It’s been almost three months since I’ve been to Playhouse Square, and I really miss it.
Yes, fine, I’m a normie who likes that incredibly bougie section of Cleveland with a chandelier in the middle of it. You caught me. For what it’s worth, it’s also the section of the city where universities, media organizations, businesses and nonprofits all exist together within a quarter mile radius but sure, it’s definitely more than a bit pretentious.
I’ve spent many of my most precious moments over the past six years in the space between the Scene office next to the baseball stadium and the western edge of the Cleveland State campus on East 18th. Between Scene, the County building, the City Club, the United Way, Starbucks, the Center for Community Solutions, IdeaStream, and the Urban College, that slice of downtown pretty much represents most of my Cleveland experience. And if I had the money and the confidence (or perhaps the opposite of that), I’d get rid of the chandelier and replace it with a no-frills sign that simply says, “Do Better.”
It’s not an effort to call out anyone. That’s really not my style. Instead, it would be an attempt to call in folks. To remind our leaders and our lay people that Cleveland deserves their hard work and that, when you do give it all you have, you can actually make a difference in this city.
I know that sounds too fluffy and sentimental. Cheesy, even. But it’s objectively true, and often not in a positive way. From TownHall to City Hall, this city enables people who would be nobodys in other places. Some lawyer from an outlying suburban community probably would not be given free rein to lead an expensive, yet entirely empty and unplanned, effort to bring a massive tech industry into the city. And though many of the same names and faces continue to hold onto tremendous amounts of power in every city, Cleveland’s whos-who can be simultaneously too small time to be impactful yet too big to fail.
And what happens, because Cleveland is such a big small town, is that so many people are so interconnected that not only do the select few have outsized influence but those who aren’t inside that circle of influence face disdain or backlash when they offer any critique.
So today, I’m going to address my good friend, Cleveland. Not because I’m leaving, though I am. The “blow things up and don't look back” thing is reserved specifically for bad action movies. I try to avoid burning bridges when I can and I like Cleveland enough to never want to do that to her. But the city deserves a Do Better agenda and I’ll spell it out as best as I can.
Talk is Cheap but Accountability is Worth its Weight in Gold
We need to stop letting people talk about things without explaining exactly what they mean and what specific actionable steps they will take to achieve it (cough, cough, equity). How? By changing the ways they communicate with us and forcing them to, at some point, produce a clear plan that they can be held accountable to.
If I could add anything to the City Club and League of Women Voters forums from local speakers, it would be a standard presentation requirement that SMART goals be included with every presentation, for example. Each speaker should present the audience with Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time Bound examples of how anyone might actualize the subject of their talk. The plan should be visualized and posted publicly. Similarly, when candidates seek out endorsements, they should be asked for SMART plans, not 150-word blurbs. People will fill all of that space with the aspirational crap they think you love. We don't love it. We know its nonsense. Stop letting them do that.
Those are small easy fixes.
For those in the media who get a chance to control conversations with city leaders, please remember that we’re relying on you to be our intermediaries.
You have direct access to many of the city’s most powerful actors. Ask the hard questions. Keep doing it. Press them for better answers. Say things like, “That thing you mentioned. How will you do that?” Repeat the answers. I know you all do this already. And some of you do an amazing job. I’m just pushing you to do it more, and more clearly, and in ways that only the press can. Make it easier for us to understand what we need to keep track of, which promises have and have not been fulfilled.
And those city and civic leaders — the Kevin Kelleys, the Augie Napolis, the Armond Budishes, the Dan Bradys, etc. etc. etc.
I’ve met each of you at least once. You’re all incredibly powerful actors in this city/region. You know this; I don't have to remind you. You have incredibly large constituencies and thousands of people who are relying on you to move the needle in this city towards enriching the lives of all of its citizens. But some of you seem to be incapable of admitting that there’s more to be done. Every critique is met with a rehashing of your entire record of dedication to the city. We don't need that. What Clevelanders need you to do is be vulnerable, humble, and — at times — apologetic. Don’t just tell us how you’re going to fix it, admit that you’ve messed up. That kind of talk is never cheap. In fact, it's worth even more than you can imagine. Because it creates a real relationship with this city that goes beyond your performance straight to your heart and soul — what makes you truly worthy of leading.
Most of the Men are Mediocre at Best and Badass Women Need More Respect
Do you see that list of people I just named? They’re all men. They’re all white. And that is a damn shame.
Cleveland, your women are leading the boardroom meeting and you act like they’re there to get the coffee. Stop it. It’s rude and sloppy but, more importantly, it means your pissing away so much potential.
I was going to name a bunch of women who are amazing and inspiring but the list would take up the rest of the space I have here. And yet, if you go to almost any meeting of the whos-who in Cleveland, any major governing event — heck, even just take a look at who’s on the commissions and boards — you’d think that there are maybe fifteen women in this city. That’s because Cleveland loves to give women ceremonious power and keep the substantive power for its men.
This is especially true in the marketing, arts, and creative industries in this city. There are dozens of women working four times as hard as men, with at least twice the talent and six times the level of out-of-office commitments, who are only vaguely referenced by their workplace or a brand that they cultivated for which they get zero credit. Those women are reimagining our city and some of y'all are salivating for a male architect or two.
In the public sector, there are a decent number of women in really good positions but very few in really great ones. I hope more women will run in 2021. We need to have competitive races with women candidates running to represent every single powerful institution here. And if we want to make sure that happens- we need other women and men to encourage them to do so. To hype up these insanely gifted and hardworking women to the point where they have the level of ambition of every mediocre white dude in this town.
Hard Working People Don’t Get Paid to Criticize, the Least You Can Do Is Listen
Many of Cleveland’s most ardent supporters have almost no ability to share their views on the city. People in media, public service, labor, nonprofits — folks who get paid a salary that would only be tolerated in this city, and one that’s only tolerated because it means you get to stay here and work in this region — are constantly maligned or silenced. It’s as if only if you have a private sector job and a home that’s on half an acre of suburban property can you speak openly about the city.
And that is so incredibly stupid. Because why on earth would you prioritize someone who seeks only potential private gain above the person who literally works on behalf of the public?
How about, instead of inviting them all into a room and telling them they need to spend three days only discussing what they love about Cleveland, just sit with them one-on-one and pick their brains. Buy them coffee, ask them what tiny thing you can change that might make the city better. Be honest with them and tell them what you can and can't do. And for God’s sake stop firing them. Or reporting their actions to their bosses. Or trying to see problems where there aren't any.
I love Cleveland. I will never root for your garbage football team but the city is amazing. And you know what makes it amazing? The people who dedicate every day to this city despite the fact that the talking heads ignore them and their jobs might be at stake if they dare to critique the Mayor’s cabinet members. These people spend every day giving their all to this city. They don't have time to relax in Playhouse Square and look at the chandelier. They’re doing the work. The rest of us need to Do Better.