Women Are Leading the Way in NEO

paddle boards Cleveland women community

When attorney Jon Pinney presented his alarming report at the City Club on Cleveland’s poor economic health, I listened with interest to the radio broadcast. Pinney has become “a voice for a unified regional response to reversing negative economic trends,” as the City Club notes. I take his work seriously and am thankful to him for his efforts. We are all on the same team here, Team NEO, and Pinney is right to draw attention to what is ailing the economic health and future of our region.

Since then, I’ve gone back and listened to that talk a couple of times, and I would argue that a key factor has been left out of the assessment. Pinney asserts that we have neither an ecosystem nor a proverbial table with seats where folks can collaboratively work toward our region’s “alignment.” But in fact, we do have an ecosystem. We have something of a proverbial table with plenty of seats. And there are even signs of alignment happening organically. The thing is, the ecosystem I’m talking about is small-budget, and, more importantly, its members are largely female.

Not one, but three women brought up the total absence of women from Pinney’s thinking right off the bat during the Q&A at the City Club. This was immediately after Pinney called on eight white males by name to step up and solve the problems he’d outlined. I thank these women for their voices, and I believe they’ve identified a major issue: Women seem to be left out of this examination of NEO’s renaissance or its decline, whichever way you see it.

Lisa Meranti leading a community kayak adventure
Lisa Meranti leading a community kayak adventure

Female-Driven Ecosystem

As evidence of the existing ecosystem, I present Lisa Meranti, an NEO resident for 14 years. She is an outdoor educator, yoga instructor, community leader and company founder. It can be difficult to sum up what Meranti does for a living because it’s vast and happens all across the region, and maybe that’s why she’s the perfect counterpoint to Pinney’s dire assessment.

Meranti has a lot going on. She leads outdoor adventures free of charge through her NEO Ladies Adventure group. I’ve attended a handful of these adventures over the years and invariably, I meet amazing women and learn something new about my community. Meranti also teaches yoga to kids in Cleveland schools through her work at ZENworks Yoga (a woman-founded nonprofit). She runs her own outdoor adventure outfit, OneTreeLove. She has a day job with Cleveland Metroparks coordinating citizen science projects. She spreads love and builds community through each of these ventures and too many others to list.

Meranti is also building a network of (mostly but not exclusively) women all around NEO. Without ego, she connects people across all kinds of projects and areas of interest. For example, I had dinner with her a couple of weeks ago — our paddleboarding plans got rained out — and I began talking about the eco-village that my partner and I are thinking of building in Akron. Immediately, she had names of other folks who are working on related ventures, and she offered to connect us so that we might go further together and avoid duplication. In other words, the “alignment” that Pinney calls for, Meranti is already practicing.

Do You See What I See?

Just in case I’m the only one with this impression of Meranti and the ecosystem she’s building, I asked around. Specifically, I asked about a dozen participants of her various programs whether they too have made new connections through her.

Teresa Sage participates in Meranti’s programs, and she also volunteers to help lead some of them: “I think the whole point of OneTreeLove and Lisa’s NEO Ladies Adventure Group is about connecting with others and building on those connections, forming relationships and using the beautiful Northeast Ohio outdoors as our venue.”

Maggie Olson, who’s known Meranti for five years, puts it this way: “It’s impossible to not make new friends when you’re around Lisa. She knows and loves everyone, and she seems to attract people who are more than happy to make connections with new people.” Another program participant, Caryl Church, says, “Lisa has connected me to a network of like-minded people … There’s a community of helpers, knowers and adventurers who I can reference and share resources with because of the work Lisa does.”

Jolynn Mcferren, owner of Namaste Yoga, has known and collaborated with Meranti for nearly a decade and says, “Lisa Meranti is a strong woman, a force in the Cleveland and Akron communities, able to link environmentalists, creatives, yogis and more.”

People connecting to others all over Northeast Ohio? Sounds like evidence of an ecosystem.

The Ecosystem in Action

On a recent Sunday morning, I tried stand up paddleboarding for the first time — rescheduled after getting rained out the Friday before. The outing was a collaboration between Meranti and SUP Cleveland’s Jill Jankowski (yet another woman-owned venture). I pulled into the parking lot at Wendy Park around 7 a.m. and watched as a knot of ladies unloaded boards and anchors, paddles and life jackets, paperwork and permits. The group was small, but these women made it possible for me and others to get into the fresh water of our great lake on a beautiful summer morning, and their partnership opened up a vital community space.

We learned the basics and paddled for a while, then we dropped our anchors and did a little yoga practice out on the water. Listening to Meranti from Child’s Pose on my board, I also could hear Lake Erie beneath me. Only the board separated my face from the softly lapping water. As I inhaled the pleasant scent of the air and water, Meranti’s steady voice reminded us that we were just days past the 49th anniversary of the last Cuyahoga River fire. The waterway upon which we floated was so filthy half a century ago that it was flammable, and now, on a quiet morning in 2018, half a dozen women safely bobbed and paddled around it. She went on to remind us that it was work done by determined people back then that made our morning paddle possible today, as well as our connection to the Clean Water Act and the ultimate formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Reviewing this history, I felt a tug of connection to this place and responsibility to care for it.

Lisa Meranti leading a community kayak adventure

Come for Whatever, Stay for the Ecosystem

In his recent feature published in Scene, Lee Chilcote included the same Stephen Mihm quote that Pinney cited during his talk, “Genuinely successful cities need to do more than attract people: They need to keep them as they start to raise families.” The upshot of Chilcote’s feature was that population growth is critical for healthy cities to thrive, and that keeping families with young children in Cleveland is the key to our future success.

Experiences like the morning paddle on Lake Erie are what make me and my partner want to stay in NEO.  We want to live in a community that is diverse, inclusive and green, and that’s exactly what Meranti’s style of leadership creates.

The issue of diversity is crucial. Cleveland native Dawn Arrington, advocate and mother of two, wonders at the lack diversity in Pinney’s thinking: “Not only did he leave out women, but there wasn’t even one man of color, specifically black men. Like how does someone talk about ‘development’ and ‘leadership’ and leave out key constituencies?”

Arrington has worked tirelessly in Cleveland for years on projects such as the Larchmere Porchfest, Neighborhood Connections and lots of local political organizing, but her efforts and those of so many other women of color seem to go unnoticed by leaders like Pinney. She neatly breaks down Pinney’s lecture and her response to it: “You just privileged your way all over the place and you thought nothing of it. At that point, I question your judgment. You don’t see me as a partner, you see me as a problem to be solved. I’m personally not going to follow someone who doesn’t see me.” But even while acknowledging major problems in it, Arrington is not dismissive of Pinney’s work, saying, “I agree with your assessment. I have a problem with your solution.”

Pinney, if you and your cohort of leaders look harder, and look inclusively, you will see that the beginnings of the ecosystem you imagine are already in place. Local women are organically doing the alignment work you call for without the ego that you rightly identify as harmful. So let’s not overlook them. Let’s support them in meaningful ways:

  • financially back them
  • include them in current and future analysis
  • recruit them to help strategize long-term
  • follow them as they lead NEO forward

This publication is the brainchild of Pam Turos, another NEO business owner who has built a platform of diverse perspectives where we can write, learn and share about all of the amazing efforts happening around NEO. If we leverage what we have here and across similar platforms, we can begin to catalog a comprehensive list of initiatives, networks, doers and plans.

Alignment doesn’t have to be solely powered by the biggest business leaders and economic development strategists. It can and should be an integrated process driven by and including all of the work being done by all of our community members.

Join the Party

Perhaps this network of women getting things done and organically growing NEO is missing from the current analysis because women are systematically excluded; perhaps it’s because their budgets are just too small to hit the radar; and maybe it’s simply that those researching are looking for outmoded markers such as a traditional table with traditional seats. Meanwhile, the leading ladies of NEO are hanging out at their own type of table — they sit in circles on picnic blankets, yoga mats and paddleboards, and they canvass neighborhoods with clipboards and children in tow. I believe our economic leaders should join them at their table and become a part of the ecosystem they have already built. These women will continue to grow NEO and keep it humming with new life far into the future.

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