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Community Champions at ThirdSpace Action Lab: RDEI and building community

Zulma Zabala
Senior Fellow, Community and Racial Equity
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April 15, 2024
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We are in the first quarter of 2024, and I have now been part of the Center for Community Solutions for two years! My personal goal was to join a team that would elevate the important work that takes place every day on the health and human services level. I served directly in this sector as part of the many providers in our county and know too well the challenges that face so many of our amazing Community Champions. I pitched that some of our blogs should highlight these amazing leaders and my new Community Solutions team was eager to support the idea!

My personal goal was to join a team that would elevate the important work that takes place every day on the health and human services level.

The first Community Champions to highlight is one of my favorite partners in this work, ThirdSpace Action Lab/TSAL. They are a grassroots research, strategy, and design cooperative dedicated to prototyping creative place-based solutions to actualize racial equity. Most of us know them from their courageous commitment to lead a Racial Equity Movement in partnership with the Racial Equity Institute by offering training to thousands of people in our county. If you have not been part of their training courses, you should check them out. Community Solutions engages with this training regularly, part of the orientation and onboarding process for our team members.Founded in 2018, ThirdSpace Action Lab has grown their mission and, for many of us in the neighborhood, they’ve created that third space where one can BE, read, share, learn and get inspired. I decided they had to be the subject of my first Community Champions piece for 2024. In these pieces, I ask three questions:

  1. What are you most proud of in your work with community?
  2. What are the challenges?
  3. What do you wish for the community?

Evelyn Burnette—Co-Founder & CEO

I began my interview with Evelyn by sharing a reflection. “Evelyn, I remember when you first shared your concept for TSAL. Today as I get to visit and enjoy your varied activities, and beautiful space I am so very proud of what you all have accomplished.

What are you most proud of in your work with the community?

Evelyn: “I am most proud of creating a space that centers Blackness and that it is a space for radical and rigorous discourse.” Evelyn went on to share that beyond the amazing bookstore they have on site the space has really become its name. TSAL is a community center where visitors feel safe and comfortable. It is a space where community can learn, share, and even host celebrations of love. I’ve experienced this myself, with great joy from watching young people lead powerful conversations.

What are the challenges?

Evelyn shared that, amid so many accomplishments, the challenges are plentiful. One that stands out is how Black and Brown businesses continue to have their products grossly undervalued. She believes that the market is dynamic for racial, inclusion and equity work, despite all that is happening against DEI.“There’s great value for what ThirdSpace Action Lab does.” She further explained that “The ThirdSpace team have been students of history before others may have realized the value and therefore these attacks are not new nor a surprise!” TSAL has a bookstore because they consider themselves students; they’ve been reading and studying movements and therefore providing strategies from solid research and commitment. The challenge then becomes when organizations that do NOT have this focus suddenly create their DEI shops, potential clients are lost to entities with bigger names.

Expertise is necessary to truly deep dive into this important subject matter, especially when we seek tangible impact.

What do you wish for community or the sector?

Evelyn: “I wish we could not make Black and Brown people work so hard to work!” Some may believe that TSAL is a nonprofit organization; it is not! TSAL is a firm providing products clearly needed for a fee. The fees support the team’s commitment to delivering good work. It is then not fair to continue to consistently ask for advice about Race matters, cloaked as a casual request that has no value. Expertise is necessary to truly deep dive into this important subject matter, especially when we seek tangible impact.” She rightfully shared that we wouldn’t walk into a doctor’s office and ask them to check something out and receive free service. So as a Black owned, and woman owned and led firm, why would the value of the work not be honored? Having to prove one’s work constantly can be “exhausting.” TSAL’s work should be valued as others work and expertise is valued.Evelyn and her team are clearly committed to their service to address what has been a lived experience for those of us who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color. If we step into this work to help towards the shift of an equitable world, shouldn’t our expertise be valued?

Mordecai Cargill—Co-Founder & Chief Creative Director

What are you most proud of in your work with the community?Mordecai: “I am proud of ThirdSpace launching the ‘Chocolate City Project,’ an initiative that is near and dear to my heart. It’s about celebrating the uniquely Black History of Cleveland. Also including the unique Cleveland Black History that’s being created every day. We are trying to explore Cleveland through the lived experience of Black People, as a lens to see what is unique about this city: what has been, and what is created every day.”

What started as a focus group just to test this idea has now become an intergenerational luncheon.

“What started as a focus group just to test this idea has now become an intergenerational luncheon. We invited some people to come and react to this concept. They came and shared their stories—and everyone had such a good time—that now a few years later we do it every month.” Mordecai expressed with great pride how this activity has become a signature piece of their work and how these gatherings have the power to inspire other projects. “These conversations have presented foundational ideas for the Lakefront project… people know that TSL keeps community in the loop of all that is happening, and they are going to give you the 411 on what community thinks, wants and calls for action.”Luncheons are the last Friday of the month from 11:30 to 2:00 p.m.

What are the challenges?

Mordecai shares the firm was inspired by the Racial Equity Institute and the training was initially introduced to the community development sector. “These are still being offered every month, and there are still many taking part of these in our county.” If you work in Cuyahoga County, you are probably familiar with the Groundwater trainings.Mordecai went on to explain that the TSAL team is recognizing a significant amount of resistance, especially at the policy level. The concern is whether the momentum of engagement about Race Equity and Inclusion will be sustained. “The awareness that is being built and the extent to which our community can connect the dots between history of race; the persistence of structural racism; and how it continues to impact our quality of life across dimensions from health to wealth is critical. And I’m hoping this wedge of consciousness that TSAL has been able to inspire serves as a foundation to continue to sustain the movement. We must continue to be hopeful!”

What do you wish for the community or sector?

Mordecai: “I want Cleveland to be a sanctuary for BIPOC people, for Black and Indigenous people. I want people to know that Cleveland is for you and that you can be here. What we are modeling through the TSAL spreading room to create the space by Black People for Black People and it is inclusive … if you can touch and feel …From 4 walls creating this safe space of belonging to doing the same to an entire block… growing, expanding through the city!”Third Space Action Lab practices and products derive from 3 focus areas of work:

  1. Research + Strategy Design
  2. Community Collaboration (public education + engagement)
  3. Space Activation (temporary and semi-permanent; in person and virtual)

“Each connected by what the team calls – The Impact Continuum-Constant Awareness Building leading to more thoughtful action.” Those of us who have taken part in their work, either to train, collaborate or activate, know the value of their work.Third Action Lab has deeply expanded this impact by the very personal attention they place on community. The Young Latino Network, collaborated with TSAL to bring young leaders from the Black and Brown community together in a social event, one of many more to come. Over my many years of service in the health and human services sector I’ve seen many attempts to solidify this specific collaboration, to both great success and stalled efforts. The TSAL and Young Latino Network event was inspiring, and I am thankful for these amazing entities leading good work- Community Champions.Ubuntu

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