How are Black women faring in Cleveland? Project Noir 2024 aims to find out

Four years ago, a 2020 Bloomberg CityLab report ranked Cleveland worst in overall outcomes for Black women among U.S. cities with 100,000 or more residents.

In response to the report, Enlightened Solutions—a Cleveland-based research and advocacy firm that specializes in individual equity and organizational change and led by Chinenye Nkemere and Bethany Studenic—launched Project Noir, a study with a series of questions to appraise the depths of struggles for Black women in Cleveland.

Almost 500 women completed initial survey, released in August 2020, and the results were published a year later.

The think tank focused on finding solutions to systemic problems launched Project Noir 2024 in February—a comprehensive survey exploring if Cleveland remains the worst city for Black Women in 2024. The survey’s focus areas include workplaces, healthcare access, and education in Northeast Ohio.

By mid-March, Project Noir 2024 had already received 720 responses, and met its goal of securing 1,000 responses last week—ahead of its April 30 deadline. Nkemere and Studenic plan to release the survey results by the end of the year.

Ward 7 Councilwoman Stephanie Howse-JonesWard 7 Councilwoman Stephanie Howse-JonesNow, the big question before us is: Has anything changed? Are Black women and girls in Cleveland faring better today than in 2020?

“Many things have changed since 2020,” says Nkemere. “When we published our [2020 survey] results, that was at the beginning of America’s ‘white to racial’ reckoning.”

On the heels of the 2020 social justice protests fueled the George Floyd murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, by 2021, corporations and nonprofits were all-in, ready to “throw money” at the problem, Nkemere explains.

“DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] was the sexiest word, not just in Northeast Ohio but across the country,” she says. “You kind of saw this groundswell, albeit, altruistic, of equity and inclusion being introduced into the lexicon in all different industries.”

At the time, Nkemere—who tends to be optimistic yet realistic—recalls saying, “White guilt is a finite resource.” She says she appreciated all of the efforts being put forth, the ponderings about ways to improve conditions.

But she also recalls thinking about one thing. “This change will not take root if you don’t actually, foundationally, number one, tell the truth and the truth lies within lived experiences,” she says. “Then secondly, you have to be in for the long haul.”

Nkemere says she thinks American society lacks the tenacity and enough practice to realize the idea of true diversity, equity, and inclusion will not happen overnight.

“We’re not going to see those results immediately and, because we live in an instant gratification society, folks said ‘it didn’t work in six months, let’s just scrap it,’” she argues.

Looking at 2024, Nkemere lists an assault on DEI, an attack on K-12 education, corporations disinvesting, and the overturning of legislation like as Roe v. Wade and Affirmative Action. 

“Have things changed, yes,” Nkemere concedes. “The pendulum has swung so violently the other way. Yet, we still need brave voices, trailblazers, civic leaders, health equity experts, [and]  researchers to dig their heels in and actually make change.”

She suggests that instead of throwing money at large organizations that say they do the work, we need to find the people who actually do the work and empower them with “unencumbered resources.”

“That’s really what’s going to create structural change,” Nkemere says. “Not just platitudes or large checks without actual measures.”

Learning about grace and dreaming big

Nkemere explains that the initial research, cited in the Bloomberg article, focused on poverty and its intersections, with a little bit of gender.

“What they found out is the prevalence of the intersections between race and gender is really what has created health care, workplace, and education disparities,” she says.

When Enlightened Solutions saw that revelation, the organization decided to take the mantle and begin examining the actual lived experiences of Black women in Cleveland to understand what they are enduring firsthand.

“Many times in academia, and many times in research, we really downplay lived experiences,” Nkemere says, explaining that human beings are perceived to be “inherently unreliable narrators” about their own experiences.

“We vehemently disagree,” she says.

Enlighted Solutions begins with the narration, then extracts the statistics and themes.

“The way that folks are able to describe what they have gone through is where you can actually find a lot of tone and texture for change,” explains Nkemere. “You can find goals and strategies from the lived experiences of Black women.”

Nkemere says she found the 2020 themes surprising in how deeply they ran—adding that the word used the most—by nearly every respondent—was “grace.”

Conversations for Black Women event at ThirdSpace Action LabConversations for Black Women event at ThirdSpace Action Lab“Black women were not allowed grace in Cleveland, they were not allowed grace in their workplaces,” she says, explaining how small stumbling blocks and small infractions become fatal in the workplace for Black women in this city.

“[Black women] become ‘exit-ed’ between 18 to 24 months as opposed to being coached or offered additional support or modifying responsibilities or expansion of responsibilities,” says Nkemere, who adds that this phenomenon showed up in every single area of industry, including health care institutions.

She further explained that Project Noir 2020 was created and distributed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, before vaccines became available, when Black women were walking into healthcare institutions—some were pregnant, some had lost children, some were affected by COVID, or chronic disease—and not extended grace.

Another grace theme appearing in the 2020 survey responses centered around education and the idea that Black women are not allowed to dream big in Cleveland.

Nkemere says the survey documented many accounts of Black women recalling their K-12 years, as well as undergraduate and graduate school educations, when their teachers and professors were not interested in providing additional opportunities or resources like office hours, internships, or professional development.

“They weren’t allowed that grace to kind of traverse their educational journeys,” says Nkemere of the respondents’ experiences. “There are more obstacles in their way mainly because folks don’t allow Black women and girls to dream big.”  

The Commission on Black Women and Girls

As a result of Project Noir 2020, in addition to Nkemere. Studenic. and a coalition of civic and community leaders pushing the agenda, Cleveland City Council passed legislation in 2022 to create the Commission on Black Women and Girls, a critical initiative sponsored by Mayor Justin M. Bibb, Councilwoman Deborah A. Gray and Councilwoman Stephanie D. Howse-Jones.

The 10 inaugural commission members were sworn-in on Feb. 8 with Kathryn M. Hall, JACK Entertainment vice president of diversity and inclusion, serving as the chair. The recently appointed members are charged with tackling systemic inequalities and structural obstacles experienced by Black women and girls in Cleveland.

The Commission on Black Women and Girls is “dedicated to advocating, initiating, and championing programs and legislation aimed at enhancing outcomes for Black women and girls, as well as their families and communities,” according to the city’s website.

“The only way to substantively and permanently improve the living conditions of Black women in our city is to center the voices and lived experiences of Black women,” Mayor Bibb said in a statement after the swearing-in ceremony. “I look forward to listening closely, engaging deeply, and collaborating with this commission of outstanding leaders to implement programs and policies that begin to close the success gaps that have plagued Black women in Cleveland for centuries too long.”

Gray says she sees the commission as an opportunity to “build a new system” and give young Black women an opportunity to advocate for themselves. “This is a game changer for Black women to start standing up for themselves,” she says.  

Hall says the commission is not trying to reinvent the wheel, but she plans to use what they’ve learned and move forward.

“It is safe to say we’re utilizing the information from the two reports, the national one and Project Noir,” she says. “We’re in support of the current survey because it’s principal to Cleveland. It will be a catalyst for consensus and solutions,”

Hall says the commission will be reaching out to and working with organizations already doing the work, in addition to hosting public forums where women can share their experiences.

Additionally, Hall says she wants people to know the focus of this commission is not just on professional Black women, but all Black women from every walk of life.

Believing the city must see results and give power back to Black women, Gray said she’s committed to raising the funds needed to support the commission. She is also thrilled to know Hall seeks to establish an advisory board and that members will rotate off the commission after one to three years. “We’ve got to open these doors for young Black women.”

When Bibb was asked what issues he envisioned the commission taking on during the Neighborhood Media Foundation’s March 22 Community Media Roundtable at WOVU 95.9, Bibb said what’s needed more than ever is for the city to think about how to change the narrative of Cleveland to become a destination for Black women.

Jazmyne Maxwell BrunsonJazmyne Maxwell Brunson“Black women, in many parts of our city, are the backbone of our neighborhoods, are the backbone of our families. In many households, they are the breadwinner. So, we must do a better job of going from one of the worst cities in the country for Black women to being one of the best cities in the country for Black women.”

He says he wants Cleveland to be a place women will flock to for the opportunity to start businesses, own real estate, create new companies, and lead government. “It’s so important to create that ecosystem and change that narrative.”

Nkemere, who again leans towards realism, acknowledges the Bibb administration for support of and role in bringing this “first in the nation” commission forth. However, she says she believes it is unfortunate it took so long to get off the ground.

“We still are at step zero,” she says, noting an additional five commission members still need to be selected and sworn in.

Hall says the commission is developing a process for applying and interviewing for the remaining positions. “It’s important to know the people already appointed are committed to the process,” she adds. “Everyone brings experience to the table, from their own perspectives.”

Nkemere is, however, looking forward to the ideas that will come from those women on the commission whom she considers to be brilliant thought leaders, as well.

”You can see in their biographies, they do this work,” Nkemere added. “They are out in the community, and they have connections but again, as I stated earlier, this is long term work and the earlier we can get started the more can be done, the better our outcomes.”

She says she also thinks it’s exciting for Black women to at least be able to see themselves reflected in this commission but is cautiously optimistic about how much work can be done in the given time period.

“[We are] two and a half years in and it always seems like the promises for Black women are slow moving and it would be nice to be able to push this forward [faster].”

Project Noir 2024

In an attempt to reach that survey goal of 1,000 respondents, Nkemere teamed up with media and events specialists Courtney Ottrix, Enlightened Solutions board member and founder of Courtney Covers Cleveland, and Evelyn Burnett, co-founder of ThirdSpace Action Lab—a grassroots research, strategy, and design cooperative dedicated to prototyping creative place-based solutions to actualize racial equity—to host “Conversations for Black Women” at ThirdSpace Reading Room in March.

The event sold out quickly, so the trio added a second day. Both days were filled to capacity, with 30 to 40 women, mostly millennials, attending. 

The event began with attendees using oversized Post-It notes to write about their experiences and feelings about Cleveland. A discussion between Nkemere, Ottrix, and Burnett was then started about “how we got here.”

Nkemere explains that the 2024 Project Noir survey report will set the Black women’s agenda for Cleveland, as Hall stated. It will be used to connect with political groups and organizations to ask, “does this resonate with you?”

When asked why this topic is important to her, Burnett said, “I’m a Black woman, too.” The former Birthing Beautiful Communities board chair went on to say. “Those stats were devastating” in reference to Black maternal health in Cleveland.

Burnett also says we as a society, have a lot of unlearning to do.

“I feel really strongly because we can’t solve systematic problems with programmatic experiences. We don’t find ourselves talking about policy and advocacy enough,” she says.

City council member Howse-Jones, who is also a commission member, attended both events at ThirdSpace. She addressed attendees and encouraged them to hold elected officials accountable to what they say they will do. She applauded Nkemere for doing just that.  

Midway through the evening, attendees were asked to complete the 2024 Project Noir survey. Attendees then provided feedback about the survey, asked questions about the work, and, most importantly, shared lived experiences relating to education, workplace, and health care.

Evelyn Burnett, Courtney Ottrix and Chinenye NkemereEvelyn Burnett, Courtney Ottrix and Chinenye NkemereCleveland trauma

Jazmyne Maxwell Brunson, 39, born in Cleveland, raised in southern California, and lived in Asia for 10 years before coming back to Cleveland almost two years ago, shocked everyone in the room when she said her return to Cleveland has been the most traumatic time she’s ever experienced.

Brunson says she described her return as traumatic because of Cleveland’s physical environment—the abandoned and desolate neighborhoods, the difficulty to find, let alone connect with, a community of like-minded individuals—a “tribe”—and the pull from her family members, particularly her mother and two sisters, who struggle to survive because they are not in the workforce. 

“When you have people in your family who need, they need financially and they need you to be there for them,” says Brunson, a fifth grade science teacher at a Cleveland-area charter school.

“Between three households, I’m the only one who has a car,” she says.

Brunson says she didn’t think much of the survey applied to her, because she’s lived abroad, but she sees the social-economic inequities of Black women impact on her female family members.

Considering her travels, when asked if Cleveland is the worst for Black women, she responded, “I feel worse is a strong word, but I wouldn’t say it’s the best. I think it can be beautiful. It has a rich culture.”

Bruson says she does believe God has her in Cleveland for a reason. She plans to be here for five more years and feels like things may be easier for her once she finds community. But, with the way women in that room embraced her, she says she may have discovered her “tribe” that night.

Felicia Haney, founder of BeechStreet Publicity, also attended the March  event and took the survey. Haney, a Cleveland Heights High School graduate who moved away as a young adult, returned to Northeast Ohio, and worked as a journalist for the Call and Post newspaper for more than a decade. 

Haney says there’s no space in the survey to include different kinds of workplace experiences, other than for those who are employed in predominantly white organizations. 

“It only speaks to one type of scenario,” she says. “Those particular things may not be your story but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other experiences, in other scenarios, related to gender.”

When it comes to healthcare, Haney says she does recall an experience when she thought medical providers “weren't putting in enough work to figure it out.” And she only got what she needed as a result of her constant push back.

“I feel like a lot of times they don’t do preventative care,” says Haney.

As far as Cleveland being the worst city for Black women, Haney says she doesn’t see it that way.

“Not trying to discount anyone else’s experiences, as a woman of color and entrepreneur, I’ve been able to make a way for myself here,” says Haney, who notes she has a support system here, unlike the times she has lived in other cities.

“It’s not the greatest, but it’s not the worst,” she says of Cleveland. “I feel like I have an advantage because of Cleveland’s grit and grind. In Cleveland, you know what you’re going to get. I appreciated the realness. You’ve earned your stripes if you made it in Cleveland.”            

What needs to be done?

Taking into account what needs to be done to improve conditions for Black women and girls in Cleveland, Nkemere says, “We have to be able to gather these lived experiences and thread them into themes then find solutions from there.”

She recalls a Nigerian proverb that translates “Those who are the most proximate to the problem know how to solve it.”

Nkemere says she also believes listening to Black women yields solutions, but Black women can’t solve the problems alone. What’s needed, she says, is for Black women to speak up and then for those in power to listen and provide the financial resources necessary to affect change.

“We know it takes time and we know it takes effort,” she says.

Rhonda Crowder
Rhonda Crowder

About the Author: Rhonda Crowder

Rhonda Crowder worked as a general assignment reporter for the Call and Post Newspaper for 11 years and has served as associate publisher of "Who's Who in Black Cleveland" since 2013. She currently runs a creative services agency, is VP of print for the Greater Cleveland Association of Black Journalists, and coordinates Hough Reads literacy initiative. Her debut novel is titled "Riddles."