A summit orchestrated by a bumper crop of the region's civic and corporate leaders will arrive at the Cleveland Public Auditorium in late October. No expense has been spared to brand and market the upcoming three-day affair, which has been dubbed "Cleveland Rising" and which already has a snappy logo, a website
, and a full complement of core values, hatched at a planning session at cleveland.com HQ in December.
Cleveland Rising is ostensibly designed to create economic prosperity for all, or, at any rate, to talk about
creating economic prosperity for all. Those involved in its planning and publicity are optimistic to a frankly bizarre degree.
Indeed, the summit's hottest-shot promoters have been eager to stress that "economic inclusiveness" is what it's all about. And they are exceedingly proud of themselves on that score. Some of them have professed to be "bullish" — in multiple cases, more bullish than they've ever been during their many years in Cleveland. Others are talking earnestly about the region's awe-inspiring capacity for "courage" and "love," two of the summit's core values.
What they're gushing over is the sudden realization that economic development should not be focused exclusively on wealthy decision-makers. Big plans for the region's future warrant at least a modicum of input from what's being called "the broader community." Unlike the regional policies and prerogatives through which many of these same leaders have been content to extract wealth for decades, Cleveland Rising will now incorporate the views of people of color and poor people, promoters say. The goal is to build "consensus."
The effect is not terribly unlike when a toddler who has been hogging toys learns how to share, and then immediately begins to perform
the sharing for his parent or guardian, having learned that he'll be applauded for doing so.
In any case, the community input is supposed to be corralled, over the summit's three days, using a model known as Appreciative Inquiry. And this model makes the summit unique, leaders say. It makes it unlike anything any city in the United States has ever done before. Here's cleveland.com editor Chris Quinn, in a column earlier this month
"In conversation after conversation this year, I have heard local leaders say this sentence or something similar: Cleveland is going to be the first city in America to write an economic development plan that includes everyone."
I'll reserve comment on that parfait of self-delusion for now, other than to point to my essay last year
on the failed Amazon bid and what I called the "Superlative Imperative" of local elites:
"The emergent strategies being bandied about in the relevant C-suites are not to tackle specific problems that would drastically improve the quality of life for the region's poor..." I wrote, "but to conjure up anything at all to be the best at or have the biggest of. This is the superlative imperative at work. In the elite psyche, it's pathological, which means examples are not at all hard to find. You can and should — for sport, if not for corroboration — scan virtually any op-ed by a civic leader from the past 40 years to see what I'm talking about."
Quinn's columns of late have been no exception. Being "the first
city in America to write an economic development plan that includes everyone" is yet another example of this inveterate tendency.
To be clear, though, the summit's goal is not to write an economic development plan that includes everyone, or for that matter to write an economic development plan of any kind. It has no explicit outcomes or deliverables other than generating a whole lot of conversation.
"It's nothing more than a listening session," said Kristen Morris, CEO of KDWM Ltd., in a conversation this week between four of Cleveland Rising's leaders and Scene
. "It really is just something that says — I know this sounds a little bit squishy — 'let's come together and think openly about this.' To the degree that you get the really angry, the really energized and the really apathetic all
to show up and participate, that's what success looks like."
Other leaders have said versions of the same: that success won't be achieved without active involvement and positive thinking from a wide array of participants.
"The process only works if you work the process," said City Club CEO Dan Moulthrop, in the same conversation. "It doesn't work if people stand with their backs to the wall, with their arms folded, saying, 'I'm just gonna tweet.' It requires a certain amount of courage, and it requires corny and unbridled optimism."
KeyBank's Head of Corporate Responsibility and Community Relations Don Graves agreed that what happens after the Summit is still undefined. But that's the point.
"We are all bound and determined that this won't be the end," he said, "that we establish a path forward that includes more input and more engagement with folks across the community."
Graves said that while past economic development efforts had often been useful, and were led by "people with good intentions," they ultimately didn't move the needle in terms of community success. "They did not bring everybody along."
"And as great as Cleveland is," he said, "it can also be like a barrel of crabs, where when you start to climb up with good intentions and good ideas, the rest of the crabs start to grab you and pull you back down. The [Appreciative Inquiry method] will be an opportunity for us to think forward in a positive, appreciative way. That's one thing that I think makes this process unique. We're not looking backwards. We're looking ahead."
Graves, who only returned to Cleveland in recent years, can be forgiven for not instantly pegging the irony in this comment. As the audience well knows, an unwillingness to look backwards, (and in the case of Appreciative Inquiry, a built-in mandate
not to), is entirely consistent with the region's economic development m.o. It's precisely that inclination which has permitted all these leaders to convince themselves they're doing something so earth-shattering.
Chris Quinn has been leading the propaganda charge — a vanguard position that, it should be superfluous to note, has thoroughly compromised cleveland.com's ability to credibly cover the summit and its aftermath — and has been the most over-the-top in his insistence that the summit must be inclusive by every imaginable demographic metric.
"This does not work without you," he wrote, "without the voices and perspectives of people from across the spectrum of wealth, education, ethnicity, gender, professions, age and every other demographic you can name. If the collaborative efforts to change our fortunes leave out your viewpoints born of all of your experiences, they fail."
Implicit in this call to action is a warning: The blame will be foisted on you —
those of you who do not courageously and lovingly participate —
when this shit goes nowhere fast.
As others have noted, attending a three-day summit is unrealistic for all but those who are paid to do so. Leaders love to characterize these business-led initiatives as "all-volunteer efforts." And while that may be technically true, these "volunteers" are rarely taking PTO to attend the relevant meetings. Attending Cleveland Rising can be construed as part of their jobs, as leaders.
Justin Bibb, KeyBank's VP of Corporate Strategy, said that registration was open to anyone and everyone, that childcare would be provided for those attendees who requested it and that "targeted outreach" efforts were underway to encourage participation among communities that have been traditionally left out of the conversation.
Like leaders in the past, many in the current crop are undoubtedly providing time and financial support for Cleveland Rising with good intentions. Many of them are very clearly excited, noting the nonstop emails and phone calls from other leaders asking how they can support the initiative and commending one another on their audacity,
(audacity being a core value so obvious that it wasn't even included on Cleveland Rising's list).
But what makes this audacious summit any different from the audacious Medical Mart, which Justin Bibb hastened to cite as a "shiny object" by which leaders had been distracted in the past? More community input?
If so, that's frustrating for community members because there's no great mystery surrounding the sort of actions required to improve the lives of the region's poor and vulnerable: More money. Better transit. Safer neighborhoods. Community members have been organizing around these issues for decades.
Leaders like Graves are savvy enough to acknowledge that policy interventions are required if economic development is to happen equitably, without the widening chasm between rich and poor to which Cleveland Rising's leaders have purported to be so opposed. Graves even suggested, in a direct echo of the writer Anand Giridharadas, who appeared at the City Club earlier this year, that those with money and power might have to give some of theirs up
in order to accomplish the region's goals. He said an important aspect of Cleveland Rising would be "building trust."
"Speaking on behalf of KeyBank, I would say that we are absolutely going to push the envelope when it comes to finding ways to drive policies and programs that support opportunities for folks of limited means," he said. "Finding ways that we can do more with our existing efforts to help people bridge the income gap; get the education and training for better jobs; improve mobility and transportation access; and ensure that as neighborhoods change, longtime residents are able to remain there and build wealth. That's really where the challenges are."
But is a summit necessary to identify these problems? Or does it reinforce the erroneous local belief, as Scene has noted in the past
, "that meeting and talking about
problems constitutes doing something about them"?
Leaders are careful not to say that Cleveland Rising will lead directly to policy innovations in these critical areas. But many of them are nevertheless convinced that leaders are finally recognizing the importance of building up the community as they enrich themselves via traditional economic development models.
"It's as though we've been deferring maintenance on our community for decades," Moulthrop said. "And I look at Say Yes, the work being done on lead poisoning and infant mortality, and it's like we're no longer deferring maintenance on the really big challenges, things that for so long we've said, 'we'll deal with that later.' I think that's huge. Cleveland Rising is just trying to ride that flywheel."
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