Two Other Retirements that Will Hurt Social Justice

West Side Catholic Center has always been able to attract really good directors as well as staff who have remained committed to keeping the program as one of the top homeless services in Northeast Ohio.  Anita Cook, the current Executive Director, announced her retirement last week to take effect at the end of September 2017.  Anita has always found a great deal of patience and empathy for the residents of the neighborhood who seek help.  West Side Catholic is a gem in Ohio City and an essential service to those who need assistance.  Anita has steered the organization through the collapse of all transitional housing programs in Cleveland and the loss of long time staff Sue DiNardo. She has seen a renovation of the shelter and the addition of jobs programs to the programming.  She knows exactly what is going on over on the West Side and has offered the drop in center as a venue for any group offering help.  From the students at Ignatius helping with a meal to our outreach workers coming through looking for the next person on the housing list, West Side Catholic is open to help.  Anita reached out to partners when there were issues with US mail services, and hosted our Homeless Memorial Day in December. 

Anita has made homeless people feel supported and appreciated when placed in leadership positions.  They do not feel isolated, and Anita actively seeks their input.  She has vision and always selected a quality staff who are driven by the mission and not the money.  Anita has our respect and has earned the respect of homeless people in the community.  We will miss her, and hope that the Board picks another quality Director to lead this critical service in the community. 

Charles See of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry is also retiring after founding the Community Re-Entry Program.  NEOCH began as a program on LMM, and when I was volunteering we were on the same floor as the Community Re-Entry program.  Charles was a good friend of NEOCH as the head of one of their pillar programs.  He was involved in criminal justice reform way before it was cool.  He cared about what happened to people being released from prison before most politicians and other community leaders did.  He was an early adopter of loudly complaining about the financial toll all of this rush to incarcerate people was doing to our society. He along with Rev. Dick Sering would tell anyone who would listen that this mass incarceration was a stain on our society.  Now everyone is saying what Charles See said 25 years ago.

See had to endure while all the re-entry specialists at the jails were defunded, and then deal with the results of these short sighted decisions on the Cleveland community.  He saw the pipeline straight from incarceration to shelters, and spent decades trying to get these guys jobs.  He expanded the group to include Women and worked with youth who were facing the messed up juvenile justice system.  He persevered through the good times and the bad.  He kept the agency alive during the era when no one cared about African Americans being sent to jail for drug offenses as well as the law and order times when all the money went to locking everyone up and no money went to helping people reintegrate into society.  It is amazing that he has worked on this issue for 44 years. 

Both of these retirements are going to be tough for the social justice movement.  Charles See has been a wonderful advocate for a group that is even more misunderstood than homeless people.  His voice in Cuyahoga County and down in Columbus is going to be missed.  Anita Cook is primarily a social service provider, but she has helped on a number of social justice causes such as voting and the inability to get identification.  She has always made her facility and her clients available to community organizers and social justice groups.  You may think this is a small thing, but I can't tell you how many places make it impossible or make us jump through an extreme number of hoops to get anything done.  NEOCH Board and staff wish them both much success in their next chapter in life.

Brian Davis

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Be Safe In This Time of Division

On November 15, 1996 activist and founder of the Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, buddy gray, was killed by a guy that buddy had helped get into housing.  buddy had opened the drop inn center shelter by taking over a public building and worked as its executive director.  He started a development corporation to try to get homeless and low income people into any redevelopment strategy.  This is the post card that Bonnie sent out to mark the death of her partner, buddy. 

A mentally ill man entered the shelter and shot gray six times then sat and waited for the police to show up.  Most felt that buddy had become the focal point of anger and resentment in the community.  He had pushed the community to open the shelter after a friend had frozen to death on the streets of Cincinnati.  He was pushing against the millions of dollars pouring into Over the Rhine to redevelop the neighborhood as an artist and education center.  This made him a target because he was perceived as holding back neighborhood progress. Many in the community felt that a mentally ill man who was helped into his apartment by staff at the Drop Inn Center focused all his demons on this one person that the community was blaming for the poverty in the neighborhood.  Developers wanted to move the Drop Inn shelter and the other social services in order to build a school of the arts in the neighborhood.  Many were blaming buddy for their misery just as today there is a misplaced blaming of immigrants. 

We live in a similarly divisive time in America.  We are seeing a rash of hate crimes on mosques, women in hajabs, and barristas at Starbucks.  There is a great deal of anger in a deeply divided country.  The Election of 2016 was full of hate like we have never seen before. It exposed a lot of resentment and anxiety that exists in the United States.  There is a search for an enemy for why wages have stagnated, no safety net, the middle class is shrinking, and a generation that is not going to be better than their parents.  We have selected immigrants, Muslims, trade deals and elites as the reason for all the nation's problems.  But it is not a stretch to see that homeless people could be a target in this divided country.  There are so many who do not understand homeless people and are afraid that they could become a homeless person, they may strike out at this fragile group who are exposed outside everyday.    There are going to be many social justice individuals who will be viewed as the enemy for protecting individual rights or protecting these "targets" for hate.

We have to learn from the death of buddy gray.  Hate can kill people.  If we are shielding immigrants from government intrusion into the privacy rights of its citizens, we need to be careful.  If we are protecting fragile populations from bullies, there is always a backlash.  There are a lot of untreated mentally ill people out there who feed off anger and hate in our country.  We have to all be aware of who is around and we have to pay attention to the signs.  We cannot be as confrontational and cannot become a target in our community.  If people start personalizing the argument, it may be necessary to step back for our own safety and the safety of our families.  Social Justice types are not going to be that popular in the middle of America where we are most divided.  We need to be careful in the next few years. 

Brian Davis

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PS: buddy gray never used capital letters when signing or printing his name, so we are respecting that here.

Ione Biggs Award Winner

Jay Westbrook and Maria Smith were honored by the Homeless Coalition as the 2013 and 2012 Ione Biggs Social Justice Award winners respectfully.  We presented them with a plaque that they can display on their office wall.  We also have a recognition plaque in the office with the engraved names of the previous winners. We keep Ione Biggs name alive in Cleveland with this Social Justice award, and each of the winners knew Ms. Biggs and were fans of her advocacy and dignity.

For those who do not know, Ione Biggs was one of the first female police officers in Ohio.  She had a long history of fighting for the rights of women especially women of color.  She was an anti-war activist.  She was a long time friend of NEOCH and regularly attended our demonstrations for improved conditions in the shelters.  Biggs was a member of the City Club and she was regularly asking leading questions to those who had to face her for the weekly lunch.   The Ione Biggs Social Justice Award is intended to highlight the life achievements of the recipient in the area of community service, public policy, access to justice, and equality that changed the lives of those who live in Greater Cleveland.  Previous winners include David Westcott, Gail Long and Frank Jackson. 

Maria Smith is an attorney at Legal Aid Society of Cleveland specializing in eviction prevention and she has a deep understanding of re-entry and benefit issues.   On the award that we gave to Maria Smith as the 2012 Biggs winner it said,

For a lifetime of outstanding contributions to the advancement of equality, civil rights, structural change, as well as increasing the opportunities of the politically, economically and socially disadvantaged in Greater Cleveland to obtain affordable housing or maintain existing housing. Smith has worked to create a society that can forgive and can provide equal access to its people.

Maria Smith has worked to keep people out of the homeless shelters and pushing an agenda to forgive those who have served their time.  She advocates for reducing barriers to affordable housing and broadening access to subsidized housing units.  Smith works on a daily basis to prevent improper evictions.  She has co-chaired the County Re-Entry Task Force, which has created greater opportunities for those attempting to re-integrate into society and find stability. Smith has made a long career in arguing against spending US tax dollars on death and war arguing for allowing tax payers to direct public dollars to peace and human services.  We congratualate Maria Smith for the decades of service to Cleveland, homeless people and creating a just society.

We also recognized retired Councilman Jay Westbrook of the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood.  Here is the inscription on Westbrook's award:

For a distinguished career serving the people of Cleveland and assisting the economically and socially disadvantaged to access federal resources and maintaining a safe place to live in our community. He provided honorable service to those struggling with housing and living in poverty attempting to work toward a more just society.

Westbrook was one of the leaders of the strategic plan that led to the creation of the County Office of Homeless Services in the early 1990s.   He has worked to preserve and expand affordable housing in Cleveland, and was always a friend to the Homeless Coalition.  Westbrook was railing against the financial services industry for raping the Cleveland neigbhorhoods years before the tidal wave of foreclosures.  He helped try to pass legislation to protect the neighborhood which were all challenged by the banks and mortgage servicers.  Westbrook as City Council President and member of the leadership team on City Council maintained universal access to shelter for the last 25 years.  We believe this policy has saved the lives of thousands of people locally.  We congratuate Jay Westbrook as the 2013 Ione Biggs Social Justice award winner.

Brian Davis

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Nelson Mandela: A Champion of Social Justice

 Photo from the Guardian UKA sad day for Social Justice groups around the world with the passing of Nelson Mandela.  Most community organizers, advocates and progressive activists cut their teeth participating in Anti-Apartheid demonstrations.  I joined a group at Case Western Reserve pushing the university to divest of investments in South Africa until their racist form of government was ended.  We had demonstrations and pushed the board of trustees to divest.  Mandela has to be considered one of the greatest champions of Social Justice of the last century.  He persevered and prevailed through his strength of spirit.  He inspired a generation of social change agents throughout the world.   He was willing to die for freedom, but through his imprisonment he started a movement. 

He is the father of a democratic South Africa that most likely would not exist today without his leadership.  He led with grace and a singular purpose to keep one country under one flag.  There was no purge or retaliation or revenge against the oppressors.  Our own elected officials could learn from his example.  In four short years, he moved the country from a colonial authoritarian state on the verge of a revolution to a functioning government in which Afrikaner served next to African National Congress member.  Here is a portion of his closing statement from his trial in 1962 called the Rivonia Trial which resulted in his conviction, imprisonment and solidified his role as a champion of the social justice.  Much of this speech is relevant to minority and oppressed populations today including African Americans living in the United States. 

The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. White supremacy implies black inferiority. Legislation designed to preserve white supremacy entrenches this notion. Menial tasks in South Africa are invariably performed by Africans. When anything has to be carried or cleaned the white man will look around for an African to do it for him, whether the African is employed by him or not. Because of this sort of attitude, whites tend to regard Africans as a separate breed. They do not look upon them as people with families of their own; they do not realize that they have emotions - that they fall in love like white people do; that they want to be with their wives and children like white people want to be with theirs; that they want to earn enough money to support their families properly, to feed and clothe them and send them to school. And what 'house-boy' or 'garden-boy' or labourer can ever hope to do this?

Pass laws, which to the Africans are among the most hated bits of legislation in South Africa, render any African liable to police surveillance at any time. I doubt whether there is a single African male in South Africa who has not at some stage had a brush with the police over his pass. Hundreds and thousands of Africans are thrown into jail each year under pass laws. Even worse than this is the fact that pass laws keep husband and wife apart and lead to the breakdown of family life.

Poverty and the breakdown of family life have secondary effects. Children wander about the streets of the townships because they have no schools to go to, or no money to enable them to go to school, or no parents at home to see that they go to school, because both parents (if there be two) have to work to keep the family alive. This leads to a breakdown in moral standards, to an alarming rise in illegitimacy, and to growing violence which erupts not only politically, but everywhere. Life in the townships is dangerous. There is not a day that goes by without somebody being stabbed or assaulted. And violence is carried out of the townships in the white living areas. People are afraid to walk alone in the streets after dark. Housebreakings and robberies are increasing, despite the fact that the death sentence can now be imposed for such offences. Death sentences cannot cure the festering sore.

Africans want to be paid a living wage. Africans want to perform work which they are capable of doing, and not work which the Government declares them to be capable o Africans want to be allowed to live where they obtain work, and not be endorsed out of an area because they were not born there. Africans want to be allowed to own land in places where they work, and not to be obliged to live in rented houses which they can never call their own. Africans want to be part of the general population, and not confined to living in their own ghettoes. African men want to have their wives and children to live with them where they work, and not be forced into an unnatural existence in men's hostels. African women want to be with their men folk and not be left permanently widowed in the Reserves. Africans want to be allowed out after eleven o'clock at night and not to be confined to their rooms like little children. Africans want to be allowed to travel in their own country and to seek work where they want to and not where the Labour Bureau tells them to. Africans want a just share in the whole of South Africa; they want security and a stake in society.

Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy.

But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all. It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy.

This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Brian Davis

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Out with a Whimper

Another rough year for non-profits in Cleveland.  The big news was we lost the second largest mental health agency in Cleveland: Bridgeways.  After seven months they are still trying to sort out the property owned by the non-profit and their dealings with a for-profit subsidiary.  There were a number of affordable housing projects owned by the non-profit and de-tangling that when the agency goes out of business has been tough.  We saw WECO go out of business earlier in 2012 after 40 years in Cleveland.  Some of their projects were taken up by Neighborhood Progress Inc., but WECO was helping low income people with obtaining funding for micro-enterprise projects and that was not picked up.  When the financial and banking industry was caught undermining the US economy, it would seem to be a time that you would need an organization that provides credit to very low income people more than ever.   They offered loans to people who are often viewed by the financial services and banks as not worthy of credit, but now they are gone.

Over the last few months we learned that the Empowerment Coalition of Cleveland (formerly Welfare Rights) has "suspended operations."   This is a historic organization from the late 1960s in Cleveland that was started by a group of African American women who organized themselves to protect against the arbitrary decisions made by the county human services and children services agencies.  There has always been issues with interpreting federal rules and implementing those at the local level. They started with a nationally recognized walk from Cleveland to Columbus to protest against cuts to welfare with a huge demonstration in Columbus and many other cities in June 1966.   From cash assistance to Medicare, child support and Food Stamps, all of these progrmas have been difficult to navigate for women left to raise their children when the dad leaves the picture.    This was a historic organization in Cleveland that eventually dropped the word "welfare" when that lost favor with the public in the 1990s.  During the Clinton administration, welfare became a dirty word when the federal government tore a big hole in the safety net under the guise of "reform."  Welfare Rights held on for 15 years as the Empowerment Center of Cleveland, but organizing poor people is not a value we pay for in our community anymore.  They were kicked out of United Way, and could not find a firm footing in the community.  Figuring out how people in need of a hand up can speak collectively to government is not a skill we value anymore as a society.  Last year, the Cuyahoga County Ombudsman went out of business which had a similar function in the community to process and resolve complaints against government agencies. 

The Welfare Rights movement started in Cleveland with the walk to Columbus.  They fought for a living wage for every family in the community.  They fought to get everything that a mom was entitled to from the federal government.  They flooded the system in an attempt to demand benefits that could sustain a and preserve a family.  They pushed for expanded health care, access to food and a safety net for those struggling to raise children.  ACORN grew out of the Welfare Rights groups in America, and they have also disappeared from the landscape over the last four years.  Where does a poor person go to get help if they are terminated from assistance improperly?  Who will be their advocate if they do not understand the rules in dealing with Children and Family Services?  Where do they go to push for the State of Ohio to expand Medicaid when that is an option in 2014?  Where does the media go to hear from people who are on food stamps when one Presidential candidates is out labeling President Obama as the Food Stamp President?   Where do poor people go to talk about the issues of being forced to go to work in order to get cash assistance and thus turning their childcare over to other poor women just to receive some table scraps? There is no one left to advocatefor the poorest in our community. It is no wonder why the Occupy Movement caught on briefly in many communities. 

The READ literacy organization also closed up shop in 2012; Alternatives Agency was caught up in the County scandal and closed, and the League of Women voters shuttered their Cleveland office. In 2011, we lost InterAct Cleveland.   Haven House, a program providing housing for veterans, closed in 2012.  Most of these non-profits closing did not even get a mention in the Plain Dealer.  The Welfare Rights Organization came into existence in Cleveland with a bang, but left with a whimper.   It is rough keeping a non-profit going during an economic downturn.  There is a push by the foundations to consolidate non-profits to cut the number of directors in the community.  Some of the recent consolidations can lead to an elimination of one's identity in a community.  For example, when Templum House merged with Domestic Violence Center we lost a force for advocating for sweeping changes in how we deal with domestic violence victims in the community.   They were very good at advocating for changes in policy and changes in police procedures to serve the victims of domestic violence.  Yes, they ran a shelter, but they were best at advocating for their clients and the children of women abused.  The merged domestic violence agency has since merged with a children's organization and they are much bigger.  They do great with the individual fleeing violence, but they are not as good solving the problem of violence in our community.   We have fifteen years of very little happening at the local level to reduce violence against women, but we have a much healthier and much bigger Domestic Violence organization.  Social services have triumphed over social justice.

Brian Davis

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Jim Schlecht Celebration

Social Justice Champion

Here is the text of the plaque that was presented to Jim yesterday.

We the members of Cleveland’s progressive community recognize Jim Schlecht for his thirty years of exemplary service to the least among us and his ability to demonstrate compassion on the streets of Cleveland.  We recognize his struggle for mercy and peace in a society that does not always embrace the Beatitudes.   Cleveland is a better place to raise a family because of Jim Schlecht’s work everyday to reduce hunger and homelessness and find justice for the persecuted. Presented this 24th Day of April 2012.

We have put together a photo display from the event here.

I will post my comments from the event sometime this week.

 Brian Davis

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Cleveland Power Summit

Advocates Gather at St. Ignatius
The advocacy world of Cleveland will gather at St. Ignatius High School this Saturday March 24, 2012 for the Cleveland Power Summit from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. To register and for more details go to the Organize!Ohio website. 


This is a chance for social justice advocates to gather to develop a consolidated policy agenda.  Some of the areas that they will cover include housing, health care, environmental issues, hunger, children and youth issues, education, jobs and living wages, supportive services, governmental funding, and basic human rights.  This will be a chance to strategize about social justice issues that could be adopted in improve the lives of Greater Clevelanders.  The conference is free and lunch will be available.  To register go to the Organize Ohio website.  They also have childcare available to those who have young children.  Advocates from CTO, ESOP, UHCAN, and LMM are all co-sponsoring this event.


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