A large map detailing Cleveland’s wards hangs over Santana’s desk. In the top left corner, she’s scribbled in black marker: “I don’t develop communities. I develop people who develop communities.”
It’s a reminder that a building itself cannot save its people. Instead, true community development relies on investing in residents through things like education, mentoring and counseling. These are lessons Santana learned on her own.
“Growing up, it was always just, ‘Get a job; pay the rent.’ We were never encouraged to dream big,” she says.
As a child, she was crippled by self-doubt. Through the help of a supportive boss and an intrinsic belief that better things were possible, eventually her whole outlook changed. But she knows how hard it is to flip that narrative and mentality, from both her perspectives as a longtime Clark-Fulton resident and as a former employee of MetroHealth.
She spent the first part of her life in the Detroit Shoreway area, before she was forced to relocate to the Stockyard neighborhood when she was 14 due to gentrification. Her mother was slow to learn English after coming to Cleveland from Puerto Rico in 1966. She made a living by cleaning houses and selling homemade food such as pasteles, a tamale-like recipe made with bananas, beef and cheese, out of their kitchen. Santana played the role of translator for her mother.
“I was the person she relied on for doctor’s appointments, and to tell the landlord that she didn’t have the money yet, but she would soon,” she says.
Their family didn’t have a car, so they relied on public transportation and used community resources such as Ohio City’s May Dugan Center to provide items including clothing and counseling. There were times that Santana and her siblings ended up in women’s shelters. And MetroHealth, with its twin towers, loomed over everything like a walled fortress.
“I didn’t know anyone who worked there,” Santana says. “It was like this entire other city that was very hard to access.”
Santana entered through its gates for the first time in 2004, when her mom’s good friend Mildred was diagnosed with breast cancer. Santana soon understood why so many residents shied away from the hospital.
“There was no Spanish signage there, translation services were poor, it was hard to get an appointment and there was no explanation of insurance,” says Santana.
The experience inspired her to take up a community outreach position at MetroHealth in a new grassroots program called Amigas Unidas, or Friends United. The program had been formed after doctors noticed troubling numbers of late-stage breast cancer diagnoses in the Hispanic and Latina community. They thought bringing mammogram screenings into the community might help diagnose problems sooner.
Santana hosted health fairs and screened hundreds of women. And during her nearly 10 years on the job, Santana says she helped 20 women diagnose breast cancer at an early stage. But it wasn’t long before she realized that the problems ran deeper than just access to mammograms.
“These women had trauma,” she says. “They couldn’t afford their homes. They couldn’t find a job, day care, transportation — everything we talk about now.”
Making doctors’ appointments was a low priority until it was sometimes too late. All this trauma and stress was affecting their health. Santana remembers one patient had to leave her children at home while being treated and there had been no one to take them to school or feed them.
“They lived down the street from me,” says Santana. “Do you think I could drive by there and go home knowing these kids were at that house alone? No, I had to stop and take them to McDonalds.”
As one of the few MetroHealth employees who lived in the neighborhood at the time, she tried raising her concerns to hospital management, but she felt like her concerns went unacknowledged.
“I was the token Latina at the table,” says Santana. “I didn’t feel like they were listening to me.”
Even today MetroHealth is trying to counter this ideology that it’s not in sync with the Hispanic and Latino community that surrounds its campus. It’s perhaps the hospital’s biggest obstacle to overcome. Already, Clark-Fulton residents are getting letters from unscrupulous developers and outside investors threatening that MetroHealth will sweep in and take their homes. These entities are trying to purchase homes at much lower values than potential future prices.
“I think [residents] think MetroHealth has so much money that they’re going to come in wholesale and change the fabric of the whole community,” says Rodney Lowallen, president of the Jones Homes block club.
MetroHealth has sworn publicly in forums that it will not buy houses. It has also offered to meet with anyone who is worried. But Santana says it’s still causing some anxiety.
“There’s this fear that I’m going to be pushed out, that I’m not going to be able to fight this bigger fish,” says Santana. “We all know bigger fish eat little fish.”
To stem those fears, MetroHealth continues to reach out to residents and block clubs, holding a series of meetings in the neighborhood to get their input on everything from building design to community needs.
By partnering with Santana, the Metro West Community Development Organization, the Cleveland Foundation and the city of Cleveland, MetroHealth is helping to create a joint $280,000 master community plan for Clark-Fulton that will inform development in the community for the next 10 years, covering everything from housing to transportation.
“In the community development world, you typically don’t have an anchor institution, a philanthropic organization, a city and an elected official partnering together on a master plan,” says Ricardo Leon, executive director of Metro West Community Development Organization. “It helps residents in the community understand that this is really being developed for them by them. We’ve never had that.”
In the meantime, Santana launched her own women’s empowerment series to help lift up female members of her ward. Meeting once a week for nine months, the program’s goal is to give members personal and professional development skills on concepts such as self-care, how to get politically engaged and how the legislative process works.
“Our goal is to invest in people and give them tools,” she says.