Building An Equitable Cleveland Through Crucial Conversations

In my leadership journey, I’ve been tested and challenged to think differently. To recognize hard truths about myself and make necessary changes. It’s something we all can do, but it must be authentic. And authenticity starts with the language we use in what we say. The language of leaders can incite or inspire. Our words can build platforms for change or tear down institutions and even each other.

United Way of Greater Cleveland has been on this same journey as well. Less than five years ago, the word “poverty” wasn’t part of our lexicon.

It felt bleak and controversial and something that we wanted to keep at arm's length, even though it was the core of everything we do.

Our Community Needs Assessment in 2017 pointed to evidence that a root of poverty for many in Greater Cleveland is structural racism: systems, legislation and traditions that reinforced the status quo and kept many in our community from educational and financial achievements. The data presented the reality of our community’s situation and made it obvious that we must get comfortable with uncomfortable language and speak the truth to our constituencies in a respectful, accessible and honest way.

“Nearly 70 percent of individuals who experienced homelessness in 2016 identified as Black. Individuals, especially youth who identify as LGBTQ, are also at a disproportionate risk for homelessness.”

2017 Community Needs Assessment

The 2020 Community Needs Assessment reinforced our decision to change how we talk about the realities of Greater Cleveland, and the release of the report coincided with the news that Cleveland’s poverty rate is the worst for children, the second worst for working-age adults and the third worst among senior citizens. This isn’t just unacceptable. It’s unsustainable. The assessment makes multiple connections between chronic poverty and structural racism.

Wealth-Building Disparities (1963-2019)1

Families of color will soon make up a majority of the population in the United States, but most continue to fall behind whites in building wealth. In 1963, the average wealth of white families was $121,000 higher than the average wealth of non-white families. By 2016, the average wealth of white families ($919,000) was over $700,000 higher than the average wealth of Black families ($140,000) and of Hispanic families ($192,000).

These wealth-building disparities grew out of the roots of poverty, from federal lending policies that prevented Blacks from owning homes for decades to the two-sided coin of lacking educational opportunities and low-wage jobs that still prevent families from ending the poverty cycle.

Wealth-building disparities as they exist in Cuyahoga County2

There is both a gender and a race wage gap in Cuyahoga County for full-time, full-year workers. For each racial or ethnic category, women earn less on average than their male counterparts. On average, Latina women who work full-time for the full year earned about half what non-Hispanic white men earned.

In Cuyahoga County, a living wage is $56,000, meaning that, on average, only households headed by white men could support a family with one wage earner.

Not only did we change what we said about poverty in Greater Cleveland, we changed what we did to fight against it. We began to develop our own programs instead of just funding other organizations' endeavors. We knew this would be a necessary, evolutionary step for us as an organization, and we didn’t want to alienate the people we were trying to help or the people we needed to help us help our communities, but facts are facts. 

If we were going to change the future for our region, we needed to shine a spotlight on the issues rather than sugarcoat or rely on guilt as a motivator. We used facts to illuminate poverty – its long-standing causes and devastating consequences -- and offer solutions that hold the promise of reducing its debilitating effects. 

Our Role In Ensuring An Equitable Cleveland

United Way is committed to serving Cleveland as a resource, an innovator and a voice. We help people in urgent need access food, shelter and other basic needs every day. We develop forward-thinking programs that ensure a thriving community for tomorrow. We provide advocacy and influence in public policy to create an equitable community.

United Way’s role in building and supporting an equitable community in Greater Cleveland focuses on identifying inequities through our Community Needs Assessment, facilitating crucial conversations among community leaders and citizens to build consensus.

In 2021, United Way is lending its voice to the cause of police reform. In partnership with the Cleveland Branch of the NAACP, United Way is hosting a ten-month series of Community Conversations on the Cleveland Consent Decree and other elements of police reform in the City of Cleveland. Find information about the series and register for the session about police reform here.

Because we care about Cleveland and Clevelanders, we cannot ignore the day-to-day realities thousands of our fellow citizens are facing. And as servant leaders, we need to take a stand to reverse the perilous course these Clevelanders are traveling.

The issues are real, the feelings are deep, and the language needs to be healing, not hurtful. Constructive, not destructive. I hope you will be part of the conversation. Cleveland is listening.   

Sources:

1 Urban Institute calculations from Survey of Financial Characteristics of Consumers 1962 (Dec. 31), Survey of Changes in Family Finances 1963, and Survey of Consumer Finances 1983–2016

2 U.S. Census Bureau, 2018 American Community Survey