Sam Allard / Scene
Standing behind a row of symbolic folding chairs on the Plain Dealer Plaza outside 1801 Superior Ave., a group of 20-25 local activists rallied for a seat at the table in current regional economic development discussions.
The group, organized as the Coalition for Open Regional Development (CORD), was spawned in part by a letter penned by attorney Rebecca Maurer in Crain’s Cleveland Business, calling for transparency in the planning of a regional summit in 2019. Both Maurer’s letter and speakers Thursday argued that for a summit to be truly inclusive, community members must be involved from the very beginning of the process, including the two-day “design session” which kicked off on the second floor of 1801 Superior shortly after the rally concluded.
“We demand that any regional summit be governed and led by a board that is representative of the region’s diversity,” said Avery Martens in introductory remarks, adding that a majority of board members should be elected by the community itself and should represent the region in race, gender, income level, occupation and geography.
Speakers from Black Lives Matter Cleveland, Clevelanders for Public Transit, the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition, Democratic Socialists of America, Standing Up for Racial Justice, the Ohio Student Association and other progressive groups approached the same message from different angles, championing related causes under the umbrella of economic justice.
The core theme, though, as articulated by Kareem Henton of Black Lives Matter Cleveland, was this: “Nothing is scarier for poor and disenfranchised people than when rich people and politicians come together in a room to talk about the needs of poor people, without including poor people.”
“Nothing about us, WITHOUT us,” chanted the demonstrators after Henton spoke.
Veteran activist Greg Coleridge quoted a relevant adage later, reminding those gathered that, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
The current ‘table,’ such as it is, includes 84 of the region’s emerging and established leaders, selected from the networks of an As Yet Unnamed Committee Of 15 civic leaders (AYUCO15). The full invite list was released to the media Thursday.
It was stressed by the rally’s speakers that the 2019 summit and its precedent conversations are merely the latest iterations of existential hand-wringing that mushrooms up in Northeast Ohio periodically. These conversations always result in “big projects and trickle-down economics.” That’s the status quo, or at any rate one element of it, that demonstrators desperately want to change.
Brad Whitehead, President of the Fund for our Economic Future, and Bradford Davy, the Fund’s recently hired director of community engagement, were the only leaders invited to the design session who attended the demonstration and listened to the roster of speakers. They spoke with CORD members informally after the prepared remarks.
They said they’d been invited to the design session and planned to attend because they felt the conversation was an important one. But they agreed with the rally’s sentiments — Whitehead cited the insistent call for racial equity in The Two Tomorrows Report, published earlier this year, and said he would now enter the meeting “humbler and smarter.”
When Yvonka Hall, who leads the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition, challenged Whitehead and Davy to leave the design session if there was not sufficient community representation, they deferred. But they appeared to take the message, and the demonstrators’ broader set of demands, to heart. They vowed to attend CORD’s meetings in January and February to help elect a slate of community representatives.