For the past few weeks, WISH Cleveland has published #GivingTuesdayCLE stories highlighting the local organizations that will share your generous donations during our upcoming giving campaign. This week’s story, below, focuses on issues related to racial equality and three organizations responding to it here in Cleveland.
In Pursuit of Racial Equality
In Cleveland, evidence of systemic racial inequality can be seen in statistics related to everything from income levels to health outcomes – but many local activists, advocates, and organizations are dedicated to addressing the root causes of such inequity and inequality in order to better the lives of all Clevelanders.
Here, we take a look at three Northeast Ohio organizations committed to the ongoing, vital, and multifaceted work of fighting for racial equality – in three very different ways.
The words of American poet Emma Lazarus are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, a long-standing testament to the United States’ welcome of immigrants and refugees. But in such tumultuous times, do those words still ring true today? Cleveland Heights residents Melody Hart and Gary Benjamin are working hard to make sure they do.
As immigration sponsors for Ansley Damus, a Haitian ethics teacher and asylum-seeker who spent two years in a Northeast Ohio prison (despite having committed no crime) after legally entering the U.S. while fleeing death threats and gang violence, the couple supported him through a nearly two-year legal battle. Eventually, Damus was released to live with them as he continues to pursue legal status, and he is now working full time. With the support of their extended Cleveland community, they rallied under the name of “Ansley’s Army” and were able to raise enough funds to cover his legal expenses and educational fees for his children, still living with his wife in Haiti.
As an extension of this activism, Ansley’s supporters decided to formalize their efforts and help others through the formation of a non-profit, AMIS, Inc., dedicated to providing financial support to ensure that immigrants seeking legal status in the U.S. can live with dignity, opportunity, safety, and self-sufficiency. The organization’s name has double meanings: Amis is French for “friends” and an acronym for “Americans Making Immigrants Safe.”
Hart and Benjamin started AMIS amid their ongoing efforts to support Ansly Damus, “In working on Ansley’s case, we realized two things,” Benjamin says. “First, immigrants like Ansley will always come here seeking safety – and second, we had received a lot of help from dozens of people who want to provide that safety. Cleveland is a great place for an immigrant to settle down, but in their transition, they often need funds. AMIS fills a void; it is there to provide support in transitional times of need.”
While Damus’s case awaits resolution, Hart and Benjamin continue their work to help ease the financial burden on other families like his. An upcoming Nov. 16 event, “Easing Burdens, Offering Hope,” will include addresses from an immigration lawyer and from a mother of four whose partner was recently deported, paired with various opportunities to help local immigrant families facing hard times.
“I really do believe most people in the U.S. [are] sympathetic to immigrants,” Hart told The Plain Dealer last year. “We all came from immigrants. A lot of us realize that and realize we wouldn’t have wanted this to happen to our family.”
Fair Housing Center for Rights and Research
Anthropologist Margarete Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” In 1983, a group of like-minded Clevelanders came together to do just that, focusing on the topic of fair housing – over brown bag lunches.
The Fair Housing Center for Rights and Research, originally founded as the Metropolitan Strategy Group, got its start as a bring-your-own-lunch working group of locals who were interested in expanding housing opportunities for all Clevelanders. Decades later, The Fair Housing Center is a storied nonprofit agency dedicated to protecting and expanding fair housing rights and eliminating housing discrimination, ensuring that residents are guaranteed equal access to housing in the Greater Cleveland Area – regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicities, national origins, familial status, or disability.
The center educates individuals about their fair housing rights and advocates for tenants who have been impacted by housing discrimination. It also works to raise awareness about fair housing issues across Northeast Ohio, facilitating educational seminars and providing free services to landlords, real estate professionals, and social service providers alike.
“My goal in my training is to change hearts and minds,” says Darlene English, Director of Education and Outreach. “I can give people the law and let them know all the technical information, but at the end of the day, I’m trying to reach their heart and get them to understand why fair housing is the issue that it is – and how they can have an impact on that and make positive changes by not discriminating, by treating people equally, and by giving people the help that they need.”
Birthing Beautiful Communities
The old saying “It takes a village to raise a child” is a well-known African proverb – but Birthing Beautiful Communities (BBC) believes it takes a village to birth a child, too. Cuyahoga County’s infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the country – and black babies are disproportionately affected. A 2017 report by the Ohio Department of Health found that black infants die at three times the rate of white infants. “While the overall infant mortality rate in Ohio has decreased since 2000, there has been no significant improvement in the black infant mortality rate,” the report says.
Enter BBC, which describes itself as “a village of birth workers or doulas who provide holistic support for local pregnant women.” The organization was founded in 2014 in response to high infant mortality rates and inadequate prenatal care among black women in urban communities – and influenced by founder Christin Farmer’s own experience trying to find a doula while pregnant.
“If our babies aren’t doing well, our communities aren’t doing well,” Farmer told Cleveland Magazine earlier this year. The organization’s 24-person staff, based in both Cleveland and Akron, is dedicated to addressing the social causes that impact infant mortality, embracing a five-pronged approach that focuses on culture, education, advocacy, support, and engagement (or CEASE, for short).
BBC works to ensure the delivery of healthy, full-term babies and to achieve equitable birth outcomes, in part by pairing expecting mothers with trained, community-based birth workers who provide support and education throughout their pregnancy. BBC also runs a perinatal support specialist training, hosts support circles for mothers at all stages of pregnancy, and offers workshops on topics like breastfeeding and stress relief.