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Uplift: 'Best Buddies' opens real-life pipelines to IDD community

Everyone needs a friend, particularly people whose disabilities may leave them feeling isolated and alone. Enter Best Buddies International, a nonprofit founded to foster one-on-one friendships, employment opportunities and leadership skills for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).
 
Headquartered in Miami, the organization has opened a new office inside the Beachwood Adult Activities Center, located at the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities facility on Mercantile Road.
 
Program supervisor Ryan Wirth, whose involvement with Best Buddies dates back to high school, has big plans for the Cleveland location. First, he and his still forming team will create "friendship chapters" at area high schools and colleges.
 
Two chapters are currently operating at Case Western Reserve University and Kent State University under the guidance of student leaders and advisors. These chapters will cultivate meet-ups between volunteer "peer buddies" and people with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and other undiagnosed disabilities. Ideally, meaningful friendships will form, empowering "buddies" with all-important socialization skills.
 
"Getting everyone to meet each other and talk is key," Wirth says. "As those friendships become active, you can see them grow naturally on their own."
 
Socials outings include ordinary activities like bowling, movies and dinner, but the impact on participants is enormous, says Wirth. Since its launch in 1989, the nonprofit has helped hundreds of thousands of individuals with IDD secure jobs, live independently, improve their public speaking, and, just as critically, feel valued by society.
 
"For me, it's having that 'aha' moment in seeing someone with a disability enjoy themselves and come out of their shell," says Wirth. "They become part of this large group where everyone's welcome."
 
Meanwhile, the Cleveland-based Best Buddies office continues to grow. Wirth is planning a fundraising walk and basketball challenge featuring Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving for September. Next is an initiative funded by the Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council that seeks to get adults with IDD into the workforce.
 
While Wirth loves the work, it helps to have a personal investment in shepherding the group's success in Northeast Ohio, he says.
 
Best Buddies has been part of Wirth's life since serving as chapter leader in high school and college. Upon graduation from Slippery Rock University in 2013, he acted as program manager for Best Buddies Maryland for two years.  In addition, his future brother-in-law, Branden, who is on the autism spectrum, has enjoyed participating in organization events.
 
“I am overjoyed to introduce the Cleveland community to Best Buddies," says Wirth. "I want to bring that same joy and sense of belonging that Branden has experienced to all of the people in Cleveland with IDD.”

New strategic alliance aims to build on CLE's immigrant culture in high-tech world

Startup accelerator Flashstarts has partnered with Global Cleveland in an effort to add international flair to Cleveland's entrepreneurial scene.
 
The new strategic alliance combines Flashstarts' expertise in startup and innovation with Global Cleveland's talent attraction endeavors. Officials backing the new venture also expect to deliver solutions for international entrepreneurs struggling with their immigration status.
 
"Global Cleveland is spreading the word about the city, while we're recruiting the best entrepreneurs we can find," says Charles Stack, CEO of Flashstarts, a technology/software accelerator and venture fund. "This program will allow us to draw talent from anywhere in the world”
 
The partnership also acts as a stepping stone for formation of a Flashstarts Global Entrepreneur-In-Residence (GEIR) program with Northeast Ohio universities, says Stack. Immigrant founders who apply to the program through Flashstarts will be chosen through a competitive selection process. Successful applicants then link up with a partner university in exchange for a cap-exempt H-1B visa, splitting work between the school and their startup.
 
"We'll offer them a spot in our accelerator program and give them $50,000 in exchange for equity," Stack says. "At a university they could be supporting an entrepreneur program, or recruiting students to the school from their home country."
 
Uncertainly over the Trump administration's immigration policy makes the partnership with Flashstarts a necessity, notes Jessica Whale, Global Cleveland's director of global talent and development.
 
"Getting proper visa status can be challenging," Whale said in a press release. "This program aligns perfectly with our vision of transforming Cleveland into an international hub of innovation.”
 
Proponents believe the collaboration can grow the region's job base and build wealth. Stack says the newly minted affiliation is especially unique due to Global Cleveland's robust links to immigrant brainpower.
 
"They have ties to countries and marketing opportunities all over the world," he says. "That's going to make what we're doing stand out."
 
Pending strong outcomes, the partners aim to expand their effort to universities throughout the region. Even one successful startup can create hundreds of jobs, a numbers game that heavily relies on the attraction of new talent.
 
"If we want to grow our employment base as a region, the way to do it is with startups," says Stack.

"Cleveland has always been a great city for immigrants. We want to continue that trend." 

"Year of Awareness" sessions examine impact of racism on low income neighborhoods

Race is at the forefront of national debate once more following a contentious presidential election. Through a forthcoming series of workshops, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress (CNP) will determine the impact the complex and controversial topic is having on Cleveland's poorest neighborhoods.
 
CNP, a nonprofit community development group, is convening a cross-section of civic leaders and stakeholders to discuss the effects of persistent racial inequality on marginalized populations. The work began in 2016 after CNP partnered with the Racial Equity Institute on "Year of Awareness" training sessions touching on racism in all its forms. Efforts with the North Carolina-based organization re-launched in January with history-based training aimed at any resident willing to attend. Scheduled every month through the rest of the year, half-day sessions are $75, while two-day training events are $250.

"We want to get this out to as many people as possible," says Evelyn Burnett, vice president of economic opportunity at CNP. "We're trying to cast a wide net." The next half-day event is Monday, March 6. The next two-day event is the following Tuesday and Wednesday, March 7 and 8.

Per CNP fund development manager Mordecai Cargill, "Year of Awareness" sessions will be led by the institute's alliance of trainers and community organizers. Law enforcement professionals and social justice activists teach the sessions, imparting historical events that highlight America's institutional disparities. Earlier this month, organizers screened "13th," a documentary centered on a U.S. mass-incarceration system that disproportionately imprisons African-American men.

Other talks will highlight the problems encountered in high-poverty, racially segregated regions; among them diminished resources, underperforming schools, deteriorating physical environments, and the constant threat of violence. Session planners expect to reach 1,000-1,500 participants before year's end.
 
Cleveland has its share of long-standing inequities, CNP officials note. Even thriving neighborhoods like Ohio City, Detroit Shoreway and Tremont won't reach their full potential until the ongoing renaissance becomes more inclusive. 
 
"It's good this development is happening, but there are people in those places not participating in the same way, and that often falls along racial lines," says Burnett. "We have to address these issues to do our work."
 
Uplifting the underserved means having uncomfortable conversations about the systemic reasons American society is divided between the "haves" and "have-nots," Cargill says.
 
"We've got to become familiar with some of the barriers people face," he says. "Creating solutions tailored to the needs of residents requires this kind of understanding." 
 

Guild builds community amid professional women of color

An organization serving as a voice for young professional women of color in Cleveland is getting a rebrand.
 
The Women's Leadership Guild (TWLG), formerly The Cleveland Young Professional Minority Women's Group, changed its name and logo earlier this month. While its handle is a little shorter, the organization is still long on enhancing the careers of members through networking, mentorship, community engagement and leadership development.
 
Now with 150 paid members — along with 5,000 to 6,000 social media contacts — the guild provides a supportive space for minority women. Members are typically age 21-32, and derive from a diverse range of industries including the nonprofit sector and real estate. While the organization is geared toward women of color, it welcomes all women into the fold.
 
"What's great is that everyone's aspirations are so different," says Lauren Welch, a marketing manager at Cleveland History Center who founded the leadership venture in 2014 with Jazmin Long. "You get women in the community together, and there's a thread of camaraderie and wanting to learn from one another."
 
"Women in Action" is a typical professional development event held by TWLG, offering its young members an opportunity to connect with mid-level female executives. In the last couple of years, the group has hosted Kristen Baird Adams, chief operating officer with PNC, and Cleveland Clinic gynecologist Dr. Linda Bradley. This year, the organization will welcome WKYC-TV director of advocacy Margaret Bernstein and a host of other top-level professionals.
 
After-work social activities are another important component of guild membership, notes Welch. Yoga classes, brunch get-togethers and sexual wellness talks foster a much-needed sense of community, she says.
 
Welch and Long initially launched the networking group to meet what they saw as an unmet need in the Cleveland networking community
 
"When we first started there wasn't an organization giving women of color a voice in this city," Welch says. "We created a space where they can talk about their office experiences."
 
In many cases, women of color are one of only a few minority women in their workplace. This sense of "otherness" finds them encountering unique challenges as compared to their co-workers.
 
"They're asking themselves how they should wear their hair, or what they should dress like," says Welch. "We want them to make the best of their time here while living authentically."
 
TWLG strives to position minority females as assets within the community, with new recruits engaged through the group’s website, social media marketing and networking. Organizational partners like Engage! Cleveland and the Society of Urban Professionals refer additional potential members to the guild. As the only Cleveland organization with a database of women of color, TWLG will move boldly forward in adding names to that list, its founders say.
 
"Cleveland is a place of opportunity," says Long. "We want more women rising in the ranks."
 

Central-Kinsman resident advocates for 'Nature's Best Choices,' healthy community

Quiana Singleton believes you're never too old to learn a healthy way of eating, a fruitful lesson the Central-Kinsman resident was happy to impart upon a group of interested Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) seniors during a program of her own creation.
 
Called Nature's Best Choices, the February 1 event invited 16 seniors from CMHA's Outhwaite and King Kennedy communities to Asia Plaza, 2999 Payne Ave., for a day-long session on Asian culture and delicious new food possibilities. Fruits and vegetables were the focus of the trip, allowing participants to get their taste buds turned on to delicacies like star fruit, a juicy tropical fruit popular throughout Southeast Asia, the South Pacific and parts of East Asia.
 
"I wanted to open people up to another culture," says Singleton, a Cleveland community leader on tree-planting activities, gardening and healthy eating. "We picked out fruits and vegetables they've never tasted, seen or touched before."
 
Following the shopping excursion, the group visited CornUCopia Place, 7201 Kinsman Road, a community facility that provides nutritional education and cooking classes. There Chef Eric Wells prepared a fettuccini dish using ingredients from the seniors' healthy haul.
 
"Chef Wells mixed in another vegetable like a cabbage with the fettuccini," Singleton says. "It was an educational experience, because even though Asian fruits and vegetables look different from what we're used to, looks can be deceiving."
 
Elderly attendees also learned a new way to prepare their meals, notes Singleton.
 
"Older people use the same seasonings all the time," she says. "Asian stuff is organic, and they saw they could use olive oil instead of butter in their cooking."
 
Singleton secured a grant from nonprofit neighborhood development organization Burten, Bell, Carr (BBC) to fund the day out. The Cleveland native is continuously coming up with innovative ways to create a healthier community for her neighbors. Among her duties is serving as a neighborhood "climate ambassador," representing a group of concerned citizens aiming to combat the adverse effects of climate variability.
 
Nature's Best Choices is another means of teaching residents the value of a healthy lifestyle, Singleton says.
 
"I plant those seeds in people and water them, then let them teach others," she says. "If I can change one person's life, then I've done my job." 

Women, Wine & Web Design aims to boost digital literacy

Tech Elevator founder and CEO Anthony Hughes believes digital literacy drives the modern economy. In order to put more women behind the wheel, he's created a Cleveland coding boot camp geared specifically toward them.
 
Women, Wine & Web Design is a free beginner's workshop that teaches the fundamentals of front-end web development. Hosted by JumpStart, the February 7 program will familiarize women of all ages and skill sets with HTML/CSS, directing them toward building a basic webpage.
 
Hughes, whose organization is sponsoring the event alongside e-commerce firm OEC, says the three-hour workshop is a casual, if intensive, introduction to coding principles. Tech Elevator alumni will guide attendees through the class led by software designer Nicole Capuana.
 
Program registration closed quickly, says Hughes, who points to a waiting list of would-be coders as further evidence of an increasingly in-demand skill set.
 
"There's a huge demand from women who are interested in exploring this path," says Hughes. "This program is a good vehicle for them to try programming and have fun at the same time."
 
Tech Elevator's objective with its web-related venture is to bring more women into a male-dominated field.
 
"Giving folks a sense of creating something is a great way to plant a seed and get them more involved," Hughes says. "Technology can be intimidating, but we're creating an event that's accessible."
 
Ideally, women leaving the class will pursue further coding knowledge via free online sources or more formal educational pathways. Program officials want to foster an uptick in the percentage of women graduating with computer science bachelor's degrees. Currently, the numbers are pretty dismal. Per ComputerScience.org, "as of 2010-2011, women made up just 17.6% of computer science students."
 
"Diverse companies have diverse thought processes," says Hughes. "Finding ways to bring more women into the field is only going to be better for all of us."
 
Cleveland is a first-time host for Women, Wine & Web Design, but Tech Elevator hosted a successful iteration of the program last fall in Columbus that drew 70 people.

Though the Buckeye State ranks below average in nationwide digital literacy, Hughes says additional introductory programming classes will only drive that ranking higher. To that end, Tech Elevator already has another women-friendly web event in preparation for later this year. 
 
"This could be a quarterly program," says Hughes. "If it helps women explore career paths more deeply, we'll keep doing it." 

$8 million fund aims to build inclusion, community wealth with small biz loans

Access to funding is often a barrier blocking the development of minority-owned businesses – but now a collaboration of regional organizations is attempting to tear down that obstacle.
 
With a focus on bringing capital to African-American and other underserved business owners, the National Urban League’s Urban Empowerment Fund (NUL-UEF), Morgan Stanley, National Development Council (NDC) Urban League of Greater Cleveland (ULGC), and Cuyahoga County have teamed up to offer the Capital Access Fund of Greater Cleveland (CAF).
 
The $8 million fund was created with a long-term goal of sustaining minority-run small businesses that provide jobs for residents, says Marsha Mockabee, president and CEO of the Cleveland Urban League.
 
A three-year program, CAF offers entrepreneurs low-interest loans from $10,000 to $2 million. Funds are tabbed for the acquisition of equipment, space or inventory. Borrowers are charged no higher than 5 percent interest, but must participate in pre- and post-loan counseling that provides them with support throughout the growth process.
 
"We're not just loaning people money and saying, 'good luck,' we're staying with them as a finance partner," says Mockabee.
 
Launched in December with the target of creating 300 jobs over its lifespan, CAF has already completed eight loans totaling $1.4 million. Among the recipients are a child-care business, a staffing firm and a pop-up shop that makes greeting cards and political-themed jewelry.
 
CAF assets derive from two sources - the Community Impact Loan Fund and the county-supported Grow Cuyahoga Fund. Dollars are given to existing businesses with a track record of sales, and officials hope to distribute 50 loans before the program concludes.
 
"Our goal is to run out of money before the three years are up," Mockabee says. "It's a very aggressive plan."
 
CAF is also an attractive option for minority entrepreneurs still searching for financial stability in a post-recession environment, she says. As small business creation is a priority of Cuyahoga County leadership, the loan program gives companies a boost both through capital and the support services necessary to build community wealth.
 
"Raising the profile and success level of minority businesses can fuel the pipeline of economic development in these communities," says Mockabee. "We're proud of all of our partners willing to invest in this program."  

Those interested in applying for a CAF grant may contact Angela Butler, senior vice president, National Development Corporation, 216-303-7173, AButler@ndconline.org.
 

Call for contest submissions: art on race

Fresh Water Cleveland is partnering with YWCA Greater Cleveland as they host the third annual It's Time to Talk: Forum on Race on Feb. 3. As part of this partnership, the organization is hosting an art contest.
 
Submissions depicting art about race, discrimination or race relations in our community are being accepted through Wednesday, Jan. 25 at midnight. The art might reflect the present state of racism, challenges, aspirations, symbols of hope or a problem our community has faced. Any type of visual art form is welcome, but may not exceed 48 by 96 inches. Submit digital photos or files to news@ywcaofcleveland.org with "It’s Time to Talk Art Contest" in the subject line.
 
Up to three winners will be chosen. Their art will be published in Fresh Water and displayed as part of the 2017 It’s Time to Talk: Forum on Race - Foundations for Change in order to evoke conversation. YWCA Greater Cleveland encourages high school and college students as well as community members to enter.
 
Each winner will receive a ticket to the Feb. 3 event, which will include a gallery walk of conversation-starting imagery, a discussion with Jane Campbell and Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell and a performance about Tamir Rice from Playwrights Local.

Attendees will also participate in circle conversations about race and commit to individual and community action. Tickets are $60, or $25 for students, non-profits, teachers, and seniors. The event will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Cuyahoga Community College Eastern Campus in the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Humanities Center. Register online here.

Disclaimer: Winners must live and/or work in Northeast Ohio. Winners must be able to attend It’s Time to Talk on February 3, 2017 or have a friend or family member who can attend instead. The prize(s) that may be awarded to the eligible winner(s) are not redeemable for cash or exchangeable for any other prize. No art will be given preference over any other art on the basis of an applicant’s name, school, age, employment status, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, or any legally-protected status. One entry per person allowed. Winners will be chosen by YWCA Greater Cleveland and Fresh Water Cleveland (contest hosts). Contest hosts reserve the right to expand, limit, or reduce the number of winners at any time.

By participating in the contest, each participant and winner waives any and all claims of liability against the contest hosts, their employees and agents, the sponsors of It’s Time to Talk and their respective employees and agents, for any personal injury or loss which may occur from the conduct of, or participation in, the contest, or from the use of the prize. Entries cannot be acknowledged. Contest hosts gain unrestricted access to the artwork and photos of the work until March 31, 2017. Participants agree to allow contest hosts to use their names, photographs, and art for promotional and publicity purposes. Winning work cannot be published or sold without written permission from YWCA Greater Cleveland until after March 31, 2017. By entering, participants agree to be bound by these rules and the decisions of contest hosts. Contest hosts may cancel the contest without notice at any time. The contest is void where prohibited, taxed, or restricted by law.

Babies need boxes? Local nonprofit delivers

Cleveland has averaged about 13 infant deaths per 1,000 live births over the past five years, which is more than twice the national average. Curtailing that deadly trend is the goal of a recently founded local chapter of a national infant safety program.
 
Babies Need Boxes Ohio launched two months ago to provide Finnish baby boxes, supplies and educational resources to Cleveland moms with babies up to six months of age. Baby boxes, first made available by Finnish officials to combat the country's infant mortality rate among low-income mothers in the 1930's, provide a safe, economical sleeping environment for babies living in impoverished conditions. The program became so popular it was quickly expanded. Now for more than seven decades, a baby box has been offered to all expectant Finnish moms.
 
Locally, the nonprofit's Cleveland chapter has partnered with University Hospitals MacDonald Women's Hospital, the Cleveland Clinic and Neighborhood Family Practice to donate 200 boxes at the beginning of the new year. Elizabeth Dreyfuss, executive director of Babies Need Boxes Ohio, says the cardboard sleep spaces are perfectly sized for newborns.
 
"Transient families can bring the boxes with them and know their child will be safe as opposed to using a couch, or an abundance of blankets and pillows," says Dreyfuss.
 
The baby box giveaway is one facet of a larger mission to provide pre- and post-natal education to a disadvantaged populace. African-American babies in Ohio, for example, are three times as likely to die before the age one than white babies, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
 
Babies Need Boxes was founded in the U.S. last year by Danielle Selassie of Fridley, Minnesota, and now counts Head Start and United Way among its organizational partners. Cleveland's chapter was started by five Shaker Heights moms including Dreyfuss, who saw the city's high infant mortality rate and wanted to do something about it.
 
"We wanted to support mothering, which needs more care than what we're able to offer alone,"  says Dreyfuss. "We're now looking for women in poverty, or on Medicaid. We also want to help immigrant and refugee families."
 
The group hopes to give out 600 boxes total by the end of 2017, while growing a volunteer base eager to aid new mothers. Ultimately, organization founders want to stop a dreadful epidemic that's taking newborns away all too soon.
 
"The goal is to get a box to every mom in Ohio," Dreyfuss says. "We're offering education and the ability for babies to have a safe sleep spot." 

New corrections housing unit eases transition for Cuyahoga County veterans

While Veterans' Day comes but once a year, help for this much respected sector of the population is needed year round. And while Nov 11, 2016 is almost a week behind us, Cuyahoga County has established a special housing unit its creators say is a critical support system for jailed veterans transitioning back into society.

Via a partnership with veterans groups and community service providers - along with a nod from local leaders including county executive Armond Budish - the new Veterans Housing Unit provides programming and camaraderie to ex-military.
 
Founded in the wake of a new Veterans Treatment Court in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, the unit is already paying dividends, officials say. The 26 men currently housed in the newly formed space at Cuyahoga County Corrections Center are utilizing services from the Veterans Administration and other military support networks. While additional programming is still being processed, sheriff department regional corrections director Ken Mills says participants will get financial assistance and critical job information.
 
Inmates will also receive interview training through enrollment in the Ohio Means Jobs program. Mental health and substance abuse programs, meanwhile, are set to give veterans connections that most short-term corrections facilities don't offer.
 
"We're providing links to veterans before they leave jail," says Mills. "The goal is to help get these guys back on track."
 
A corrections inmate may be incarcerated for mere weeks, or as long as a year, making their initial identification as a veteran a top priority, says county common pleas Judge Michael E. Jackson. New inmates wishing to join the veterans housing unit must finish a questionnaire classifying their service history, an option available for current inmates as well. Eligible inmates are placed together to share hardships that only other veterans may relate to.
 
"Being able to share experiences results in less recidivism and less new cases after leaving jail," Jackson says. "There's a level of trust and understanding there. It makes a big difference."
 
About 500 to 600 veterans cycle through the county corrections system annually, the judge notes. Programming inside puts war vets on a positive path to an outside world they may have difficulty navigating otherwise.
 
"They're taking active steps now instead of waiting to see what will happen to them," says Jackson. "Now they know there's places where they can access the services they require."
 
Hamilton County in southeast Ohio has a similar veterans housing program, one its northern neighbor would like to emulate.
 
“It’s our responsibility to assist those that have fought for and served our country, regardless of their circumstances," says Mills. “We hope that these services, coupled with the camaraderie of being housed with others of similar experiences, assists with making a successful transition." 

"Promise" initiative aims for transformative impact on youth, residents

Residents of Cleveland's Central neighborhood are leading the charge in sustaining their youth population's academic success through creation of a community-wide support network.
 
The Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood works to transform educational outcomes by training adults to be leaders, or "promise ambassadors." After a ten-week course conducted by the Neighborhood Leadership Institute (NLI), citizens
act as boots on the ground, interacting directly with students as well as their parents.
 
Nine new ambassadors graduated from the program on Nov. 9, adding to the 55 residents already on the streets, says Peter Whitt, a trainer with NLI. That's nine new faces impacting Central by getting kids school-ready and supporting them so they stay engaged. Ambassadors are also encouraged to join school boards and other regional decision-making entities while connecting additional community members to the cause.
 
"Creating a culture of education is the primary goal," says Whitt, an NLI graduate himself. "The undercurrent here is empowerment and providing resources for ambassadors to have a platform in organizations."
 
Outreach efforts include Fathers Read, an initiative in which male ambassadors read at daycare centers and preschools, making men more visible to community youth. Graduating participants also educate families on kindergarten registration, address absenteeism issues for older students, and work to convert vacant lots into gardens to foster a sense of healthy community.
 
"The educational system across the nation hasn't done the best in providing resources to the urban core," says Whitt. "This program is needed to develop innovation around education and help students succeed right in their neighborhoods."
 
Central, located between East 22nd and East 55th and bordered by Euclid and Woodland Avenues, has 90 percent of its population living below the poverty level, according to city data statistics. The Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood was founded in 2010, with partners that including nonprofits, early child care providers, schools, public housing, libraries and businesses to maximize communication.
 
The project was modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone, which provides education and other services for underserved families from birth to college and career. Whitt says a comprehensive, place-based approach to education can have a powerful impact here as well, with residents at the forefront of the change.
 
"We recognize this isn't an overnight thing; its has to be sustained and evaluated," he says. "We want this to be a model for programs across the country." 

Organization stresses unification for African-American professionals, others

Sometimes people need a little push to access business opportunities in Cleveland - and one umbrella consulting venture is providing that motivation for area African-American professional groups.

The Consortium of African-American Organizations (CAAO) serves as a referral source for entrepreneurial, professional and leadership development across eight member groups communicating with over 30,000 Cleveland black professionals.
 
Benefits include job referrals and business leads, says executive director William Holdipp. With entrepreneurial development a primary focus, CAAO (pronounced K-O) works with diversity programs at Cleveland State University, Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic to foster relationships between high-level officials and business owners. Forging those strong links teaches entrepreneurs how to organize future business meetings with Cleveland's executive class.
 
"We educate our members to the point where they no longer need us in the middle," Holdipp says. "We want business owners to make such good connections that they're comfortable meeting top executives in the future."
 
About 20 to 30 local high-ranking officials also volunteer with CAAO. An executive from General Electric recently flew a pair of newbie entrepreneurs by private jet to two company sites, showing them the intricacies of a smoothly running enterprise.
 
"We want to take local businesses to the next level, and that includes access to these types of opportunities," says Holdipp.
 
Individuals who donate to CAAO, meanwhile, receive coaching and other perks aimed at new entrepreneurs and folks changing careers. In addition, the consortium connects with young people between the ages of 10 to 19 by teaching them the critical thinking skills needed to make the transition from high school to college.
 
CAAO's range of activities is designed to narrow an information gap exacerbated by established networks that may not be welcoming to new members, Holdipp says. Under the consortium's umbrella are local chapters of national associations as well as community development corporations. All share a mission to build the African-American community, a goal that for CAAO has evolved over the years to welcome Hispanic and Caucasian members.
 
Unification is needed now more than ever, considering the economic uncertainties of the forthcoming Trump administration, Holdipp says.
 
"Cleveland is challenged by segregation; it's a struggle we have to figure out," he says. "It doesn't just mean working with the African-American community, but working with all communities to make things happen." 
 

CMHA makes connections, bridges digital divide for residents

In terms of internet access, Cleveland is not the most well-connected city. Approximately 31 percent of residents have no online availability at home, according to statistics from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA).
 
To better that statistic, the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) is bridging the digital divide through a federal initiative providing Clevelanders with computer training and internet access. Called Cleveland Connects, the program recently graduated 22 CMHA residents from a four-week training class covering proper mouse usage, keyboarding and email skills.
 
Microsoft Word and Excel program basics were also part of the course package for adults and seniors from three CMHA properties - Scranton Castle, Crestview Apartments and Manhattan Tower. Classes were taught at the Connect Your Community Center on Pearl Road, a satellite location of the Ashbury Senior Computer Community Center (ASC3).
 
"For a lot of people, technology is intimidating," says housing authority chief executive officer Jeffery Patterson. "This program focuses on digital literacy."
 
Cleveland Connects is the locally branded version of the ConnectHome pilot venture utilized in 28 communities nationwide. Residents who attended a minimum of six classes received a free desktop computer during a October 19 certification ceremony. Students can use their new skills to apply for employment, pay bills or tackle any number of other issues one faces in a technology-based society.

"Having a computer at home means they can compete on a level playing field," says  Patterson. "Just having email is going to put them in a position for jobs or school."
 
CMHA officials are working with the city of Cleveland on getting newly connected learners free or low-cost broadband access. When not coaching up the adult population on computer use, Cleveland Connects makes available mobile WiFi devices to K-12 Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) students.
 
Cleveland's housing group owns more than 4,600 family units, with over 50 percent of those units having at least one child. A personal computer serves as a writing tool for young people and a communication device for their parents.
 
"People with kids can communicate with teachers over email, or be able to read a syllabus," Patterson says. "Having access to the internet opens so many doors."
 
Less than half of the country's poorest families have a wired Internet subscription at home, and more than 60 million Americans lack basic digital literacy, according to the Federal Communications Commission. ConnectHome aims to offer affordable online access to more low-income Cleveland families, bringing them technological awareness and increased opportunity in our online world. 

Off the gridiron, Browns foundation supports education, youth development

Northeast Ohio education and youth development is the centerpiece of $275,000 in grants recently awarded by the Cleveland Browns Foundation.
 
The four grants announced in late September support nonprofits and education-based organizations. Dollars were garnered through the foundation's annual radiothon event, which raised $137,000 from listeners of ESPN 850 WKNR. Team owner Jimmy Haslam and his wife, Dee, matched the amount to give students throughout the region access to learning opportunities, says Renee Harvey, foundation vice president.
 
The radio event, which occurred September 15-16 and included more than 50 interviews with Browns personnel, is one of three major fundraising programs orchestrated by the foundation. A spring golf tournament and 50/50 raffle at Browns home games round out the organization's charitable ventures.
 
"The focus is on a solutions-based, holistic approach that ensures Northeast Ohio youth have educational support," says Harvey. "We believe all kids regardless of ethnicity, race or where they live deserve a high-quality education."
 
Grant beneficiaries are the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD), Shoes and Clothes for Kids (SC4K), Ginn Academy and The Centers for Families and Children. A planned $65,000-plus gift to CMSD will be used for  the "Get to School, You Can Make It" campaign promoting attendance within the district. Ginn Academy received $65,000 in support of its Life Coach program, which provides students at the all-male public high school with a 24/7 mentor.

The Centers will utilize a $65,000 foundation grant to implement its 2,000 Days Pledge initiative, designed to engage parents, teachers and communities in a child's first 2,000 days of life, a period during which 90 percent of brain development occurs. Shoes and Clothes for Kids, meanwhile, will distribute school supplies and uniforms to disadvantaged CMSD learners via a $100,000 grant. 
 
"The majority of what we support is on the educational side, from birth through college," Harvey says. "Parents need to understand the role they play as their child's first teacher, and how they choose a high-quality learning environment. These choices can set a child on the right path." 
 
Harvey says critical collaborations with community partners make these improved educational outcomes possible.
 
"Along with the Haslams' leadership and support of kids from Northeast Ohio, we have the ability to partner with amazing nonprofits," she says. "We're diving deep into issues and finding ways we can move the needle. There are so many entities here focused on strengthening the community, and we're proud to be part of the mix." 

Bakery with Latin flair set to open in Brooklyn Centre

"If you don't try anything, you never know what will happen."
 
Such is the mindset of Lyz Otero, owner of Half Moon Bakery, a soon-to-be-opened seller of traditional Latin pastries and empanadas. Otero took the leap with a little help from the Economic and Community Development Institute (ECDI), an organization that in August announced more than $530,000 in loans to 21 Cleveland-area businesses.
 
Nineteen of those loans were to new minority- or women-owned ventures, with Puerto Rico native Otero receiving $50,000 for equipment and improvements to her 1,200 square-foot space at 3800 Pearl Rd. Otero and husband Gerson Velasquez are using the funding to pay contractors and architects, as well as buy stove hoods and other gear. ECDI also provided the couple with financial management and computer classes.
 
Otero is aiming for an early November launch for a bakery offering a dozen types of empanadas. The new entrepreneur looks forward to stuffing the half-moon shaped pastry turnovers with endless combinations of meat, vegetables and fruit.
 
"It will almost be like a pizzeria, but with empanadas," says Otero. "Everything you put on a pizza can go on an empanada."
 
Vegan and gluten-free empanadas will be on the menu, joining Latin cuisine like rice and tamales. Fresh bread, cupcakes and other delectable confections round out the selection. Otero will create the bakery's pastry products, with her husband serving as chef. During the next month, she expects to hire on two cashiers and an additional cook.
 
While the smaller space will focus on take-out orders, patrons can eat inside on stools along the window. Outdoor seating, meanwhile, is a possibility for warm-weather months.
 
Opening the business has been both exciting and nerve-wracking. Though no stranger to the restaurant industry - past employers include Zack Bruell and Michael Symon - there's nothing for Otero like working for herself. Friend Wendy Thompson, owner of A Cookie and a Cupcake, encouraged her to start a bakery with a unique Latin flair.
 
"We're focusing on gourmet empanadas, which nobody else around here is doing," says Otero. "You never see a place like this where there's so many different kinds of empanadas."
 
Ultimately, Otero wants to leave a delicious, profitable legacy for her three children, ages 4, 6 and 7.
 
"I've always dreamed to do this," she says. "I had to step up and follow my dreams, because nobody was going to do it for me." 

ECDI Cleveland is part of Fresh Water's underwriting support network.
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