The Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland is an organization that most people likely have heard of, though they might not be able to describe what it does. But as Teleange Thomas, the group's health program director, says, "poverty touches everyone," and thus the work of the Sisters graces all corners of Northeast Ohio life.
"We've been able to carve out an approach to addressing the root causes of poverty," Thomas says. "We address health and education disparities, ending homelessness and continuing to uplift the work of women religious." Thomas joined the Foundation in 2009 with the intent of working mostly with issues of health and health-care access in Cleveland neighborhoods.
As for a typical day, Thomas says there's no such thing. "What I love is that my work allows me to interface directly with the everyday resident who calls Cleveland home — particularly in some of our communities and neighborhoods where they're underserved or dealing with issues surrounding poverty," she says. "At the same time, I may be at City Hall having a conversation with the mayor."
Because issues like "the root causes of poverty" are so broad and amorphous, Thomas finds herself wrangling different levels of Cleveland society onto as level a plane as possible. Public policy can be a tricky beast, but Thomas points out that real opportunities for collaboration are fomenting.
"In some of these underserved neighborhoods — like Central, which is a neighborhood we work very closely in — with the housing bust and other areas of disinvestment, you're left with these large swaths of land," Thomas says. "Now we're beginning to build in policy opportunities where land can be reused and revitalized in a way that's meaningful for a neighborhood that not only meets an economic issue, but also a social issue like access to food."
Complex stuff, to be sure, and that last issue — access to food — has been explored more publicly recently as those neighborhoods deal with very basic problems, like where to buy fresh produce.
But Cleveland is more tight-knit than the average resident might admit: What goes on in neighborhoods like Central tends to have a ripple effect into surrounding areas, like, say, Hough or downtown.
"I've always been rooted in community development," says Thomas, who has lived and worked in Cleveland for 15 years. "The food space has really created this opportunity to talk about economic development in a very new way. Again, in an era where unemployment is high and people are losing their homes, it's been really great to find an intersection in the food access space."
That space and many more are where Thomas will be focusing her work in the year ahead. Poverty can be difficult to identify and assess, but Thomas and her work at the Foundation are addressing myriad concerns that truly do impact us all. — Eric Sandy