle are founding members of CORD — Clevelanders for Open Regional Development, formed in the wake of the Cleveland Rising Summit planning process in 2018 and committed to an economic development model that works for everybody.

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