It's almost easier to define Cincinnati Community Action Now (CAN) by what it isn't.
CAN isn't producing a report to be plopped on the desks of politicians, then filed on a shelf, its leaders say. CAN isn't a permanent bureaucracy operating separately from other existing organizations.
Nor, judging by its behavior Jan. 18 — when protesters arrived and CAN members hid — is CAN easily accessible to the public.
What CAN appears to be is a diverse group of about 200 people gathered into six "action teams" addressing inequalities in education, justice, housing, employment and other areas. It has evolved into a helper organization that will shrink in size as its goals are accomplished.
On and off and on
The task force got off to a slow start in late spring and early summer, with lots of meetings but no specific proposals. Then in early December, just as ideas began to surface, Mayor Charlie Luken fired the Rev. Damon Lynch III, one of CAN's three co-chairs, for signing a letter encouraging organizations to boycott Cincinnati. The letter said Cincinnati Police officers "are killing, raping, planting false evidence and along with the prosecutor and courts are destroying the general sense of self-respect for black citizens."
A dozen protesters went to the CAN offices Jan. 18 to protest Lynch's dismissal.
But the staff at the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, which provides CAN office space, told protesters the CAN staff was meeting elsewhere.
"Call the CAN commission and tell them we want to meet with them," said Brian Garry, who organized the demonstration. "There's supposed to be dialogue."
Garry said he had told CAN in advance the protesters wanted to meet with the group.
"They could have stayed and they could have invited us," Garry said. "That's what I told them the other night."
Beth Reiter, spokeswoman for the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, said the protesters were in the wrong place if they wanted to reach CAN.
"They're not employees or a program of the foundation," she said.
But the foundation has given CAN $50,000 and office space and promised up to $250,000, Reiter said.
The foundation staff refused to allow protesters to go to CAN's offices and instead called police to evict them. When officers arrived and said CAN had moved its meeting, the protesters agreed to leave.
"We're going to do what the officers say, because we've done delivered our message," said protester Jackie Shropshire.
Several protesters taped their mouths, symbolizing Luken's effort to silence Lynch, they said.
Shortly after Lynch's firing, CAN leaders decided to reach out to him, according to spokeswoman Betty Hull. Lynch said he no longer has a CAN title but participates as a minister in the attempt to improve police/community relations.
"I'm just a local pastor who's committed to building better police relations in the community," he said.
At a Jan. 12 meeting of all CAN members — the first in the eight months since Luken formed it — co-chairs Ross Love and Tom Cody talked about specifics. All six CAN teams gave presentations.
· The Police and Justice Team wants truant students returned to school, street-level counseling for first-time youth offenders, community-based juvenile courts and unannounced visits on probationers.
· The Education and Youth Development Team wants to expand programs such as Head Start, make schools relevant to minorities, improve parenting for young children and increase partnerships between schools and businesses.
· The Economic Inclusion Team recommends a one-stop employment center, increased resources for finding jobs for the hard-core unemployed and working with businesses to expand minority opportunities in management.
· The Housing and Neighborhood Development Team recommends encouraging home ownership with special loan rates and down-payment assistance and a plan for speeding development projects, especially in inner city neighborhoods.
· The Health Care and Human Services Team recommends collaborating with third parties to improve dental care among inner city residents and recruiting black health care professionals there.
· The Media, Communications and Cultural Change Team recommends a public service campaign to improve race-related understanding and behavior.
Love and Cody emphasized their commitment to measurable action and accountability.
"From today forward, our goal is to make it happen," said Love, president of Blue Chip Broadcasting.
CAN's role whenever possible, he said, will be to assist existing organizations in putting change into practice.
Justice is in the details
While it seemed last fall CAN was accomplishing little, a subgroup of the Police and Justice Team was very active. This group, which has met weekly for at least 35 weeks, learned there are more than a few problems with the justice system, according to member Tim Burke, a lawyer and co-chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.
The sub-team found that Hamilton County jurors are the lowest paid of Ohio's 88 counties — $7.50 a day. Burke believes this discourages poorer residents from jury service because it doesn't even cover the cost of parking and lunch.
"There's something wrong with that picture," he says.
The sub-team found the county's jury pool, which comes from a list of registered voters, is only 15 percent black, compared to the county's black population of 23 percent.
The sub-team found that poor communication between county court computers and city police computers results in officers arresting people whose cases have been resolved.
The sub-team found offenders in the county could more easily resolve bad-check charges than people arrested in the city. County residents were also more likely to receive alternative sentences, instead of jail. The sub-team also found disparities in sentences for powder and crack cocaine.
The sub-team is now focused on erasing these disparities and has already succeeded with the bad checks and alternative sentencing, according to Burke.
"We think we're getting some things done and have an opportunity to do a whole lot more," he says.
Gregory Flannery contributed to this story.