Calling all activists
In her April column, "HCC legacy can guide us," Susie Kaeser paid heartfelt tribute to this recently shuttered organization. "Its purpose," she wrote, "was to mobilize the whole community to fight racism, advance equity and inclusion, and protect racial integration."
In its heyday, Heights Community Congress (HCC) did cutting-edge work in pursuit of fair housing. Staff and volunteers researched and documented illegal practices such as redlining. They pressured municipal government and confronted racial steering by real estate agents, helped create block clubs and neighborhood organizations, and developed services and working groups to meet the needs of specific constituencies. The group's skilled leadership, high level of community participation, and shrewd strategizing set the bar for future activist organizations.
HCC's profile was lower in its later years, but activism is perennial in Cleveland Heights. Vibrant neighborhood organizations have been reborn in Boulevard and Noble. Growing numbers of residents are responding to climate change with Friends of Heights Parks and the Cleveland Heights Green Team. Heights Coalition for Public Education is fighting state policies that undermine our public schools.
Grassroots organizing has often taken the form of successful one-off campaigns. Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights residents defeated the county's freeway scheme in the 1970s, saving the Shaker Parklands and, in reality, the two cities themselves.
In 2003 the LGBT community and its allies launched and won a citizens' ballot initiative to establish a domestic partner registry for all unmarried couples residing in Cleveland Heights.
Eight years ago, hundreds of citizens spoke out to stop the city from privatizing our water system; and in 2019 Citizens for an Elected Mayor used the ballot to change our form of municipal government.
Still, there is a void in Cleveland Heights when it comes to bold, visionary, sustained activism to tackle the conditions affecting our most marginalized residents. It takes fearless grassroots organization to push, cajole, demand, and sometimes scare those with political and economic power into doing what is necessary and right.
Problems needing citizen-led advocacy and agitation include, but certainly are not limited to, the following:
• An estimated 20 percent of police service calls nationwide involve a mental health or substance use crisis. Just as we would not expect a police officer to perform a cardiac catheterization on someone experiencing chest pain, we should not rely on our safety forces to provide critical mental health care. Neighboring Shaker Heights has recently piloted a Mental Health Response Team, embedding a social worker with its police and fire departments. With MetroHealth's new behavioral health unit located just across the ring road from Cleveland Heights City Hall, our city could be in a uniquely advantageous position to do likewise, but will it? Perhaps not, unless pressure is brought to bear.
• Forty-three percent of Cleveland Heights residents rent their homes, some of which are unsafe and inadequately maintained. This is particularly true for the approximately 16 percent of our residents living in poverty. The right to decent, affordable housing sits at the convergence of racial and economic justice. We need a tenants' union, possibly in cooperation with surrounding cities.
• Unfortunately, we still need vigorous advocacy for housing code enforcement. The Greater Cleveland Congregations Housing Team operated from 2016 to 2022, but some of its members had already devoted decades to the cause of housing preservation. A new generation of activists must step up.
Real change most often comes from outside entrenched institutions. For our city's slogan, "All are welcome," to be fully realized, an organized community must lead.
SAVE THE DATE: Cleveland Heights' 10th Annual Democracy Day public hearing will take place on Wednesday, June 7, at 7 p.m. at City Hall. Please join us!
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.