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Lack of inclusion, diversity in Cleveland’s civic leadership ‘perennial issue’

August 29, 2018

Lack of inclusion, diversity in Cleveland’s civic leadership ‘perennial issue’

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The majority of Cleveland’s business and civic leaders are white, male and over 50 -- an issue that once again surfaced at the City Club of Cleveland Friday. The power brokerage can leave Clevelanders outside the circle feeling isolated. Efforts to make an impact on their communities feel fruitless.

“They feel like it might not be their city,” Shana Black, founder of blogger collective Black Girl CLE. “I don’t think people trust that their opinions matter anymore.”

As one City Club discussion attendee put it, Cleveland has a problem with “old and not smart leaders.”

It’s a “perennial culture issue” here, says Brad Whitehead, president of the Fund for Our Economic Future. Conversations about the lack of diversity and inclusion in the region’s civic leadership aren’t new, but the complaints are bubbling up again.

Fueling the conversation is a report from the Fund for Our Economic Future titled “Two Tomorrows” that ties solving racial inequality problems to Cleveland’s success.

Now the top echelon of Cleveland organizations wants to open up.

“We need to change what’s been a long-standing way of working,” Whitehead said.”(It’s thinking) how do we do this with instead of for and to somebody.”

So how could Cleveland leaders include more people to improve the economy, and life, in Cleveland?

Watch a City Club panel discussing Cleveland’s economic future and inclusion in the video player at the top of this post.

Getting people to the table

The City Club hosted a “deep dive” discussion into Cleveland’s future last Friday which polled 80 people about the problems facing the region’s economy.

Several attendees said the problem is that conversations shaping Cleveland’s future don’t include people outside that room.

Read a full summary of that conversation here.

William Tarter, who has worked for a number of Cleveland civic organizations, said civic or economic development proposals are sometimes shut off from the public until they’re finished. More input earlier in the process leads to a better proposal. 

“There doesn’t seem to be a openness to perspectives that might be different than the status quo, he said. “In order to do that, it’s helpful to have different perspectives at the table when it was happening.” 

The need for information extends to the process of getting into circles of leadership, like applications for leadership roles. 

Listening to new and diverse voices

When new voices do get a seat at the table, it’s important to listen and incorporate ideas.

Black said that sometimes, if leaders haven’t experienced a problem, it gets dismissed as a non-issue.

“You get shut down,” she said. “You’ve (then) got to decide -- do I really want to be there, because what’s the point?” 

Making sure that people know that they’re being heard is part of building trust in the government, Tarter said.

“We’re not going to have community engagement just for window dressing, but it’s definitely going to influence the decision that is made. It may not change the decision, but it could strengthen or weaken it.” 

Young professionals have had trouble getting their voices heard because their networks are smaller and they’re limited in the money they can donate or raise, said Ashley Basile Oaken, executive director of Engage Cleveland. 

Since Basile Oaken began her career in Cleveland nine years ago, young professionals have gained more of a voice. However, to compete with other cities, Cleveland must do more, she said. Young professionals need to see an entry point to leadership, and their involvement must be genuine. 

She’d like to see a blend of seasoned and new professionals.

“From my perspective, older generations dwell too much on the past and don’t focus enough on the future. It’s a different generation that has a very different mindset.”

Encouraging a generation of new leaders 

Jennifer Coleman, a senior program officer at the Gund Foundation, said Cleveland’s leadership is more diverse in some spaces, including politics.

But she believes established leaders should be judged not just on their power, but whether they’re introducing new leaders and encouraging unique viewpoints from others.

“I don’t think we can say as a city that we really value future leadership and really mean it,” she said. “Historically, there was this idea of, ‘Wait your turn.’ A lot of it has gone away but not completely.” 

Alesha Washington, vice president for government advocacy at the Greater Cleveland Partnership, thinks leadership groups throughout Cleveland need to connect.

For example, a leadership program for experienced senior-level leaders could collaborate with neighborhood development groups on service projects. 

“When white male leaders take that mindset of how do I mentor, how do I coach... that’s a very powerful mindset,” she said. 

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