Building Bridges: Local professionals fill the gaps in community leadership

This is the latest story in FreshWater Cleveland's series First Suburbs: A Closer Look, focusing on the suburbs surrounding Cleveland. Built mostly before the 1960s, these “first” suburbs face challenges ranging from urban sprawl to disinvestment. But shrinking news coverage reports mostly on crime. This series instead will look at the unheralded people and innovative programs that are making a difference, through a solutions-based journalism lens.

Jody Bonhard is perhaps the prototypical candidate for Cleveland Bridge Builders, a local leadership program she spearheads that engages mid-career professionals in vital civic opportunities.

Bonhard, a Lyndhurst native who boomeranged back to Cleveland following stints in Boston, Kansas City, and Medellín, Columbia, wanted to make a meaningful impact in her hometown. But didn’t know where to start.

Jody Bonhard spearheads the Cleveland Bridge Builders, a local leadership program. Bridge Builders, created in 2000 by the Cleveland Leadership Center (CLC), became Bonhard’s launchpad for involvement with the associate board of the Providence House nonprofit and other neighborhood activities. Named Bridge Builders director in 2019, Bonhard says the effort is designed for enthusiastic individuals who are not content with sitting on the sidelines.

“If there isn’t a seat at the table, bring your own table and make space,” she says. “That spirit has stayed true.”

Created in 2000 by a group of young professionals, Bridge Builders merged with three other leadership organizations in 2006 to form the Cleveland Leadership Center. The 10-month Bridge Builders program produces local leadership through a pipeline of nonprofit, for-profit and public-sector employees.

Last year’s LAPs—as they’re known in organizational parlance—include After-School All-Stars, which provides comprehensive programs steeped in life-changing curriculum and career pathways. Past cohorts furthered the missions of local entities such as Bike Cleveland and Connecting for Kids.

“Bridge Builders are passionate and want to work with other people,” Bonhard says. “They’re defining where they want to be in the community. There’s not one person here who doesn’t believe in Cleveland.”

Fisk Biggar, president and co-founder of Firehouse Can Co.A time to lead
The 56 members of the 2021 Bridge Builders class—chosen via a blind selection process and reviewed by a panel of volunteer alumni—are split between for-profit and nonprofit organizations.

Fisk Biggar, president and co-founder of Firehouse Can Co., did not have a civic background before joining this year’s group. In fact, the entrepreneur’s dearth of leadership experience is what initially drew him into the fold.

“My wife Rebecca said it’s time to start engaging civically,” says Biggar, 37. “Leaders show up and that’s what I did.”

As a business owner, Biggar says economic development is his leadership focus. While the COVID-19 pandemic scotched face-to-face interaction, the Shaker Heights resident can connect with diverse Cleveland doers online.

“Meeting all these like-minded people is exciting,” Biggar says. “It’s like pulling back a drape when hearing about these issues, and [then] seeing there are people working to make the city better. For me it was like, ‘Wow, I’m missing out.’”

City of Lakewood urban designer Allison HennieCity of Lakewood urban designer Allison Hennie lived in 10 cities before returning to Northeast Ohio a few years back. A licensed architect, Hennie took leadership courses through an industry organization while living in Memphis. She also draws inspiration from her father, a former Lakewood Fire Department captain who took her on visits to the station.

“Camaraderie and helping out others was something instilled in me at a young age,” says Hennie, 42. “I enjoy helping people and seeing them come to life. The fact we have so many stepping up in the role shows the importance of civic leadership.”

Being away from Cleveland for 20 years means reconnecting with public programs currently having a crucial social impact. As a member of the current Bridge Builders class, Hennie is assisting the nonprofit Nosotros Rock Climbing Gym in obtaining a public arts grant for a temporary installation. Hennie says a good leader concentrates their energies on listening rather than using their personal experience as an end-all.

“It’s not about me, it’s about whomever I’m helping,” says Hennie. “I make them the subject matter and develop [programs] based on who they are.”

William Willis, Opportunity Corridor project manager for Burten, Bell, Carr Development Inc.William Willis, 32, is Opportunity Corridor project manager for the Burten, Bell, Carr Development Inc. community development corporation, which aims to empower residents living in Cleveland’s underserved Central and Kinsman neighborhoods. A member of the 2020 Bridge Builders group, Willis has taken his newly acquired knowledge to aid the  nonprofit’s community planning and real estate development goals.

“In Bridge Builders I met attorneys, medical professionals, and accountants,” Willis says. “Being around these individuals made me want to put ideas into action. As more people phase out [from leadership roles], we have to cultivate the next generation of leaders.”

Entrepreneur Biggar recognizes the responsibility in lifting up his beloved city, not only for residents living and working here, but for the people coming along next as well.

“I saw the need to be part of this community in a meaningful, positive way,” says Biggar. “Having kids was a big part of that. I want to make sure I’m handing them a city that’s better than the way I found it.”

The series is made possible through the support of Citizens Bank, the First Suburbs Consortium, and the First Ring Schools Collaborative.

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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