Events in recent years prompted Cleveland Neighborhood Progress (CNP), a nonprofit organization that has worked to revitalize Cleveland’s neighborhoods for the last 30 years, to pay closer attention to an issue that has long lingered in the background of its work: race.
CNP found that the tens of millions of dollars it and its subsidiaries have invested in development, resulting in thousands of new housing opportunities, was not impacting city residents equitably. “We’re making a lot of progress in Cleveland neighborhoods, but the progress is really uneven. One of the major differentiators is race,” says Joel Ratner, CNP president/CEO. “We always knew that [race was a significant issue], but the success in primarily white neighborhoods forced us to really take a look at it.” Rather than ignore the issue, CNP decided to tackle it head-on. Ratner’s thinking was: “We need to get ahead of this. We need to understand this more deeply. And we need be part of the solution.”
CNP started this effort with its Year of Awareness Building, an initiative that led to thousands of community members participating in racial equity training sessions led by the Racial Equity In-stitute. CNP facilitates the sessions and hosts them monthly. This effort is now in its second year, and Ratner is looking to expand it. “We think we’re getting to a critical mass,” he says. “We’ve prioritized community development practitioners and stakeholders, but the participants have gone well beyond that.”
Additionally, CNP has made racial equity and inclusion a focus in its own operations. The organization recently went through a strategic planning process that resulted in racial equity being de-fined as one of CNP’s top three priorities, along with policy, advocacy and research and thought leadership. Among the new principles that came out of the planning process is “race matters,” an acknowledgement that people of color face structural barriers in accessing opportunities. Ratner also has some ideas about how to better serve minority communities with CNP’s existing programs, such as expanding the work of community financial centers that provide financial coaching in such a way “that really guarantees African-American workers can get out of the holes they’re stuck in.”
He is quick to note that CNP’s work is not complete, nor can CNP eradicate racism. He says the organization will have failed in this initiative if it “turns out only to be the flavor of the day.” For this work to ultimately make a difference, it must be long-term. But providing a mechanism to educate stakeholders and community members about racial inequality in community develop-ment is a good start.
“We don’t think we have the answers. The racism in Cleveland and the race-based outcomes are part of a national pattern that is built into the country and its system,” Ratner says. “So, we know we’re not going to find solutions quickly here in Cleveland, but the point is to be in the conversation, to be aware of the conversation, to be aware of the disparate racial outcomes we live with and to no longer ignore them and to be thoughtful and sensitive in looking for solutions to respond to them.”