Program Manager, Center for Neighborhood Development, Cleveland State University
Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
A: Rather than focus on racial tensions, what we did is we wrote a grant for an evaluating diversity project with the Association for the Study and Development of Community, which comes from American Psychological Association money. We wrote for a grant to create a promising strategy for appreciating and valuing diversity, and so rather than focus on what was wrong and racial tensions, we tried to figure out how we could get folks to value the diversity of that community. And then working with a community development corporation, block club leaders, and five community organizers, we decided upon appreciative inquiry, which is really a process of doing just that. Rather than focusing on what's broken, focus on where there has been cooperation. Where there has been life-giving forces, and learning from them. It's an action research process so that one of the exciting things about that is that the topic they came up with is comfortable diverse relationships. That's what they wanted to know. If they knew what comfortable diverse relationships were, they felt like they could reduce the number of racial tensions.
Q: When you say they, you mean people in the community?
A: People in the community and the community organizers.
Q: You chose that community because there was a certain amount of conflict there?
A: Yes, because of this racial tension and the transition. It's a very strong community development corporation. They have five community organizers, they're very active, and they also have 40 block clubs. The block clubs were not being representative of the neighbors, so you'd have a street or two-street block club that was almost all white and 30% of the population, or 50% in some cases, was black. They tried different efforts such as diversity training, anti-prejudice training, mediation, and an outreach to get that diversity change, but it wasn't happening. So this was an effort to do that. I'll say a little more about the process.
We created a steering committee of about 35 block club leaders, institutional leaders, and intentionally tried to make that as diverse as possible, in terms of both race and age, so that we had young people on that as well.
Appreciative inquiry developed in an organizational context and so it's been very difficult to apply that to a large community, a large diverse community and a working-class community. So the language didn't even work. Appreciative inquiry was a huge mouthful for people. That became a major obstacle right away. What we ended up doing is creating this 35-member steering committee and having a number of workshops. Well, we didn't really call them workshops and that's another big dilemma is how do you go through an educational intensive process with people who don't have but 2-3 hours after work, and their Saturdays are pretty precious and so it was very hard to carve out big blocks of time. So we eventually evolved into monthly meetings and the appreciative inquiry is a 4D model where the first is discovery and so what we first did, and we continued this throughout the whole process, is there's a co-inquiry process where people interview each other. So these 35 people didn't know each other real well. We would have people who were of different race, in particular, sit down one on one at the beginning of the meeting or during a meal, we always have a meal, and either before, during, or after the meal, and do this one on one interview.
It would be a very specific set of questions such as; describe a time when you were in a relationship or an experience you had where you felt comfortable and related to someone different from you and that was a positive experience. And then they'd describe that story, and then they sort of mine that story for, that's the discovery part, what really made that work? What were the pieces that made it possible for that relationship to take place or that event to take place or whatever? What were you doing, how did you feel? And so then you crystallize that into some sort of raw data about what makes cooperation possible. And then there are questions, what would it be like if more relationships were like that in this neighborhood and what would you be doing? And what do you think should happen? So you go through the whole four Ds in that first question, in those initial interviews.
Q: Tell me again, the four Ds are?
A: The four Ds are Discovery, Dream, Design and Delivery. What they did then, in terms of moving from discovery to dream, is after we'd done about 80 of these interviews over a few months and we also went out and interviewed institutional leaders about this.
Q: These were interviews? These weren't big group sessions where people came up with this together?
A: No, 35 people would come together and then break into pairs and have these conversations. In terms of the story, what was really transforming for me is that the anxiety of doing those one on one interviews. I'd have to sit down with someone I don't know and talk about this. There was a lot of anxiety, but half an hour interview and then they would come back and we'd say, let's two or three stories. Tell us a story you heard that inspired you. Don't tell your own story. So, if you interviewed somebody that was very interesting, tell us that story. We could not get them to stop talking.
One particular meeting, a 30-year old African American man who ran a daycare in his home was at the meeting and he was very cynical and negative, but he came and after hearing all these interviews, and he participated in an interview too, he stood up and he said, "You know, when I came here tonight I was ready to move out of the neighborhood.
I'm sick and tired..." and he just started going off... "I'm sick and tired of the kids throwing stones at my house and messing up the fence and vandalizing, and I can't stand it anymore. This neighborhood is going downhill. I came here thinking it was a good safe quiet neighborhood and I can't stand it." And I said," Well, what about now? Because you said, 'I was ready to leave.' He said, "After hearing all these stories I'm here for the fight. I'm staying." And he committed to stay in the neighborhood based on that meeting. Just a number of experiences like that where people had really these incredible encounters because of the stories that came out.
Q: So, if I understand it correctly, you would have large group meetings that would break out into groups of two, and then after the meetings you would interview the participants who were there and get the stories that they had heard from other people?
A: Well, as a facilitator it was me initially. Now they have their own facilitators. The facilitator asks for stories to come forward. So they come back together in a circle. So there would be a meal, then these interviews, and then they'd come back together in a circle and people would share their stories.
So then after we'd done about 80 of these interviews, some of the same people pairing with someone else, we pooled those interviews together and we made copies of them. Then we divided that same group of 35 people at another monthly meeting into small groups and they took a stack of interviews. They didn't have all of them, but they came up with themes. Now this is part of the dream. Rather than calling them, the appreciative inquiry word is provocative propositions. You're trying to create these propositions for the future. We just asked them first to come up with themes and then to come up with what we call promising principles. What are some promising principles that you learned from these stories about comfortable diverse relationships? So they came up with 7 promising principles. One of them is people helping people build strong personal relationships because there were a number of stories where people helped each other out. I can just give you one of those. One of the things, kind of a racial undertone or code word that the older white residents use in the neighborhood, "Well, the way it used to be..." and that usually means when it was all white, life was better, the golden age, that kind of thing.
This 70-year-old Polish woman, at one of our meetings, she spoke up and said that she was interviewed with someone, and her story... and she eventually told the story, the other person told it first but she added to it... that her neighbor who was black, her lawnmower broke. This is an old Polish woman. Her lawnmower broke and her neighbor just voluntarily, not asking, when he mowed his lawn, he saw her grass was long and he just ended up mowing it. So he did it once, and then he did it again. He never expected a thank you. She said he just did it. The weather changed, it started to snow, and low and behold, he starts shoveling her snow. And she would thank him, and it began the process of a conversation or a series of conversations. Eventually in those conversations he found out that she liked jazz music, so he burned her a whole bunch of CDs. And she said how much that touched her, and she said it was like the old neighborhood used to be only it was multicolor. And I think that really summed up the new social construction of what the neighborhood was because she brought that old image of the past forward, but she said now it's multicolor. That was a very exciting thing. So that was one example of people helping people build strong personal relationships.
There were seven of those propositions.
Then what they did is they began to design action steps that would make those principles commonplace. Because this is still a neighborhood that has racial tensions, although in my own experience, going there every week and working with the community organizers and hearing these stories, I became more and more aware that I was biased by the media's portrayal of racial tensions in the neighborhood. The flashpoint incidents and not these pervasive stories of cooperation were hidden.
A second outcome was that we discovered in one of these stories that there's a resident who has created her own kind of welcome wagon. And I don't know if you know this concept, but welcome wagons used to be quite popular I think in the 50s and 60s and after that. A new family moves onto the street. It was actually an organization at one point, and they would bring a whole bunch of coupons for the grocery store and a map of the community. Basically, a welcome to the community. Traditional welcome wagons had fruit baskets or whatever and, you know, they'd just sort of shower you with all of these things and say we're glad you came to our neighborhood. Well she created her own variation of that where she took informational pieces, mostly about code enforcement numbers, the police, and the name of the district commander, assistant, a sort of who's who in the community, city council people.
But the other thing she did, and interestingly enough, she's African American, and a lot of the people moving in are African American, and one of the things she wanted to let them know is the norms and standards of this neighborhood. Because this is a quiet, traditional, Polish neighborhood, and so she'd say, "I'm a bus driver, so I get up at 4:30 in the morning, so I like it really quiet in the morning, and I go to bed early. But Bob, here, he works second shift, so she'd say, be aware that people don't like a lot of noise at late hours and things like that." So some people get out, some people are quiet, and she'd sort of say who's who on the block and in that process she'd sort of let them know what the expectations were. She'd invite them to the block club meeting and talk about what the issues were that they were working on so they got the sense that there was a collective effort. So kind of welcoming them, helping them understand where the resources are, setting the standards and norms of the neighborhood, and then trying to get them involved as active members of the community.
Q: That was something that was duplicated?
A: Yeah, so she did that and that was one of the stories that came out in these interviews and that's a perfect example of this co-inquiry process. So then when we went to the dream and the design stage, people said we want to do that. We want to do that everywhere.
So, they're creating this welcome wagon program for all the block clubs to do when new people come on. A lot of the tensions come from when somebody will move from a housing project is the best example. Public housing, there's a whole different set of behaviors and way things operate there. They move into a rental property in this mostly homeowner neighborhood and they expect to operate like they do. And she's like, well, they don't know any different. They don't know that that's inappropriate. So that was the second one. The third one was, and this was most interesting from an appreciative standpoint, is they recognize there were racial incidents, and so they created a conflict intervention team and rather than having me come in as a mediator, I would often assist them. Rather than using a mediation format, they created diverse, ad hoc teams that would go and respond to these racial incidents and interview people, do some initial assessment and do some, kind of, brainstorming and generating ideas and often tie those people back to either the local block club that was functioning or create a block club or rebuild a block club in that area to address those issues.
What you're doing is you're changing the system dynamic, you're reconstructing the identity of the neighborhood around cooperation and what's positive and you're minimizing and trying to control the negative incidents that occur. So it's actually kind of the inverse of what we do in many conflict interventions, where we focus primarily on what's broken and then say, oh yeah, we need to support what's good. This is primarily supporting what works and then trying to minimize the negatives. I think that's an appropriate response. They're also creating images for the neighborhood. They put out profiles weekly in a neighborhood newspaper. So they have profiles. This is in terms of outcomes, in terms of their design phase, and in terms of their profiles of cooperative relationships. So they'll have a photo and then an article. They ran probably seven or eight of those, and that got people's attention. They now just got funding to do a mural on one of the main streets and the group will create the images and paint the mural. It will be about comfortable diverse relationships. So there are a number of things happening like that, to sort of change the identity of the neighborhood.
Q: Is this neighborhood fairly similar in class status?
A: Yeah, it's a working class neighborhood next to a steel mill that used to employ 25,000 workers and now probably employs 4,000.
So there's been a hard time in the neighborhood.
Q: Do you think something like that could work with different classes?
A: There is one pocket of this area, which was a state hospital that had been abandoned, so it was a large tract of land, a whole campus. It took a ten year process for the community development corporation, but they were able to create enough support for this that they tore all the old buildings down. They have 200 probably built now, and are in the process of building a 300-home middle class subdivision. Kind of a new urbanism, close to the street with sidewalks and porches and houses that are close together. But these are 200,000-dollar houses, which in Cleveland is a nice house. The average price for a house in Cleveland is 50 or 60 thousand dollars. There was a lot of, again leeriness on the part of the working-class neighborhood adjoining that. So we did a pairing between the homeowners association of this new, middle class neighborhood and the working class neighborhood block club. I was at that meeting, and it was phenomenal because of what they came up with in that process.
So at this meeting they came up with the idea of changing the identity of the whole community, of that sub-community of the larger neighborhood to Mill Creek Falls and having both the working class neighborhood and the subdivision claim that same name.
They also agreed that they should go forward as one. They said that they had to have one identity to pull them together instead of two, and they made a commitment to have a festival this summer. They have a date and they're planning it, to close down Turney(???) Road, which is the dividing line. And they're going to have a festival called "Hands Across Turney(???)." In years past the subdivision would have a big subdivision garage sale and the block club would have a big neighborhood street fair. They're going to do this joint festival instead and there is a planning committee. In preparation of that they're inviting people from each of the two neighborhoods to have potluck dinners together in the homes of each of these. So these middle class folks are going into the homes of working class. I didn't think the middle class families would be interested, I think they'd feel too embarrassed. They're having these folks over for dinner. So there's a whole series of things like that, things that span class. Which really has been very, very successful.
The interesting thing is that they have, unlike most suburban subdivisions, Saturday morning, they have a central gazebo and a central common area and they have a community center, the subdivision does. And Saturday mornings they just do all kinds of things together. People have gardens and they bring their food together and they sell their little produce to each other.
Q: That's part of the modern urbanism, the new urbanism?
A: Yeah, they have a supper club. But what's really interesting is that rather than be threatened by this other neighborhood wanting to get involved or whatever, they said, "Let's make it bigger than this." So they're using what's been a positive aspect of being in that middle class subdivision, of being diverse and all that, and they're now saying, "Oh, well maybe we can be diverse class-wise too." So it's phenomenal. It's really an exciting project.
Q: Talk for a moment about the scale of the reentry problem. You dealt with a certain amount of people in this process. You can't possibly deal with everybody in these neighborhoods. How do you make the process sustainable so that you go from an individual transformation to a larger, communal transformation?
A: Well that's a very good question and I was talking to someone about that yesterday, and the one thing I would say, and we agreed on this, is that you cannot do this process in six months. I've been working in this neighborhood for two years and I fully expect it will be continuing for two more years. There are five community organizers that have taken this on and it's now changed the way they do organizing, so it's sustained in that sense. I think it was a good strategy that evolved of starting with a nucleus of like 35, and then doing these pairings to try to in some ways expand out section by section. We originally thought through these newspaper articles and things like that that we were going to blanket the neighborhood and we had planned to have four dinner parties in four parts of this 30,000-population neighborhood. That was not a realistic way. So I think growing it through block clubs, through existing organizations is much more realistic. But it's a long process and it's not a fast one.
What I've realized, and residents have been the ones more than organizers, that have said this, is that those one on one interviews always create the inspiration to go forward. Because some people, some of the organizers, in fact, would say well you know we've got the data, we've got the promising principles, why do we need to keep doing these one on one interviews at each of our monthly meetings? Can't we just make it like a business meeting? And it's the residents, the co-chairs of this group that have said, no, that is the most important thing we do every time because it's sitting down one on one with somebody and hearing something personal and deep that's important to them, that I connect with them, and you can't do that in a big meeting. So it's linking the personal to the larger group and so I think it has to grow that way and to keep sustaining it, it has to continue to have those personal transformations happening.
Q: Is it a rotating group of people or is it always the same 35?
A: I would say that probably 50 people have been involved at some point or another and it's usually around 25 or 30 that come at any one meeting. So at any one time I would say there's probably 30 or 35 that are kind of active.
Q: Do you have any idea, when someone asks you about success, measures of success, benchmarks, and things like that, over the years, the dreaded question...?
A: We just had a social work intern ask me all these questions because he's writing an evaluation proposal for his class, so I say, and this is not a formal evaluation, but I say what the outcomes of the process has been is, first, new relationships, and that can be measured. It hasn't been, but there are new diverse relationships that have happened because of these one on one sharings, because of these paired meetings. And people now feel comfortable talking to someone different from themselves, and will trust them.
The second is that there are specific action steps that are different now than there were before. The paired meetings, the conflict interventions, the welcome wagon, the mural, there are things that are happening that are changing the relationships throughout the neighborhood. And then the third, and this is my goal initially, and I think this is more of a long-term outcome, is changing the identity of the neighborhood. I think it's happened for the people who've been involved, but I don't think it's happened for the neighborhood as a whole. And that being, rather than seeing it as a white neighborhood or is it a black neighborhood or are we colorblind. It's another option, which is we are a white, Polish, traditional neighborhood, and we are an African American ethnic neighborhood and we're one.
So it's that, somehow, I don't know if you want to use the word pluralism or whatever, but it's incorporating the culture and traditions of each,
Q: Last question. Lessons learned? You've been over a bunch of them, but are there any things that have popped up into your mind?
A: The organizers in this example, and I think I would say the same thing for conflict intervenors, sometimes are as much of an obstacle as anything in that they had more resistance and more anxiety about doing this than the residents. The residents were moved and inspired by this process and as soon as they tasted it, they wanted more. The organizers were like, I don't know if we can push people to do this. So the interveners' anxiety about trying something new was actually an obstacle. Therefore, what I had to do was listen to residents and fortunately I was doing my dissertation and I was doing all these interviews and focus groups and that's how I found it out. If I wouldn't have, I would have taken the pulse of the neighborhood based on what the organizers were telling me and that would have been inaccurate. That's was a big learning experience for me.
There's actually a small Appalachian population in this community, which is in northern Ohio, but they moved up to the steel mills. A retired white man steel worker from West Virginia has been a skeptic from the start. That is another lesson, I guess, is that we didn't recognize the change he was going through. We had somebody who came once a month from Columbus to participate in our process because he was an appreciative inquiry consultant, and he said to us one time, "Can you see the changes he's making?
Listen to what he's saying. Do you remember three months ago how he was talking, or four months ago?" It was true and we didn't see it because it was gradual. So at one of these meetings, and he is a racist person, I think he still is, he may even admit it.
There was a white girl, one of the teens came to the meeting and she was very upset, because she was 15 and she was having her 16th birthday. Her father was not going to celebrate her 16th birthday and was basically disowning her because she was dating a black boy. The father had said, "As long as you're dating this black boy," he didn't say you're not welcome in the home, but he said, "I'm not going to do anything for you," basically. So she felt this dilemma of having to choose between her boyfriend and her father. This retired steel worker said to me, "I can relate to her father completely, I don't think blacks and whites should be dating. And you know, it's fine if they want to do it, but their kids are going to suffer and it's not a good thing," and he went on and on about why it's not a good thing. But, he said, "She was really hurt by this and that's not a dilemma that she should be in, to have to choose between her boyfriend and her father." And, he said, she was a little bit overweight, he was overweight and he said, "You know, I grew up overweight and I was always on the sidelines. And for her to have a boy pay attention to her..." He said, "I don't care if he's black, white, blue or purple, just to have that is really something special for her and it shouldn't be taken away." So, he got her to talk about that in front of the whole steering committee to get support.
Then the next month, which was just after her 16th birthday, he organized a party for her, a surprise party, at the steering committee meeting and brought her a decorated cake and gifts and all this stuff, a CD and everything. And he said, "I was touched, you touched me like that, I'm going to touch you back." So, what was most amazing to me is I had to push him because he doesn't like to talk in front of the group and I asked him to present the cake. Well, he got up and he made a statement about some of the things that had been said, about being touched and all that, and he got all choked up. So this tough steel worker from West Virginia was standing in front of this group, saying something about her having a black boyfriend and him being supportive. Knowing that he's racist. So how does transformation take place? In my mind, it's an example of how he was personally moved and it began to shift his values and his beliefs. Even though it hasn't been complete, it's a process that he publicly was willing to stand up for her. I think that transformation is a slow process for people, who have deep seeded prejudices like that, but it's a very powerful process, and it happens through personal experience.