Cover Story: Activism

10 Years of Making a Difference

Jymi Bolden

Jim Tarbell at the Commons

"Despite what many politicians and corporate executives want us to believe, Cincinnati is not a collection of skyscrapers and department stores and stadiums. Cincinnati is its people: young and old, black and white, male and female, poor and wealthy, gay and straight."

These lines from the introductory editorial in CityBeat's debut issue (Nov. 17-23, 1994) helped set the tone for our support of the power of the individual. One person can still make a difference, and we've always seen a critical mission of CityBeat to be highlighting the people trying to make a difference in Cincinnati.

In fact, in our early years writer/activist Michael Blankenship wrote a regular column, "Power of One," to profile community-minded people. Numerous features and cover stories have followed over the years, and not a week goes by that you can't find a story here about people trying to change their city through politics, social service, music, the arts or grassroots organizing.

As another way to recognize these efforts, CityBeat began our Person of the Year feature in 1998. We've deliberately focused this honor on those who are fighting injustice and bureaucratic oppression and have stepped outside of their everyday existences to promote positive change.

These people had been written about in CityBeat before their Person of the Year profile but hadn't garnered widespread attention or appreciation. They're always surprised by the cover story treatment, since we don't tell them ahead of time.

The 1998 honorees were Broadway Commons supporters who waged the battle against corporate and political power brokers to put the new Reds stadium adjacent to Over-the-Rhine. The battle ultimately was unsuccessful, but it taught those involved that ordinary citizens should have a say in how public money is spent and shouldn't let elected officials do whatever the hell they want to.

The 1999 Person of the Year was Sister Alice Gerdeman, director of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center in Over-the-Rhine. She was on the leading edge of local people talking about global economic and justice issues in the wake of the World Trade Organization fiasco in Seattle, and her quiet dignity and dedication to Jesus' message of loving thy neighbors was (and continues to be) humbling.

Victoria Straughn was a relative unknown on the local activist front when CityBeat featured her in 2000. She was recognized for her role as HIV early intervention/prevention specialist at UC's Infectious Diseases Center, where she worked hand-in-hand with local black churches to help educate African Americans about AIDS. She has since become a leading advocate for economic and social justice throughout Cincinnati's African-American community.

The 2001 Person of the Year, Angela Leisure, was our most controversial choice. CityBeat was accused of condoning lawlessness and violence by honoring the mother of Timothy Thomas, who was killed by Cincinnati Police in April 2001 and whose death sparked riots in Over-the-Rhine and elsewhere.

"Some come to greatness by bold deeds, and some by faithfulness to seemingly simple truths," we wrote of Leisure. "To others, greatness comes calling, unbidden and unwanted. For such a one, seeking neither fame nor authority, tragedy is usually a place of beginning, a point of demarcation by which an ordinary life becomes an extraordinary example. At Cincinnati's defining moment in 2001, the world looked not to the city fathers for signs and hope but to a grieving woman whose poise and strength made her the closest we have to a mother of the city."

Last year's choice was controversial as well, but for different — and very political — reasons. Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune could hardly be called "unknown," but CityBeat felt that his progressive platform and achievements were underappreciated.

As the first Democrat elected to the county commission in more than 35 years, Portune has had a target on his back from the day he took office in 2001. But he's focused on opening up county government to more public scrutiny and breaking up the one-party cronyism that keeps this region from moving forward.

And now there's the group known as Citizens to Restore Fairness (CRF), determined to wash the stain of Article 12 off Cincinnati's national image and finally guarantee local gays, lesbians and bisexuals equal treatment in city laws. These are ordinary people — young and old, black and white, male and female, poor and wealthy, gay and straight — who have decided to make a difference.

Whether their effort to repeal Article 12 is successful or not in November, they've inspired others to stand up and speak out as well — reminding us that, in grassroots activism, the journey often is as important as the destination.

Chip Harrod, a key part of the CRF leadership team, tells a story about manning a polling place in Madisonville for three or four hours last November to ask voters to sign CRF's petition to put a repeal measure on the ballot. He was impressed by one particular volunteer who stood with him the entire time.

"She was a freshman at Walnut Hills High School, maybe 14, 15 years old," Harrod says. "She had 50 or 60 conversations with total strangers, adults, telling them how wrong Article 12 is. I was blown away by her courage and strength. I haven't had a better day with Citizens to Restore Fairness."

Look for a story in future CityBeats about her or someone like her. Better yet, become her yourself. ©

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