With the pandemic, contentious election and civil unrest over the summer, the Black community faces more than its fair share of issues and challenges moving forward. But, with crisis always comes opportunity.
In historic numbers, Americans of African descent turned out at the polls to have their voices heard. It is in that spirit that Community Leader contacted Black business, civic and community leaders to address issues and find out what the government, nonprofits and businesses can do to help solve problems, on this, the eve of Black History Month.
Frank G. Jackson
Mayor, City of Cleveland
Elected in November 2005, Mayor Jackson is now serving his fourth term, making him the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history.
[Our biggest challenge] is really keeping the momentum up that came as a result of the pandemic and the social unrest, pointing out in a glaring sense the inequities, disparities and racism that is institutionalized in the government and private sector. It’s in our social, economic and political infrastructure. … People knew it was there.
Some people were in denial. But, others who knew it was there really didn’t take any action in regard to it until the social unrest happened and it was on the front burner, particularly in the private sector, and government, but particularly in the private sector. That will wane as long as there’s not a very clear effort to keep it focused on elimination of the inequities, disparities of racism and how it is reflected in our social, economic and political systems.
You can take it from health care — the inequities and disparities in health care. You can look at it in our economic system — the inequities and disparities in wealth and wealth creation. You can take it into the educational system. You just name it, and there it is. You can even look at it in terms of government.
Even though you have representation, that representation doesn’t always reflect the needs and the aspirations of the community because that representation is not always able to impact the inherent and institutionalized inequities and disparities of racism.
People are talking about post-pandemic and post-demonstration, but [inequalities and disparities of racism are] nothing new. It existed in the past. It exists now. How it will exist and in what form and impact it will have in the future will depend on the consistency of the community to impact it. Right now, we do not have the same infrastructure in place that we had in the civil rights movement that would really be able to be very specific and focused on certain areas that needed to be changed.
Frederick R. Nance
Global Managing Partner, Squire Patton Boggs
Born in Cleveland and raised on East 135th Street and Kinsman Road, Frederick R. Nance experienced the Hough riots in the ‘60s, got an Ivy League education and has been at Squire Patton Boggs for more than 40 years. He has worked closely with local government and now sits among the top of corporate Cleveland.
The issues most pressing the African American community in Cleveland can’t be identified and resolved within a short article. Indeed, the nuances of those issues result from a complex history of evolving events familiar to many, but seldom acknowledged. Nor are this region’s African Americans a monolith with a single set of successes or ongoing challenges.
Still, some issues impact every person of color, such as the potential to at least be unfairly profiled for simply ‘being in the room,’ up to and including being put unfairly at risk of injury, incarceration or even death based on the melanin in our skin.
This reality, which Black Americans have had no choice but to accommodate our entire lives, had virtually no frame of reference among most white Americans. Then came the summer of George Floyd. What comes of that growing awareness among the majority remains to be seen. To say the least, we are at an inflection point. To be clear, that reality exists as much for our African American Fortune 200 CEO as it does for our homeless Black guy living on Payne Avenue. I know some might still be taken back by that assertion, but it is demonstrably true.
That said, the most severe challenge facing the broader African American community is the crushing poverty amongst many Black Clevelanders, combined with a general absence of Black wealth at any level to help respond to the resulting issues.
Consequently, an effective strategy to even begin to implement a meaningful course correction has to be well-coordinated and multitiered. It would need to include everything from assuring the most fundamental human needs of food, shelter and medical care to enhancing the prospects for self-sufficiency through meaningful education, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. Then, corporate America will need to recognize that it is in its self-interest to prioritize business practices both internally and externally that will foster the creation of Black wealth to help catalyze and sustain the community going forward.
Alex Johnson, Ph.D.
President, Cuyahoga Community College (TRI-C)
Since becoming president in 2013, Alex Johnson has promoted access, equity, success and completion for the nearly 60,000 credit and non-credit students who attend Tri-C’s four campuses and other locations throughout Cleveland and its suburbs each year. He serves on the boards of the United Way of Greater Cleveland, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Playhouse Square, MAGNET, Team NEO, Greater Cleveland Partnership and Unify Labs.
When I consider all of the issues that resurfaced as a result of COVID-19 and political unrest, it appears as though we’ve been blaming the victims for the circumstances they face. The greatest challenge doesn’t come from within the African American community, it comes from without. We need race-conscious policies designed to undo some of the systemic effects of racism that deny opportunities not only in the African American community, but also in other communities of color.
Organizations need to come together at a meaningful level as opposed to engaging in a fraction approach. Many are [already] recognizing the importance of diversity and inclusion to promote social and economic equality. They are engaging in what I call the three Cs: understanding that co-workers or colleagues of color make an impact and ensure that they continue to be advanced and uplifted; understanding that customers of color have been overlooked; and recognizing the contributions they make to community engagement.
Co-facilitator, Black Environmental Leaders
Jacqueline Gillon’s mission with Black Environmental Leaders, which represents about 20 organizations, including the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, is to stand as stewards of the natural and bulit environment through informing, advocating and incubating a safe space for multigenerational environmental leaders in the Black, Indigenous and people of color communities to grow.
It’s a SET of challenges with our health (physical, mental and emotional), wealth and safety. If the world catches a cold, Black people get the flu. If the nation suffers COVID-19, we suffer in a bigger way. We have always been challenged to reach a degree of wealth — owning a home, getting a good job or operating a business.
There is also the issue of safety. Our bodies have always been a target of violence. Because oppression has been internalized, Black people have turned on each other in a terrible way. We have to be honest about those challenges — remnants of policies, slavery, labor markets, protocols and attitudes that have been around for centuries.
The first thing everyone has to do is listen. The second step is having the willingness to change. That starts with your heart. You might understand things on an intellectual level, but your heart says you are afraid of Black people. You say you don’t want your children and grandchildren to lose out on things if you let go of your privilege and power. There is a lot of fear in the world, but there is also opportunity and hope for everyone. The third thing governments, nonprofits and businesses can do is invest not just resources, but also time and value in what they offer.
Managing Director of Talent, Blue Point Capital Partners
Kimberly Reed assumed her position with the private equity firm in December 2020. Reed has 25 years of experience in human capital strategy, talent assessment and organization development experience.
Where COVID-19 has really impacted the African American community, like many other communities, is in the area of jobs. People lost their jobs and livelihood, and then the more lagging impact is the housing loss facing us as a country.”
One thing I have seen work and be successful under the Obama administration to positively impact the African American community has been the availability of government grant dollars. There are a lot of entrepreneurial individuals right now. But, the scarce item is the funding to encourage those ideas and put them into action. It takes a concentrated effort from the local resources to our congresspeople.
Nonprofits can play a role in retooling and skill building for individuals impacted by COVID-19. That would make a huge difference in the community. As for businesses, they can help people who have lost their “luxury” items, including vehicles. I have seen some local companies provide transportation assistance so people can get to work. It’s not that difficult when you look at the cost of turnover or not having a position filled versus the cost of providing support.
Regional President, Northeast Ohio, ERIEBANK
ERIEBANK is a community bank with 11 branches in Erie, Pennsylvania, one in Ashtabula and one in Mentor. As its
regional head, Gillespie is spearheading an expansion into the Metro Cleveland market that will begin with opening a
Seven Hills location in late 2021 and another Cuyahoga County location in early 2022. He serves as vice president of the board of directors and loan committee chairman for the nonprofit Growth Capital Corp. Cleveland and as a director on the Shoes & Clothes for Kids board.
Probably the biggest challenges in the African American community are very similar to [those in] many cities that are like Cleveland: closing the income gap and closing the income inequalities. It’s multilayered, and there are many reasons why there’s a wealth gap.
There are two ways to create wealth: You work for a living and you get a paycheck, a salary; or you have a business — you’re an entrepreneur. One of the biggest ways that wealth is manifested in the Black community is in their home, as a starting point. Over time, access to housing and neighborhoods has been a challenge for African Americans — and it still is.
There’s still race discrimination that occurs, and it’s not always recognizable. It still occurs in selling homes and sometimes when people go to acquire loans for homes. One of the things I learned recently is that there are still areas in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio where owning rental properties is prohibited. You take people who are trying to get into a different community, that’s a barrier to entry for people who are interested in renting houses in a certain area. Oftentimes, that barrier impacts African Americans.
The income gap creates all kinds of other issues — access to health care and good education. If I can’t move to, call it ‘any suburban city,’ and send my children to that school system, then I have to be committed to going to a school system that I don’t want to participate in or send my children to private school. So, that trickles down to how your child gets educated. If there’s not a public school that you feel that will educate your child at the level they need to be educated, then the gap just continues.
There needs to be more partnerships — partnering government with the private sector, partnering nonprofits with government — studying and coming up with solutions. Oftentimes, we might be duplicating efforts, meaning there may be two or three or four organizations doing the same thing.
President and CEO, MVP Plastics
While he heads up plastic manufacturing company, MVP Plastics, and open- and closed-cell foam fabrication
company, All-Foam Products, both headquartered in Middlefield, McNair also sits on the boards of JumpStart,
the Northeast Ohio Medical University, state Minority Development Financing Advisory Board and Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority and serves as a trustee of University Hospitals.
The impact that [COVID-19 has] had on minority businesses has been pretty devastating. You have two tiers of minority businesses. You have those that are firmly established with multiple employees, and you have those that are one-, two-employee-type businesses. If you put that into perspective, the impact has been equally harsh on both, but probably moreso on the smaller businesses because of the potential inability to pivot.
Automotive is a primary industry that we serve. And, in the latter part of March, April and May, the industry shut down. There was no production. All of the auto assembly plants shut down. We literally had to shut down our automotive portion of our business during that time period.
That was hurtful, and we have not regained 100% production. We were very fortunate to pivot to producing personal protective equipment. But, not everybody was able to do that. We had the manufacturing facility, the footprint and the know-how with which to produce alternative products. The biggest impediment for minority businesses is usually capital. The federal government did well through its Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans program. These two programs are quite helpful to businesses that need a little bit to stay afloat. So, continuing to support those businesses with financial capital is important. It may require banks to refinance loans as opposed to calling in loans or banks deferring or delaying payments on notes that are due. Consider making conscious buys. If you have a 10% or 20% target for spending on contracting, increase it to 25% or 30%.
Vice President of Public Affairs & Chief Talent Officer, RPM International Inc.
Randell McShepard is also a trustee for Baldwin Wallace University, a Destination Cleveland board member and co-founder of PolicyBridge.
I see two pressing issues: One that has haunted our community is poverty. The challenges people face — whether it be housing or lack thereof, lack of access to a healthy diet, lack of access to transportation — all tie back to poverty. The second issue is education. The challenges public schools face are related to poverty. Teachers will tell you they have a student for six hours a day, five days a week, but the reality of life for that child dramatically changes when they walk out of that school building and face traumas including wondering where they’re going to sleep that night or where their next hot meal will come from. I think the African American community needs new leadership that will shake up things and think outside of the box when it comes to problem solving. One of my greatest disappointments in being a civic leader for the last 20 years is that it feels like soup warmed over. It’s the same conversation.
One can argue that Black leaders are essentially missing in action or not prevalent enough in spaces of influence and key decision making in business, civic, community and elected leadership. We need to invest in short-term and long-term leadership development across the board. Many years ago, I helped found the Minority Board Member Pipeline, which matches minority professionals with nonprofit boards. We particularly need to create opportunities for the next generation of leaders. Young leaders are often told they need to ‘wait their turn.’ But, everybody should have a turn right now because the house is on fire.
Eddie Taylor Jr.
President, Taylor Oswald
Taylor Oswald is one of the nation’s largest African American-owned insurance brokerage firms and in a strategic partnership with Oswald Cos. Eddie Taylor Jr. is immediate past chair of the Presidents’ Council, the current chair of University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center and is on the board of Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, Greater Cleveland Partnership and Akron Zoo.
The challenge involves bringing more across-the-board equity into conversations. We know that health care is often delivered unevenly to folks of color. We also know there are issues with education and graduation rates with respect to the college-going cohort in the African American community, as well as issues with jobs, promotion and pay from an equity standpoint in the employment arena. Finally, we know there are quality-of-life issues and life expectancy issues — whether it’s our high rates of infant mortality or the fact that African American men in particular have a far shorter life expectancy or lifespan than other demographics.
Governments, nonprofits and businesses play a role in addressing the challenges. They can create opportunities based on an additive approach, making sure promotions and talent acquisitions are at a level we can show as a model and resulting in influencing other organizations to do the same. Nonprofits are in the business of aiding and assisting causes and individuals and need to continue that mission in the African American community. In the business community, it’s about job opportunities and elevating the talents of folks of color into positions in which they can not only influence the outcomes for a successful business, but also ensure there is equity in hiring. [Adhering] to these practices plays a role in making certain the African American community can be lifted to a level in which opportunities are equivalent.
Owner, Manny Hall & Associates
Manny Hall’s organizational development company assists entrepreneurs and small business to grow through brand strategy and social media. Hall is called a “go-to guy” for new minority businesses.
Economic empowerment. Identifying our unique gifts and talents, sharing them with a targeted group of like-minded people and staying consistent is what our community desperately needs. There are a lot of areas in which we can use assistance from federal, state and local governments. But, the greatest impact possible is the assistance we provide ourselves in the way of proper planning, strategy and implementation.
In many cases within the community, all we need is an opportunity to show what we can do, and decisions not based on past interactions or failures from individuals who look like us. In addition, it’s important for staff members to gain a better understanding of the current struggles of African Americans, which includes their frustrations, mindsets and lack of opportunities.