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Eight Cleveland Community Champions to know in Black History Month

Zulma Zabala
Senior Fellow, Community and Racial Equity
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February 27, 2023
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Placing an in-depth focus on community is one of my favorite tasks. Meeting people and learning about their efforts to make our collective lives better honestly feeds hope. In recognition of Black History Month, I invite you to meet some amazing Community Champions. There were no algorithms, in-depth searches, or analyses for this list. Our team met and we asked ourselves who is making a difference that we would like to acknowledge. I loved the humility and clear commitment to serve each person we chose exhibited. For purposes of brevity, I asked them two questions:

In your journey of service, did you envision yourself in your current role? What type of impact would you like to make in your role?

Peter Whitt: Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, Saint Luke’s Foundation

Peter works closely with the Saint Luke’s Foundation leadership to ensure the fidelity to strategy, effective evaluation of grant investment outcomes, and management of philanthropic partnerships in the realization of the Foundation’s mission. Prior to joining the philanthropy world, many in the community knew of Peter as “one of us” serving the community despite diverse challenges. Seeing someone we trust in a role that could lead paradigm shifts on behalf of the community is always exciting!

I may not have necessarily envisioned this position on my career path, but the essence of the role certainly aligns with my journey of service thus far.

Peter shared, “I may not have necessarily envisioned this position on my career path, but the essence of the role certainly aligns with my journey of service thus far. Community must be heard and understood. In the spectrum of work that I have led in the community over the years, all functions required intentionality on my part to be in touch with the community and to listen intently to the community to be most effective in the work. I hope to get us, in philanthropy, to sustain the intentionality of building spaces that illustrate sharing power, that demonstrates equity, and builds sustainable impact."

saintlukesfoundation.org

Aminah Vargas—Resilience Ministry Director and Coach, Bridge-CLE

Aminah’s role has a delicate focus on trauma and mental health. She aims to create space in the community to combat trauma from a faith-based perspective. “We are equipping community members, regardless of their affiliation with the church, by bridging relational and service gaps, which rekey to building resiliency. The initiative also trains church leadership, builds community partnerships by listening, and provides coaching directly to those who have experienced trauma.

Aminah did not think that it would be possible to be in a role where she could combine her faith with her deep commitment to social services. “I infuse my faith into the way I treat and work with others. Still, I never envisioned that I would have an opportunity to practically present faith in the process of service to others from the nonprofit sector. I want to build viable relationships with community that can serve as a catalyst for resilience. What this work really comes down to is the church being most focused on humanity; and recognizing how the church, historically, is a system that has caused harm in the community. I want us to resist harm. I want us to have honest, transformational conversations that can impact services, and appropriately deal with the trauma that exists in our communities. Ultimately, I am faithful that through human connection the church can play a huge role in generating collective and good public and mental health.

I want to build viable relationships with community that can serve as a catalyst for resilience.

The conversation with Aminah left me with deep thoughts on the balance of our diverse beliefs and matters of humanity that matter to us all. Her openness and clear vision for service of mental health by challenging the status quo, inspires.

bridgecle.org

William Tarter, Jr.—1st Vice President, Cleveland Branch of NAACP

Will supports and participates in the strategic planning and policy priorities of the Branch. He’s also a Policy Fellow at The Center for Community Solutions. When asked about taking on the role William shared, “I feel fortunate to be a Public Servant—to whom much is given much is required. I didn’t necessarily expect this role in my career and service trajectory but I am honored to serve.”

As for desired impact, he said, “My commitment is to support the mission and vision of the organization and the branch leadership, as well as working with staff, the committees and our members; focusing on voting rights, justice as well as assist with the execution of the priorities for the branch and the advancement of the community. I want people to know that we are active and engaged in the public policy process at all levels of government and we need to support each other. Community Engagement is critical before, during, and after Election Day. As a branch, we are active and passionate about civic involvement that leads to change.”

I feel fortunate to be a Public Servant—to whom much is given much is required. I didn’t necessarily expect this role in my career and service trajectory but I am honored to serve.”

Will is not one to toot his own horn; I have worked with him even prior to joining Community Solutions, and I have seen him in action in our communities. People trust him and respect him; he is passionate about fairness and ensuring that all citizens have access to information. This role with the Cleveland NAACP fits him perfectly!

clevelandnaacp.org

Obed Shelton—Executive Director for the African American Cultural Garden

The African American Cultural Garden represents a legacy defined years ago meant to provide educational experiences in a beautiful, inclusive atmosphere where individuals of all ages and backgrounds can interact in a space representing African-American history. In his words, Obed wants us all to join the team of donors, volunteers, and staff, “to finish it!”

I am the kind of person that if asked to help and I can, then I do!

While Obed holds several other roles supporting community, specifically in the court system offering opportunities for second chances, he now also leads in this tremendous goal of completing the African American Cultural Garden. He shared: “I am the kind of person that if asked to help and I can, then I do! In my journey of service, including my 30-plus years in reporting the news, I was recently asked to lead and help finalize the installation of the African American Cultural Garden by exercising my experience with community. So, I would say where I am today is organic to my journey in service.”

Obed also exhibited excitement and courage. One conversation with Obed, and I would almost guarantee, one could not walk away without making a donation. “I believe that we have the resources and support we need for this project right in our community. This a $3 million project and we can garner the support of 30,000 community members at $100 a unit to meet our goal. We are actively getting the word out via an updated website, social media, and face-to-face dialogues with community leaders. Colleagues and leaders, who very much care about this project, are supporting the effort with short videos on our website raising awareness and inspiring engagement."

aaacg.org

Jennifer Lumpkin—Cleveland Partnerships Manager, Alliance for the Great Lakes

Jennifer advances Environmental Justice (EJ) Priorities, advocacy and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) EJ Leadership with an emphasis on Great Lakes Water Policy. She manages and coordinates collaboration with Cleveland Environmental Advocacy Coalition Partners and the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County to educate and advocate for shared EJ policy priorities in our region. Jennifer’s commitment to the environment and equity is innovative and promising.

I would like to create impact by exhibiting leadership and advocacy that amplifies the importance of our shared leadership so that Black Environmental leadership becomes commonplace, expected, and known throughout our region.

“I would like to create impact by exhibiting leadership and advocacy that amplifies the importance of our shared leadership so that Black Environmental leadership becomes commonplace, expected, and known throughout our region. I would like to see social and environmental disparities removed and improved relationships within and between the natural environments in our communities, so that our presence in Environmental Justice is one of belonging, removing the novelty and, instead is expected, appreciated, and recognized broadly across the sector.”

greatlakes.org

Kenyon Farrow—Board President, LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland

Many already know Board Presidents support the Executive Director in governing policies supporting the organization’s mission. After meeting Kenyon, however, I feel like his position must also require the kind of energy Kenyon exhibited when speaking of his role. He sees board members as visible spokespeople steering the ship as champions supporting the Executive Director and her team. “I have been on other boards, but I would not have imagined myself as the President of the LGBT Center’s board. My career actually began in theater and performing arts. In the past 20 years, I have more heavily immersed my knowledge in communications, writing, and publishing in community service."

I want to serve as an advocate but also focus on building the capacity for others to become advocates on matters that are important to the LGBTQ community.

"As President of the board, I see myself public-facing on behalf of the center, especially now when there are many challenges affecting the community. We need more LGBTQ voices to be included in the realm of public policy matters, such as transit, housing, and certainly public health like HIV and now mpox. I want to serve as an advocate but also focus on building the capacity for others to become advocates on matters that are important to the LGBTQ community."

lgbtcleveland.org

Alana Garrett-Ferguson and Audrianna Rodriguez—Commissioners, Cleveland Community Police Commission

Both of these women serve on this civilian body providing oversight for Cleveland police. Established to provide community input on police policies, training, and other new duties, it also helps strengthen relationships between officers and the communities they serve. Ultimately, the work ensures policing in Cleveland is safe and effective, and that people’s civil rights are upheld.

Alana, who I have only known for less than a year, has inspired my own leadership with her courage and passion. She shared that leading in service in some way organically led her to this role. “I have always wanted to be a part of something that could produce real impact, especially paying attention to the over-incarceration of youth. It is also important to me to reimagine safety in the community in order to get us to a point where we want to love and restore each other and not be harmful to one another. Because I have so far been involved with the community in the nonprofit sector, I never imagined that I would be serving in this type of position where I would be working alongside others in government.” About desired impact, Alana says, It is important to highlight the humanity and vulnerability of both youth and women. I want to be a part of those creating a culture of honoring and protecting women and children. We should not see them as enemies and instead see them in the full collectiveness of humanity. They are, after all, capable and critical to creating the safe conditions that we want to see for everyone.”

It is also important to me to reimagine safety in the community in order to get us to a point where we want to love and restore each other and not be harmful to one another.

Audrianna, alternatively, did not imagine herself in this role, without long-term experience in policing or the criminal justice system. “However, I do have a variety of skills as a community psychologist that involve community engagement, program assessments, and evaluation. These skill sets along with my genuine concern for community matters organically do align with this role!” I concurred with Audrianna, I have known of her work with parents and children in the Buckeye neighborhood so I know we are in good hands.

In my service to community, I like to apply an ecological model, which allows for the balancing of all voices, honoring the diversity of perspectives.

I am most excited by the engagement of young leaders in this critical subject matter. Young people always inspire hope! Audrianna is interested in creating a positive impact on community. “In my service to community, I like to apply an ecological model, which allows for the balancing of all voices, honoring the diversity of perspectives. This approach also ensures innovation in the collective goal of accountability and safety. I want to support changes and accountability that support all community.”

clecpc.org

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