Dear Neighbors, What Now?

Along with breathtaking Lake Erie sunsets and walkable, tree-lined streets, racial diversity is one of Euclid, Ohio’s greatest assets. But modern day segregation of its schools, neighborhoods, social institutions, recreation centers and businesses leave  residents and city leaders caught between the past and future. A microcosm of America’s most divisive national concerns, this inner ring suburb of Cleveland is struggling to overcome many of the issues playing out in countless cities across the country.

Euclid is also my family’s home.

Last month, our city council meeting became the subject of widespread news and conversation when Black Lives Matter organizers interrupted the scheduled agenda to confront our mayor and police chief around multiple issues of police brutality. Regardless of outcome, these tragic incidents will have lasting and painful consequences for the families involved and our community. They also provide us with a rare opportunity to boldly confront the issues of racism and injustice that underscore every challenge Euclid is facing.

When Black Lives Matter came to Euclid, they were loud and disruptive – this was unsettling to a lot of white people, myself included. But if the organizers had waited patiently for the end of the meeting, then most Euclid residents would never know they had been there, and I wouldn’t be writing this article right now. That night, I watched police in riot gear threaten to arrest the group of non-violent protesters, as white supporters, young and old, peacefully linked arms to surround people of color. When the protest ended peacefully, we all prayed together, but that’s not the image you’re most likely to see on the news.

Black Lives Matter is not a hate group.

In fact, the organization has been internationally recognized as a peace movement and is this year’s recipient of the Sydney Peace  Prize, an honor previously  given to Desmond Tutu and Noam Chomsky. Imagine the progress we could make if white America would start treating Black Lives Matter like all of the historic civil rights leaders we revere. When we choose not to, then we might as well be insisting Rosa Parks get off of the bus so we can sit down.

It isn’t often that we are presented with such a clear choice between our fears and personal values, but this is one of those moments in time.

Mayors, city councils and police chiefs can’t do this alone. We can’t ask them to change an entire police culture and overcome complex social issues that date back 50-plus years if we aren’t even willing to speak up when neighbors quietly make note of skin color every time a new family moves onto the street. If we don’t want our city council meetings turning into nationally televised protests, then we must expand our circle of influence, listen to people of color and use what we learn to inform our conversations and actions.

Long-term, institutionalized, structural injustices make people of color more likely to be living in poverty, undereducated and criminalized. We are living in the midst of that reality, and we cannot move forward as a city or a nation until we collectively acknowledge and reconcile this history.

Black people are not destroying communities. Racism is.

Maybe you already know this. But if you’re like many white Americans, then translating this knowledge into action is where your commitment to fighting racism stalls out.  Historically, white people are willing to support social justice actions that make us feel good and are socially acceptable to our peers. We politely wait our turn at meetings, and we can expect that our community leaders look like us and have relatively similar life experiences. These things aren’t true for people of color.

Joining the fight to end racism includes accepting that the pain of oppression is greater than the discomfort white people experience during public rallies and difficult conversations, even when the anger seems directed at us. Being an ally means resisting the urge to push back against people of color for the ways in which they express pain. It also means not expecting them to only solve problems in ways that make sense to us.

Even though white people make up only 40 percent of Euclid’s population, we are the overwhelming majority of business owners, city leaders, teachers, administrators and police officers. Representation matters, and our voices and votes need to reflect this.

We can do better. And the future of our community depends on it.

  1. Try. And try again. Make friends with people who are different from you. Go places you wouldn’t normally go to do things you already enjoy doing. Keep showing up until you feel more comfortable and keep inviting people of color into your circle. Visit a different church. Attend community events outside of your immediate neighborhood. This doesn’t mean getting together with a group of white friends to pass out school supplies for inner city kids. It means looking people in the eye and seeking out meaningful relationships based on mutual respect and shared interests. The WISH Cleveland events calendar offers many such opportunities, including a powerful Racial Equity & Inclusion training through Cleveland Neighborhood Progress.
  2. Speak up. Spend 5 minutes a day respectfully challenging the racist trolls who have taken over our community social media pages. Tell a friend that you’re uncomfortable when they tell racist jokes. Better yet, don’t spend time with people who make racist comments and tell them why. I’m not asking you to start fights (mostly because that doesn’t really accomplish anything), but I am asking you to help create a new conversation where the voices of solidarity and equality are louder than those of hatred and judgment.
  3. Insist on police accountability. Even if you’re a “true blue” advocate – there are some things we can agree on. Police officers’ jobs would be considerably easier if we could decrease crime and eliminate distrust between officers and the communities they serve. Fighting back against racism is the only authentic way to reach that goal. Support fair, reputable officers by advocating for a system in which they are empowered to confront bias in their peers. When we don’t hold dishonorable officers accountable for their actions, the safety and reputation of everyone on the force is compromised.
  4. Desegregate. Challenge the groups and organizations you are a part of to prioritize and celebrate diversity as an asset. Encourage leaders to grapple with the injustices that impact our community. The same day neo-Nazis and white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Euclid resident Richard Hubbard’s police assault video went viral on social media. The next day, I visited a church located one block from where the disturbing assault took place. Sadly, the minister made no mention of Charlottesville or Hubbard as he spoke to a sanctuary half-full of brown and white faces. I walked out. Hopefully someone from his congregation was brave enough to point out his blatant and egregious error.
  5. Get involved. Attend city council meetings. Get to know your representatives. Join your local community policing efforts. It’s too easy to focus our attention on work, family and the national news when real change needs to happen at our backyard barbeques and family dinner tables. By educating ourselves on local issues and paying attention to who is (and is not) at the table, we will eventually have the power to overcome what divides us. Only then can we move forward as a truly progressive, diverse and vibrant community.
Photo credit and appreciation: Randy Blackford.

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