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Social Cohesion in Cleveland and Charlotte

Following a successful program in Dresden and Nuremberg, the Study Tour on Social Cohesion met for the second part of the exchange in the United States. From December 4 to 10, 2022, the cohort of 15 young professionals working in the fields of government, academia, nonprofits, and corporations, traveled to Cleveland, Ohio and Charlotte, North Carolina, for a week of meetings surrounding the topics of social justice, equity, education, and accessibility.

On the evening of December 4, the group met for what felt like a family reunion. With hugs and smiles, the participants reflected on the first program and projects they had worked on in the three months since they last met.

After having the first meeting canceled due to covid, the group officially kicked off the program with a meeting with Tyson Mitchell, Director of Equal Opportunity for the City of Cleveland. Although relatively new in the position, Mr. Mitchell explored the city’s challenges, including access to education and workforce development, as well as an equal representation of the diverse population of Cleveland in jobs. He set a critical stage that would be reflected upon throughout the program.

In the afternoon, the group met with members of Team NEO (North-East Ohio), an economic development agency that focuses on Cleveland and its surrounding areas. Community engagement through education and job training is at the center of their work. Keri Zipay of Team NEO discussed her projects in business development, in which she works directly with community-based organizations to help strengthen economic mobility. In addition, Team NEO works closely with Chris Carpenter, Strategic Analysis Manager for the Workforce Development for the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities, to bring more people into the workforce by working directly with corporations.

That evening, the group was invited to the City Council to meet with ACG alum Council President Blaine Griffin. Mr. Griffin described how Cleveland’s Black and Brown communities struggle to move above the poverty level and pursue career paths that allow for both social and economic mobility.

The following day, the group kicked off meetings with Matt Carroll, Chief of Economic Growth and Opportunity for Cuyahoga County. In this role, Mr. Carroll and his team serve as the center for human capital and protection for the county. The county of Cuyahoga is more diverse and less educated than the average for the state. Because Cuyahoga County has a dedicated property tax for health and human services, his team helps provide access to a better quality of life.

During lunch, the group attended a discussion at the Cleveland City Club on Economic Growth: Redefining Success for Midwestern Cities. The panel, which included staff members of the city, described the biggest challenge facing cities as being inclusion and accessibility. The citizens of Cleveland are an untapped resource for economic growth for the city.

That afternoon, the cohort left downtown to meet with Lindsay Wheeler, Community Organizing and Engagement Manager for Cleveland Neighborhood Progress.  During the short car ride, the group could see the lasting impacts of Redlining, which Ms. Wheeler described in detail. Although redlining has been illegal since 1968 through the Fair Housing Act, the damage was done. Cleveland’s Black and Brown communities, largely living at or below the poverty level, have limited access to quality education, healthcare, and economic mobility. Ms. Wheeler’s organization revitalizes neighborhoods by including the residents in said neighborhoods.

In the evening, the group went to Deep Roots, a Black-owned art gallery in the district of City Council President Blaine. David Ramsey, the gallery’s founder, invited several local artists to describe their work and what it means to be a Black and Brown artist. The five-year-old gallery has become a center for creative release and community engagement for many artists who do not have the opportunity to display their art.

On Wednesday, December 7, the group transferred to Charlotte, North Carolina. Upon arrival, the difference between the two cities could be immediately recognized. While Cleveland is a shrinking city on an economic decline, Charlotte is a growing city. Unfortunately, the first meeting in Charlotte was canceled due to covid; the additional time allowed the group to reflect on the program’s first half.

On Thursday morning, the group visited the International House, a non-profit which helps the international community access services such as English as a second language (ESL) classes, healthcare, and job training. Lauren Rogers, the Director of Community Engagement for International House, explained how Charlotte’s international community has dramatically grown in recent decades. Charlotte’s population is now over 17% foreign-born, above the national average.

As a somewhat spontaneous meeting, the group received a tour of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library System by study tour participant Caitlin Moen. Ms. Moen, who serves as Chief Library Services Officer, described the library’s commitment to addressing digital equity within the city.

Over lunch, the cohort was welcomed to the office of Al Guarneri, who serves as the Charlotte Warburg Chapter. Mr. Guarneri invited Manuel Campbell, President of Aspire Community Capital, to discuss racial inequity and accessibility in Charlotte. Following lunch, the group visited the Museum of the New South, which currently has an exhibit of People of Color who have changed American society.

That afternoon, the delegation met with Federico Rios, Assistant Director of the Office of Equity, Mobility, and Immigrant Integration for the City of Charlotte. Mr. Rios described some challenges a growing city faces as it tries to tackle inequities, from affordable housing to quality education to workforce development.

On Friday morning, the group visited the Charlotte government building to meet with Mayor Pro Tem Braxton Winston. Mr. Winston described how he decided to run for office after the shooting of an unarmed African-American man, Keith Lamont Scott, by police in 2016 and the changes to policing in Charlotte since the Black Lives Matter protests. In addition, the group met with individuals who are working to bridge the digital divide within the city, including Reenie Askew, Assistant City Manager of Community Vitality & Chief Innovation Officer; Bruce Clark, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Equity (2019 ACG Transatlantic Cities of Tomorrow Participant); Rachel Stark, Smart Cities Program Manager (2019/2022 ACG Sustainable Urban Development Participant); and Jamar Davis, Access Charlotte Coordinator.

The group visited the Beatties Ford Road area of Charlotte, which was the site of a mass shooting in June of 2020 and remains unsolved. A predominantly Black and Brown community, it has not recovered since the incident. City Council Malcolm Graham represents the district and remains committed to improving the area and fighting injustices. Mr. Graham is all too familiar with racism in the state because his sister was murdered during the mass shooting in a historically black Charleston church in 2015.

That afternoon, the delegation visited the Camp North End Site. This 76-acre repurposed space houses dozens of locally-owned businesses, including Black and Brown-owned organizations. The space that once was a Ford Factory producing the Model T is a mix between industrial art collective, a shopping center, and an outdoor food hall. Local artists create public art that reflects life in Charlotte.

Over a wrap-up session, the group reflected on the two programs. From intense and emotional meetings in Germany to engaging and uplifting discussions in the United States, the study tour provided a unique, in-depth experience of the challenges cities on either side of the Atlantic face. Although projects from one city may not be transferable to another, new networks were developed, providing new sounding boards.

The Study Tour on Social Cohesion is organized and administered by the American Council on Germany with generous support from the Transatlantic Program of the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany through funds of the European Recovery Program (ERP) of the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK).