Indigo Bishop, ioby Cleveland Action Strategist


Q: Why are there so many racial justice projects in Cleveland?

There are a lot of activists in Cleveland who go way back.  A lot of the original organizing was in response to redlining, policies around segregation, and the housing foreclosure crisis. There were a lot of systemic things that made Clevelanders really aware that there was this huge imbalance and that they were taking the brunt of it.

A lot of the actions that they did in the '60s and '70s were powerful, but they didn't really move the needle in a lot of the ways that people had hoped, and I think many folks became disenchanted with organizing. They kind of lost hope that their actions could make a significant change.

Many of the organizers who I know are children and grandchildren of people who organized, and they have it in their blood a little, but it wasn't really awoken until we hit this tipping point in the city, which for me is something that I noticed after the Tamir Rice shooting at Cudell. After the shooting, there was a huge increase in activism. People were really fed up and they wanted to do something to make a difference.

Personally, the shooting made a huge impact on me. That recreation center is somewhere where I grew up and I spent a lot of time. Suddenly racial injustice wasn't just something that happened to people that I heard about on the news. It was something that could happen to my nephew, or my neighbor, or my child, if I had a child. It became much more personal all of a sudden. I think a lot of people experienced that at that time, especially a lot of young organizers.


Q: What can organizers in other cities learn from Cleveland?

I think one of the things that other organizers can learn from what I've seen activists do in Cleveland is that it's never too late to act and that there's always time to make your voice heard and to do something, even if it's a small thing, especially if it's a small thing. That's the best place to start.


Q: Introduce us to some of your favorite racial justice organizers in Cleveland? (We’ll be talking to them later on in this series!)

First, Leah Lewis. She's an anthropologist and a Reverend. Immediately when I met her, I was like, this woman is incredible, she's doing great work, and I was really excited about an idea that she told me. She wanted to do a docuseries on race and racism. We hadn't had a documentary done in Cleveland yet through ioby, and she just had this great vision for deconstructing what race and racism are and how we can intervene in critical ways.

Second, Michelle Crawford. She's an architect by training, and soon after the election last November, she, like many people was feeling disheartened. She wanted to take action and use some of the skills that she had to resist and to make her voice heard, but also to uplift the voices of other designers and architects that she knew, so she decided to gather a group of them together and do a design charrette, where they were tasked with designing their own solutions to housing injustice and structural racism in the city of Cleveland.

Third, Carmen Lane. Her approach is very local in that she's actually building a space, the ATNSC Center for Healing and Creative Leadership. At the same time, the themes that she's bringing together are very much about sort of systemic historical injustice and very tangible things like maternal health in the black community, and she’s also bringing in a creative side with poetry and art. Carmen is a very dynamic leader in the city of Cleveland. She's a skilled facilitator, a poet. I don't think there's much that Carmen can't do.

Fourth, Kaela Geschke and Gwen Garth. We all went through a process together through Neighborhood Connections called Make Art Talk Race. Through that process, we were experimenting with this new practice of coming together with a diverse group of people, having really deep, intense conversations about race power and privilege and our own personal experiences, and making art throughout that processl. A few years later, Kaela and Gwen decided that they wanted to recreate that process with people in the Central neighborhood where they were working. They recognized this huge schism between the people who work and go to school in Central, the institutions, and the people who live and grew up there.


Q: What do all these organizers have in common?

These organizers are all from different parts of the city. They have different skills and different career backgrounds, but they’re all people who had had enough and were determined that they couldn't do nothing. They decided to use their skills and their networks to come together and to take some action, whether it be a small conversation among people who come from different racial, class, age, and geographic backgrounds, or whether it was to construct a space where your community could come together to heal and to support one another. Essentially I think these leaders all decided there was something within their power and that they had skills to make something beautiful happen in the city.


Q: What do successful racial justice organizers do well?

They’re really good at getting together a team of other people who are passionate about the same thing and designing a way forward. First figuring out how to bring in resources and support, and finding the right people to be involved, and then taking take it one step at a time and figuring out the rest of the details as they go.


Q: Why should organizers think locally?

I think that's one of the reasons that we've seen so many ups and downs in the city of Cleveland is that we have a hard time sticking with solutions that we've found for ourselves, and instead get discouraged that we haven't managed to change everything all on our own.    

I think it's incredibly important to start working on projects locally in your community, especially when they're small, because those are the things that are most achievable. Sometimes I think what keeps us from doing anything is a fear that we have to do it all at once and that if we can't move the needle all by ourselves, immediately, then why would we do anything? It can be very discouraging and prevents a lot of people from trying anything at all. In fact, we're all needed in many small ways, and if we all do our little part, it really adds up to make a huge difference.


Q: Where’s a good place to start?

If you have an idea for your community, start by finding other people who are passionate about the exact same thing and who have great ideas. Find people who inspire you who maybe have a different skillset than you do. Maybe you're great at social media, but maybe they're really great at telling stories and have a big network and they like to talk. Or maybe you have somebody who is really connected in city government and is able to remove barriers for you to make the project happen. Maybe you know someone who is really structured and is good at creating a timeline and figuring out what needs to happen first, second, third, fourth, and fifth. Pull all those people together, make a plan, hold each other accountable, and enjoy the work. It makes it more fun to have other people to do it with.


Q: What are some key tactics to keep in mind?

One of the most important tools that a racial justice organizer can have is the ability to build community buy-in. Without other people invested, the project's probably not going to get very far. There are likely many, many hundreds of people who are invested in the same thing that you are. It's a matter of finding them and finding out where they get together, what groups and associations already exist, who you can tap into, and how you can use your network to gather those resources and build those connections across boundaries.

A coalition that includes multifaceted groups is really important, from corporate groups to nonprofit groups to government groups to small groups of neighbors getting together on a block. They all have a valuable piece to add. The more diversity in the types of groups that you include in your project, the more successful and smooth it'll be to get it implemented.

Another thing that's really important for racial justice work is having a clearly defined goal. It's really helpful to break down your project and be as specific as possible. Maybe rather than revolutionizing the entire school system in Cleveland to make it a fair and equitable system for all children of color, maybe the goal is to shift the curriculum and get a few extra books included that demonstrate a more accurate version of history than they currently have. Or maybe instead of revolutionizing the health system and making sure that there are no more health disparities among communities of color, maybe your project is specifically about addressing the infant mortality rate in one neighborhood.


Q: What are some of the common challenges racial justice organizers face?

One of the most common challenges is limited funding. Not many institutions and large organizations want to fund this work - they don't place a lot of their resources towards organizing in general, but in particular racial injustice organizing, though there's a huge need for it. It's a great reason why crowdfunding is a huge resource. People who live in the communities that are impacted by racial and social injustice are very committed to not having it happen to them and their loved ones anymore, and they are willing to help fund it, even if it's $10 or $20.

Another main challenge that I've seen racial justice organizers hit is fatigue. It's hard work and it's not quick, and it's often thankless because you don't see the impact right away, or even in your lifetime. It took a long time for these injustices to build up, and people have been working for decades and centuries to try and dismantle the way things are now. Patience is your best friend when it comes to this work because we're not going to turn it all around by ourselves today or tomorrow. Hopefully with our work combined over many decades and a lot of dedication and love and support from the people around us, we'll chip away at it little by little and we'll get there. But we have to take care of ourselves first and throughout the whole process.


More about Indigo Bishop, ioby Cleveland Action Strategist

Indigo is passionate about cross cultural dialogue and creative community building. She’s lived in Cleveland all her life and in the Buckeye neighborhood for 16 years. A certified social justice mediator and graduate of Case Western Reserve University, Indigo works with ioby to help connect Cleveland’s resident leaders with funding, training and resources to bring their ideas to reality. Before coming to ioby, Indigo worked with Neighborhood Connections, a program of the Cleveland Foundation and the nation’s largest grassroots grants program, established to empower and encourage Clevelanders to become more engaged with each other and with the city.


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