Cover Story: Knitting Us Together

Community organization and civic engagement transform citizens from passivity to leadership

Jan 5, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Knitting Us Together

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy said that few of us have the greatness to bend history but each of us can change a small portion of events. Over the past 20 years, however, there's been growing concern that many citizens have chosen to disengage from civic life. Some fear that civic engagement faces a perilous future in the hands of a generation of young people characterized by some as being apathetic, self-absorbed and unmotivated. There's also a generation of older adults who seem to have become increasingly isolated and doubtful about their own power to make a difference. By the end of the 20th century, Americans were experiencing an erosion of relational culture, growing less connected with one another and with collective life. We voted less, trusted less and invested less time in public affairs.

And why does any of this matter? At the risk of stating the obvious, I'll state the obvious: Communities are stronger and safer when they have an active, engaged citizenry.

In an informal survey over the past few weeks, I asked local citizens to define civic engagement. Voting and volunteering were the answers I heard most often.

And they are right: Civic engagement is about voting and volunteering — partially. But it also refers to building and creating strong communities.

In a society driven by consumerism, the ability of citizens to produce solutions to shared problems is weakened by a lack of practice. In addition to casting our votes, serving in soup kitchens and sponsoring fund-raisers, civic engagement helps citizens recognize their power, learn the skills to create change and organize a base with others who share a common vision.

The challenges to putting the public back into community and finding a responsible public voice are, quite simply, changing private individuals into responsible public citizens.

As the Greater Cincinnati region struggles with such divisive issues as urban flight, racism and classism, environmental protection and economic livelihood, welfare and working poor, freedom and regulation, individual rights and group representation, it's a natural and historical inclination to turn first to the relevant governmental agencies, local businesses, established institutions, schools, leaders and respected civic associations that serve us.

While all of these are useful, in and of themselves none of them are enough.

Citizens come together
Certainly the media, faith community, schools and elected officials at all levels have important roles, serve a valuable function and deserve our support. But there's no substitute for citizens coming together and acting on community needs.

Successful change rarely comes through government edict. Cincinnati City Council and the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (commonly referred to as 3CDC) can't bear the burden alone to revitalize Cincinnati or its most needy citizens.

These daunting tasks call for cooperation and collaboration. In part, that effort will come through strengthened public-private partnerships, new conversations and perspectives and sustained, committed citizen participation.

Of course, this implies a willingness to "own" the problems in question. While it's easy to own the accomplishments and successes, ownership of the problems is almost always a different matter.

But ownership is also the heart of responsibility. In order to revive our sense of community, we must regain the habit of active citizenship and accept more personal accountability for the problems that burden our region.

The good news is since 9/11 — which dramatically interrupted the trend of civic disengagement — the movement has begun toward a rediscovery of our neighbors, our public institutions and their policies and our shared fate.

The powerful vision of an enemy and subsequent wartime mobilization has sparked progress toward social justice and integration. A clear window of opportunity has opened for the sort of civic renewal that echoes the 1950s civil rights movement after World War II.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the emotional doom-and-gloom rhetoric that's clung to Cincinnati's public discourse for too long, the growth of citizen involvement and community organization is actually stronger than it's been in the past three decades.

Along with hundreds of local associations staffed with volunteers providing critical services for people in need, many organizations and individuals are quietly (some not so quietly) working for change and seeking lasting solutions to the difficult challenges we face.

In my own networking throughout the various corners and neighborhoods of Greater Cincinnati — and just when I'm apt to visit my own cynical anxieties of a chaotic, privatized future with medieval extremes of wealth and squalor — I am constantly inspired by amazing people I rub up against who share a common belief that being active participants in civic life matters.

They're players, not spectators. Diverse in their orientations and abilities, they're bold leaders applying reason to urban problems, voices that promote and support a flourishing cultural life, architects of a united and inclusive community, developers of self reliance, protectors of the environment, humble servants of reform and investors in initiatives.

Citizenship begins with commitment, vision and the ability to act rather than expertise. As citizens, we don't need advanced education or bureaucratic permits to get involved. And once we do, empowerment, optimism and trust are rekindled, the capacity to understand each other increases and the public work is accomplished in new and unexpected ways.

CityBeat would like to introduce you to some players who have discovered that what constitutes a community is what its citizens have contributed and brought to it. The liberating truth they've learned is that an engaged, purposeful citizenry is the key ingredient of restoration and civic renewal.

Countering perceptions of apathy
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world," anthropologist Margaret Mead once said. "Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

That thought has been posted at Clark Montessori High School, where it's become a kind of manifesto for activated students.

Civic engagement isn't reserved for eligible voters and tax-paying adults. To exclude our youth from the ideals and values of civic engagement would be to our detriment as a city, society and nation. If we hold to the philosophy that they are our future and will soon be responsible for shaping Cincinnati's destiny, preparing them for that task is a top priority.

Civic engagement is built into the curriculum at Clark — a requirement of 200 hours of service over four years is necessary for graduation. That includes a two-week immersion course on community service to help set the tone and intention for students' independent service work.

"Adolescents have a natural tendency to be self absorbed and perhaps even cynical," says Marta Donahoe, Clark Montessori's program coordinator. "Paradoxically, they're also in a period for learning what it means to take their place in society. We believe that one of our roles as the adults guiding them toward their own adulthood is to nudge them to understand the importance of civic engagement by setting the expectation for them to become actively involved in serving society. For us that means serving with the belief that all work is noble and that all humans have dignity — it's fundamentally different than asking them to go out and help those less fortunate."

Keeping that distinction intact matters, Donahoe says, because it breaks down the barriers of judgment and opens the heart of compassion. It keeps the nature of civic engagement as an exchange between equals.

Meredith Barnett agrees. A Clark senior, she's made commitments of service with the Red Cross and Children's Hospital far beyond the requirement.

"It is so much more than simply showing up for a shift to meet the (school's) contract," she says. "It's about self-discovery. It stimulates the imagination and reminds you about the goodness of the human heart in a time that's easy to forget."

Other students like Barnett have found their niche in already established organizations and programs. All have surpassed the required hours by literally months.

Kenton Davis, 17, tutors reading, math and science every Saturday at Burton Elementary in Avondale and works weekly at the Drop-Inn Center in Over-the-Rhine. Junior Rynetta Ruffin serves food and busses tables at Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen. Marianthe Bickett, a freshman and animal rights advocate, works weekly at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And junior Clearra Robinson gives her time to disabled children.

A few of them are motivated by their own visions. David Dewitt, 17, has been filming video interviews of priests and abuse victims with the goal of providing educational outreach for those affected by, or studying the effects of, sexual abuse in the church. The senior also organizes "Sprockets," a citywide juried film festival for high school students.

But it's Natania Hoffman, 12, who could make most of us feel like slackers. She walked into her first year of seventh grade at Clark and wondered, "What would be feasible for me to do?" Bothered by excessive waste in the lunchroom, she recruited other students to start an in-school recycling program for unopened milk cartons ("about 100 a day," Hoffman says), collecting them daily to a refrigerator where they get picked up for delivery to a local shelter/kitchen.

"We're a brotherhood of man," Hoffman simply states. "We're obligated."

The others excitedly chime in.

"These are educational opportunities that lead to open-mindedness," says Dewitt, the film director. "Ignorance holds us back."

Bickett humbly states, "My conscious hurts if I'm not involved."

Robinson sums it up: "We need civically-minded revolutionaries among teens. All change starts with one person."

To serve with love
Her unit is called the "Love Police." Sgt. Julie Shearer, 10-year veteran of the Cincinnati Police Department, is the supervisor of the District 4 Neighborhood Unit of 10 Cincinnati police officers who have earned the warm and fuzzy moniker.

"We deal with the roots and causes of the crime," Shearer says. "We're out in the neighborhoods (District 4 comprises 10 neighborhoods, most of them considered low-to-middle income and fairly high crime) dealing with quality of life issues through education."

Like many police officers, civic engagement and community service is a calling. Shearer's brother is Scotty Johnson, president of the Sentinels Police Association, and her husband is Sgt. Anthony Shearer, a former Cincinnati Police Officer currently training with the FBI. She began as an elementary school teacher in Cincinnati Public Schools.

"I felt limited as a teacher and decided I could reach more people as a police officer," says the soft-spoken and deliberate Shearer.

Her unit of three females and six males lives by the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

"We feel responsible to get out the truth," she says. "If we start with these kids now (educating and interacting with them while they're young), we may not have to lock them up when they get older."

Although her unit works tirelessly to help citizens recognize their power and improve community relations through mentoring kids one-on-one, sponsoring youth groups, teaching crime prevention, counseling and tutoring, Shearer observes, "We put most of our time in the community off the clock."

She donates many of her off-hours to the education of AIDS through AVOC — "it's a ravaging epidemic among African-American teenagers," she says — tutors and mentors twice weekly at Rockdale Boys and Girls Club and performs numerous outreach initiatives through her "other job" as one of "the sisters" on Sister Speak, a radio talk show on The Buzz (WDBZ, 1230 AM).

"I kept calling in constantly to Sister Speak (as a listener) to weigh in on the issues, and they finally just gave up and put me on the air," she says, laughing. "But I believe that we are all our brothers' keeper. We have to step outside ourselves and seek first to understand, then to be understood. The health and future of Cincinnati depends on each of us to be connected in the community and actively listening."

And the role of the Love Police in the movement for civic renewal?

"God has always posted watchmen," she says, smiling.

Rise up and build
Tom Dutton tears down stereotypes and boundaries of segregation through construction and design.

As professor of architecture and interior design at Miami University and director of Miami's Center for Community Engagement in Over-the-Rhine, he organizes the education of Miami students and faculty through a cultural classroom intent on bridging the gaps between academic research and civic organizations. In partnership with organizations such as Over-the-Rhine Housing Network and the Over-the-Rhine People's Movement, Dutton's students design and build residential, civic and social centers that are consistent with developing the neighborhood without displacement.

"One cannot know about diversity very deeply without engaging the lived experiences of diverse populations and neighborhoods directly," he says. "The key point here is to get students and faculty into places or situations where they have to act on ideas and not just reflect upon them as privileged in the traditional classroom."

Dutton's passion for the work — as well as the infectious passion of the students — is immediately apparent in an afternoon tour and presentation of their Over-the-Rhine center and a collaborative project with University of Cincinnati design students for a resident-run restaurant across the street. As one who spends a lot of time writing about restaurants, I'm moved and amazed by the stunning, innovative and thoughtful design of the soon-to-be Venice Pizzeria — but it's evident that a lot more than design and construction is simultaneously taking place.

"Through this exposure to environments and issues that are beyond their familiarity, the aim is to transform personal learning and to break down social and racial stereotypes," Dutton writes in a follow-up e-mail. "The expanded inter-cultural learning experiences foster an ethic of civic stewardship for the students, increases the faculty's learning of socio-political reality as it intersects with their disciplines and advances the community's own learning by establishing deeper relations in all areas of community life."

leadership through example
If you ask Peter Huttinger, project coordinator of the Village Green Foundation, what his mission for The Gardens at Village Green in Northside is, he looks you directly in the eye. "Growing vegetables and community," he declares softly but emphatically.

Located on the site of the old Santos Florist and Greenhouse on Knowlton Street, The Gardens at Village Green (GAVG) is in its first phase as a communal, organic, sustainable garden and educational facility.

"We provide the venue and access for education and practical, sustainable work," Huttinger tells me on a cold December afternoon as we're warmed by the sun through the greenhouse glass.

Sprouted barely a year ago, the outdoor community garden is already flourishing with 19 plots, 9-by-16-feet each, managed largely by households and individuals with a few tended by volunteers to produce fresh vegetables for the FreeStore/FoodBank.

Besides the urban, organic agriculture and access to healthy foods, the GAVG has a common commitment to community.

"Our initiative is servant leadership through example, with a long-term interest in building community," Huttinger explains.

With plot and greenhouse fees to support operational expenses, the GAVG hopes for more monetary and hard goods donations to nurture and complete the vision of multi-generational educational programs of earth-friendly gardening techniques, nutrition and whole foods preparation, as well as nature-related art classes.

The greenhouse also houses the winter headquarters for the Northside Farmer's Market — another successful example of a few citizens banding together for the benefit of the community — and plans are afoot to renovate the greenhouse storefront as a grocery specializing in fresh local produce, whole foods and gardening supplies.

Like the individual plots that comprise the quilt of garden, Huttinger says, "What knits us together as a society is an active commitment to the knowledge that we're part of a whole."

An excellent report card
Each new year of school in the Cincinnati Public School system, my sons would bring home a "teacher's wish list" for supplies and equipment needed by the classrooms disabled by state budget crises and minimally funded mandates. Additionally, with an increasing number of students living below poverty level and not able to afford basic tools for learning, teachers began spending an average of $500 to $1,000 out-of-pocket each year to provide supplies for their students.

Shannon Carter and seven others from her Leadership Cincinnati class in 1995-96 envisioned a store where teachers could obtain the needed supplies for free.

Initially partnered with the FreeStore/FoodBank in 1997, Crayons to Computers has expanded to an impressive warehouse and storefront on Tennessee Avenue in Paddock Hills to distribute new and recycled supplies donated by thousands of individuals and corporations to more than 160 Tristate schools. To date, the value of these supplies is a staggering $5 million.

"We're a great big community recycling project," Carter proudly says as she walks through the vibrant facility, row-upon-row and bin-after-bin of art and crafts supplies, paper, pencils, books, maps and educational materials.

"And it's win-win for everyone," she adds with the bright smile of a student holding a brand new box of crayons.

By collaborating with businesses and other nonprofits and utilizing mostly volunteer labor — teachers trade three hours of time for each shopping expedition — classrooms and children receive the supplies they need and businesses divert tons of surplus product from landfills.

The most impressive section of educational materials in Crayons to Computers is the result of their most successful and inspired partnership with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation, accounting for nearly one-third of the value of goods distributed. Known as the "Crafts With Conviction" program, volunteer inmates at 23 statewide prisons and juvenile correctional facilities transform donated paper, poster board and other materials into flashcards, journals, book bags and dozens of other educational aids.

"This is a positive effort that simultaneously serves the needs of the community, teaches valuable vocational skills and raises self-esteem and awareness," Carter says. "It makes sense."

Crayons to Computers, along with these other featured citizens working to increase the quality of civic engagement, is a model of how a few citizens with a commitment to possibility can initiate change and create a future to believe in.

Through the medium of community organization and civic engagement, citizens move from passivity to leadership, from fear to boldness and from cynicism to faith. With the eyes of the world upon us, the best way to demonstrate the capability of our democratic ideals abroad is to demonstrate that it can work equitably at home. ©

Help Them Build Community

Clark Montessori

Marta Donahoe, Service Program Coordinator


Crayons to Computers

Shannon Carter

[email protected]


Miami University Center for Community Engagement

Tom Dutton

[email protected]


Cincinnati Police District 4

Sgt. Julie Shearer


Village Green Foundation and The Gardens at Village Green

Peter Huttinger