Community Organizing in Cleveland, OH: A Snapshot

By Anna Hutcheson, former Growing Democracy Project Manager & PhD Candidate at Kent State University

The Cleveland Foundation, the world’s first community foundation, defines community organizing as “movement driven by the constituents of a community to build power and bring about systemic change” (CLE Foundation). It is especially noteworthy that this community-based organization, the first of its kind and still amongst the largest in existence, references Saul Alinsky’s rules of organization. Although Alinsky began his journey to community organization in Chicago, particularly in the labor sector, his teachings were spread through the nation and were adopted in many circles, including the Cleveland activist scene. Therefore, it is not surprising that an integral part of community organizing would pay homage to Alinsky. The Foundation has existed for over a century, developing over time to becoming an integral part of Cleveland organizing, providing support to many different programs. Historically, the Foundation was very powerful in providing resources to organizations. Today, the Foundation continues to support neighborhood revitalization projects, physical development of neighborhoods and communities, provides funding for environmental, arts, and educational programs, doing so through and in partnership with myriad grassroots organizations in the greater Cleveland area.

Similarly, Organize!Ohio discusses community organizing in a similar way, referencing the importance of power, particularly in the hands of citizens. Specifically, it cites Beckwith’s definition of community organizing as “the process of building power through involving a constituency in identifying problems they share and the solutions to these problems they define.” This organization has many functions but operates today in order to link individuals and groups interested in community organizing, much in the same way that the Buckeye-Woodland Community Congress (BWCC) did in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Before Buckeye-Woodland, there was the Commission on Catholic Community Action (CCCA), which formed in order to address poverty, race relations, and the problems facing Cleveland neighborhoods in the 1970s (Cunningham 2007). The CCCA worked with many organizations, including development corporations and other Christian organizations to “cooperate with all efforts for social justice” (Cunningham 2007). The BWCC came later, uniting hundreds of local Cleveland groups to pursue political, civic, and community goals. Like many other community organizations at the time, the Cleveland Foundation provided funding to the BWCC. 

Simultaneously, community organizations were forming in neighborhoods across Cleveland. Some still exist, in some form, today. For example, today’s Union Miles Development Corporation was created as the Union Miles Community Coalition, which organized to fight against abuse inflicted upon residents in VA housing after being formed by Inez Killingsworth to address a problem with stray dogs in the neighborhood. The St. Clair Superior Coalition (SCSC) focused on housing, but also on the formation of block clubs, many of which are still in existence.

Block clubs are resident-led neighborhood-level (but sometimes even street-level) organizations that promote change in their neighborhoods. Block clubs demonstrate the overlap between community organizing and community development, in terms of their operation and goals. They are committed to grassroots activism, organization, and leadership while taking advantage of many levels of resources and funding in order to achieve broader goals. In Democratizing Cleveland, Randy Cunningham tells us that many of these organizations “couldn’t resist the pull of the development agenda,” possibly explaining the continued parallels of these different organizations.

What is clear is that Cleveland has a long history of organization, in line with many cities that were influenced by Saul Alinsky and others of his time. They were able to learn from the principles and best practices developed by some of the first community organizers and organizations, create their own community institutions for social change. Foundations were created to provide resources to programs and projects of many kinds to address social, political, and economic issues in the city of Cleveland. As a result, some of these programs have grown and thrived, while others remain an integral part of the history of community organization and activism in Tower City.