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(Image courtesy of the Ohio Community Development Corporation Association)

Co-creating shared spaces for people of color

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Last fall, YS Home, Inc. Executive Director Emily Seibel took part in a fireside chat keynote discussion for the annual conference of Ohio Community Development Corporation Association, or OCDCA, speaking with Jamar Doyle, of Greater Collinwood Development Corporation, and Evelyn Burnett, of ThirdSpace Action Lab. Burnett, the featured speaker, answered questions about the role of Community Development Corporations (CDCs), and similar organizations in creating space for people of color in areas that investment groups have revitalized and gentrified.

With permission from Seibel, the News has curated an excerpt of the conversation for its readers. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Jamar Doyle: Our framing conversation focuses on diversity, equity, inclusion and justice. We find ourselves in an important moment, from our individual communities to the national, even international, communities. So my question to you is why is this conversation so important; more specifically, why is this conversation important to the state of Ohio and the organizations and people sitting in this room?

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Evelyn Burnett: I think that this work and this conversation is important because our society is deteriorating in front of our eyes in a lot of ways. We do this work around racial equity where we’re trying to build people’s awareness, and what we tell folks when they go through our training and have conversations with us is, “Once you see you can’t unsee; once you hear you can’t unhear; once you know you can’t unknow.” We spend a lot of time kind of intellectualizing very similar questions like, “Why should we do this?”

… We’ve gotta get out of our heads and get back into our hearts. John Powell reminds us that we need to broaden the circle of human concern. … If you think about othering and belonging as the poles, we have to make the “us” more expansive. We know right now is such a polarized time — it’s a lot of us and them in most conversations. So if we believe that we need to broaden the circle of human concern, then the answer to the question is really clear. We have a responsibility to face the cruel facts. That’s what we learn in the racial equity and inclusion training. That once we see the brutal facts we have a responsibility as professionals, as practitioners, as citizens, as residents, as communities, to do something. To try to create a society that’s equitable, fair and justice oriented.

Emily Seibel: How can we begin to have that conversation in a real, authentic and both impactful and actionable way? How can we bring this lens to the front and center and ensure the community development serves as a tool for racial equity, of reading that lens?

Burnett: We just have to do it. We have to find the courage and the bravery to do it. I think, for me, the insight is that we have to say that community development itself has been a racist system, whether that was intentional or unintentional. … If we don’t name it, we can’t fix what we don’t name. … We have to reckon with our history first, to enable us to reckon with our present. To enable us to reckon with the future that we want to see we also have to have, I think importantly, some very tough conversations.

… One of the things that we say in our work is that in liberated space, these are spaces of care and love and self respect and self esteem, but they also are spaces that are inherently contentious, because we’re bringing forth such different backgrounds. You know, I didn’t grow up where you grew up. And some of those places are inherently contentious, but they’re not intended to be combative. We have to do some wrestling and have to do some negotiating to be that tool for equity. It’s not easy, but I do think that it’s grounded in truth. We have to face some truths that make us uncomfortable so that we can make the system be the thing that we said we want it to be.

Seibel: That’s really interesting in terms of how that translates, then, to a statewide organization, because a lot of us work in communities where there is a real sense of “Well, this is how this community is. We know that it’s usually people who tend to look like us or have the same values.” I live in a rural, majority white community, and so to be able to have a statewide conversation we have to create a liberated space and bring up to the forefront and approach differences from a place of connection. It occurs to me that there is a lot of suppression and separation historically.

Doyle: A lot of times CDCs occupy this space of power and privilege in our communities. We have access but we also have small staffs and small resources. …There is a history that has to be reckoned with, with regards to community development. So many policies that have been enacted through the course of the 20th century and now even into the 21st century have been detrimental to marginalized people and people of color. We are small organizations with minimal resources. How do we begin, within our communities, to make that change?

Burnett: The role of community development is not just about bricks and sticks. It’s not just about physical development. It’s not just about restoring facades. It could be the role of the CDC to introduce a lifelong resident or reintroduce a lifelong resident to their city.

We have a role and responsibility to re-integrate and reintroduce people to their cities in a welcoming and equitable way where people can feel a sense of belonging.

Doyle: A lot of the work that we do begins to transform communities, and we are talking about a sense of belonging. So, what happens when someone who has lived in their community for 10, 20, 50 years, no longer feels like they belong because the dynamic of the community changes either racially, economically or socially. How do we address that?

I can just speak for myself growing up on the east side of Cleveland, a community that didn’t have a lot of opportunity, didn’t have coffee shops, or whatever you define as a ‘hip community.’ But then, once investment starts coming … now all of those resources come. And at the same time, the folks [people of color] that have lived there are being pushed out. So this belonging question is important, because sometimes people can live in a community and then it changes and you feel like you no longer belong in the place you call home. What’s our role?

Seibel: I think, just to tie what you were saying together, there’s a systemic piece of belonging, you know, invisible barriers and invisible opportunities. And so, you know, how do we move beyond just focusing on grabbing at scarce resources and putting them into our community? How do we have a broader context that then translates into our institutions or into our systems and the way that we look at land ownership and a lot of other tangible pieces?

Burnett: We think that gentrification is a really imprecise term. We’re also kind of gentrifying or displacing people in place. Everybody’s not getting pushed now. It’s not always the knock on your door and ‘I want you to get out.’ We’ve isolated people in their communities by bringing stuff [amenities like coffee shops] they can’t afford because we haven’t addressed the income and wealth gap.


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