Making Change: Race and Regionalism - Kentucky Style

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If there's one thing that Reverend Marvin McMickle believes about Cleveland's economy, it's that the status quo isn't working.

Marvin McMickle: It is unacceptable. 45% poverty in the neighborhood where you and I are talking right now.

That would be the Fairfax neighborhood where McMickle is pastor, at Antioch Baptist Church. McMickle says there's no guarantee that regional cooperation is the answer to reducing that 45% poverty rate, but at the moment there aren't any other solutions out there.

Marvin McMickle: I have no hesitation at all in initiating a discussion about that. Because I'm convinced that left in the present situation neither the city nor the county are going to remain any better off and that there is a real possibility that if we came together as a county and a city and talk through the problems we think are going to be there we may both end up being better off in the long run.

But McMickle says, those discussions need to include everyone with a stake in the region: that means suburban, urban and especially minorities. Otherwise the idea will get a cold reception from many sectors. Attorney Stanley Tolliver - a long-time opponent of regionalism - agrees. As it is now, Tolliver says, there's the appearance that discussions are going on behind closed doors, which makes him suspicious that a select few are coming up with a plan for everyone else to follow. And that, he says, is condescending.

Stanley Tolliver: In other words, it's just like we used to say in old southern folklore: we know what's good for ya'all.

Echoing the sentiments of City Council President Frank Jackson, Tolliver says any regional plan that does not address the city's problems with education, homelessness, and unemployment is unacceptable. He says without minority and city interests included in the discussions, then those topics will likely be avoided altogether.

Stanley Tolliver: I think if you are a broad minded person and not a fist-minded person, you are willing to discuss anything. But we don't want it done on somebody else's terms.

Tolliver is also concerned that if the city and county do merge one day, then the African-American community is bound to lose the political influence it's worked so hard to gain.

Stanley Tolliver: That is my whole attitude toward this regional government because it dilutes the political power that blacks have to decide who represents them in their city.

John Powell, director of the Kirwin Institute on the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University, says loss of political clout is a concern and for that reason he doesn't advocate a full-blown governmental merger. But, he says that doesn't mean that exploring regional cooperation on a smaller scale is without merit.

John Powell: You should be able to think about common cause with the older suburbs and some of the existing newer suburbs where blacks may not be in the majority. And then out of that you may build a relationship where you can then do things that you can't do right now. So, yes, I'm saying that's a legitimate concern but it shouldn't be a deal breaker to thinking about regional cooperation and regional planning.

What's more, Powell says, pursuing regional solutions could actually strengthen African American's influence, since it taps into the power of middle class blacks who live outside the city and it breaks down arbitrary boundaries. Under the current system, he says, there are barriers to such cooperation.

John Powell: It's most pernicious and most dysfunctional when you have small fragmented communities. You go two blocks and you're no longer in the city, the property tax you pay no longer benefits the city, the school district you're in is no longer in the city. The current structural arrangement the current way of doing business simply can't address those things. That's why I'm suggesting you need regional cooperation to help African Americans, not just in terms of fiscally but also politically.

Many agree that pursuing a more regional approach to government is a big leap, but it can be done. Just look to the city of Louisville, which just last year merged with Jefferson County. Jerry Abramson, the mayor of the new Louisville metro area, says it took 40 years of debate before voters approved the city-county consolidation. But, he says, it probably wouldn't have passed without substantial buy-in from the black community, including the Urban League and the city's weekly African-American newspaper.

Jerry Abramson: Saying better to have a smaller slice of a growing and vibrant pie than a larger slice of a pie that was dwindling.

Some in Northeast Ohio's African American population are following the same logic, and are beginning to look at regionalism as potentially beneficial. But only, as Rev. McMickle points out, if all people from the region's communities are included in the discussion. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.

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