The goal was to connect.
The Beacon Journal/Ohio.com, the Devil Strip and WKSU public radio sat down with about 200 residents this month at neighborhood school cafeteria tables. Engaged citizens came to talk about life in Akron. Journalists came to listen.
What we heard was a suffering sense of community, almost everywhere. Residents resoundingly expressed a desire to connect, and be connected.
Neighbors bemoaned not knowing their neighbors. Adults lamented a lack of economic opportunities, especially for low-income youths. Many talked about how single-parent homes, poverty, drug addiction, gun violence, low wages, job loss, crumbling infrastructure and local media keen on bad news have chipped away at communities once tightly knit by strong schools, locally attended churches and deeply engaged, active residents.
The people longed to reconnect.
"We have the power. We have the people. We just don't use it," West Akron resident James Reddick said to the 100 people who attended the first meeting at Buchtel Community Learning Center, which drew a larger crowd than the next three meetings combined.
Local media organizations behind this project view the meetings as the start of a dialogue worth sustaining. We heard a need to empower youths, support the people making positive change and be the connective tissue of a more vibrant community.
We’re still reviewing all that you said, which includes 1,000 comments scribbled onto note cards during four, two-hour conversations focused on solutions.
With occasional applause, laughter, nodding and head-shaking, the energetic crowd at Buchtel offered equal parts appreciation and criticism for themselves, the media and their leaders.
It was something special, said former Beacon Journal managing editor Doug Oplinger, whose Your Voice Ohio project has led 27 community conversations across the state. Only one was more well attended and none more diverse than the discussion in West Akron, he said.
“I was just incredibly excited to hear all of the publications come together to tell more stories. And I loved the location [of meeting in the neighborhoods] because you have to go to where people are,” said Shane Wynn, a conversation attendee who’s been photographing Akron for 25 years.
“I felt like people were just really passionate. You hear a lot of people talk about the negativity of the city. But I don’t get a lot of opportunities to show up and have my voice heard,” she said. “I think the whole city should have been there. This is what we should do in our free time.”
“The conversation to me was welcoming, broad and long overdue," said Kim Brown, the acting executive director of West Side Neighborhood Development Corp. "What I loved most is that there was an incredible mix of people all there for no other reason than they care."
Buchtel participants were nearly twice as likely as those at the three other meetings to view themselves, their neighbors and strong community leaders as assets. The 100 total participants at East, Jennings and Innes schools collectively put more value on their parks, recreational programming, local attractions and entertainment venues.
The Buchtel attendees prioritized education, job training, investing in youths and eliminating racism. That last issue didn't register at the other meetings, where participants collectively put crime and the economy ahead of a host of other issues.
At the onset of every meeting, residents were asked what would make Akron a happy place for everyone. “Hope,” said Brown, remembering when she graduated from high school in West Akron 35 years ago.
“We didn’t even see it as hope. We saw it as a rite of passage in life. You graduate, you go to college, you join a company," she said. "We knew there was something beyond what you saw in the neighborhood. It seemed that everybody in our community had a plan or a future. Now, when you speak to young people finishing high school, you don’t hear the same energy.”
In every conversation, participants traced myriad problems to a lack of support for youths and cohesion for communities. More mentoring and mingling seemed the solutions to several issues. Happiness, participants said, would flow from being safe, healthy, connected and secure in their homes and jobs.
“To me, if all of those things existed … it would infuse hope,” Brown said. “There is no reason to not have hope for greater things. If we work together, I see that happening.”
At each meeting, participants agreed on the problems that need to be solved first.
Buchtel homed in on education and job training, crime and drugs, community policing, economic opportunity, racism, living-wage jobs, access to mental health care, youth employment and holding the community accountable.
The Beacon Journal was thanked for hosting the positive conversation, for “an excellent job of painting the community, as it exists,” as Brown put it, and squarely criticized for focusing too much on crime and unflattering news about Akron.
“Not everybody in West Akron is a thug,” said Ricky Allen, a Cleveland Clinic technologist who serves on a nonprofit board that supports the Maple Valley library branch on Copley Road.
Allen praised the people who attended the Buchtel meeting and challenged the no-shows.
“The majority of people that were there are active in the community. But those aren’t the only people in that community,” he said. “People need to take ownership. We hear a lot of people hollering and whooping and crying, but when it comes down to it, they aren’t there."
By the end of each two-hour meeting, small groups of participants suggested specific solutions to journalists, citizens and community leaders for each major issue raised throughout the meeting. Allen's table tackled “the original sin of racism" by recommending more diversity in Akron's leadership, tapping into the wisdom of elders, sharing wealth, influence and power with marginalized communities and balanced new coverage that includes stories of successful African Americans, especially men who might be role models to at-risk youth.
“The perceptions need to change. We don’t need the media to pile on more,” Allen said.
Heidi Miller of Goodyear Heights had a similar thought after attending the conversation at East Community Learning Center. She'd just read a story about how an academic study says Akron is going the way of the once-bankrupt Detroit.
“What’s the point of the information? There’s no value in it," Miller said. "We’ve already got people thinking we’re going down the toilet. Cleveland calls us ‘Crackron.'
“We’ve got a lot of good things going for the city. You just don’t see that,” she said. If anything, reporters should “skew it toward the positive. That would be nice.”
Wynn agreed. She's spent the past six years pointing her camera at social issues and hanging the photographs in the communities where they were taken.
"There are folks who are attached to all the people," Wynn has found. "They’re the ones who are passionate about their neighborhoods. We don’t have to import people, those people are already there. Their voices need to be elevated. We need to empower them."
Know your neighbor
Again and again, residents expressed a desire for community.
Around Kenmore, participants prioritized "safe spaces for interaction" such as youth sporting events, recreation centers or summer concerts on Kenmore Boulevard. The North Hill meeting suggested community gardens, block parties and more. Just getting neighbors to talk was the top-rated issue at East.
In the heart of West Akron, James and Karen Reddick, who attended the Buchtel conversation, have been doing just that for 15 years.
The couple started attending the Dorchester Road Block Club meetings after buying a home on Dorchester Road in 2003. The meetings, then in a community center, consisted of little more than complaining about speeding, trash and crime — issues that are routinely discussed today in private social media groups or neighborhood message boards.
"I’m like, this is boring," recalled Karen, who started to think of the network of neighbors as a means to foster community. James took over the organization, which now incorporates other nearby block clubs that meet for ice cream socials in members' homes or chili cook-offs in backyards. They carol for Christmas and vacation together in the summer. They're also there for each other in times of need, from clearing downed trees from the road after storms to sending sympathy cards when pets pass away.
On Aug. 10, they'll again fill a street block on Dorchester with jazz musicians or a steel drum band, bingo, water balloon tossing and kids games, hot dogs, water, chips and a potluck buffet. "And we just sit out there and have a good time," Karen said. "People started meeting people that have lived on this street for years but didn’t know each other ... and we all get along."
"Our philosophy, when I first took over the group," said James, "was to bring people together. I hear people talk a lot about things. But I don’t see them bringing people together. I see them uplift themselves. And I say, ‘No, if this is going to work, we’ve all got to be in it together.’ "
Reach Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3792.