CINCINNATI — The way the Collaborative Agreement has changed Cincinnati’s policing practices gets all the attention when it comes to the city’s response to the fatal shooting of Timothy Thomas 20 years ago.
But an unheralded civic panel formed in the aftermath of Cincinnati’s 2001 racial reckoning also had lasting impact on the region.
Cincinnati CAN, which stood for “Community Action Now,” issued a series of recommendations in 2003 after studying the racial disparities underlying the civil unrest that Thomas’ killing sparked.
The recommendations created initiatives to improve educational results, enhance economic opportunities and build a healthier relationship between Cincinnati police and the city’s Black residents.
All these years later, Cincinnati DID. Many of those programs still are going strong.
“It does say something about the will of Cincinnati,” said Janet Reid, the CEO of BRBS World and one of the business leaders who pressed for the creation of Cincinnati CAN.
“Considering our origins,” she said, “I would say looking at what CAN did is phenomenal.”
Those origins predated April 2001.
In the years leading up to Thomas’ death and the subsequent unrest, the Ku Klux Klan routinely erected a cross on Fountain Square for the Christmas holiday season, Reid recalled. For years, a local department store had both Black and white Santas for the holiday, she said, so white children wouldn’t have to sit on a Black Santa’s lap. Not to mention the racial disparities in education, policing and employment that were among the root causes Cincinnati CAN examined.
“Part of the beauty of CAN is that people were paired together with folks that they never would have associated with in a social – or even a work – setting,” said Reid, who teamed up with former Kroger Co. CEO Joe Pichler to form recommendations around entrepreneurship. “I would say that the infrastructure that we focused on so strongly really bode well.”
WCPO 9 News interviewed leaders with four initiatives born of Cincinnati CAN’s recommendations: the Minority Business Accelerator; Success by Six; Cincinnati Arts & Technology Studios; and the Community Police Partnering Center. The Greater Cincinnati Foundation provided startup funding to three of the initiatives with its Better Together Cincinnati campaign, through which 14 local corporations and foundations contributed $6.5 million over eight years.
But the programs all survived beyond that early funding by finding permanent homes inside larger nonprofits. Here’s a look at what these four initiatives accomplished in the last 17 years.
Minority Business Accelerator
The idea behind the Minority Business Accelerator was straightforward: If the region could help grow more sizeable Black-owned businesses, those businesses would create jobs and would be more likely to employ Black residents.
“Has it served the purpose it was intended? I can only say yes,” said Darrin Redus, senior vice president of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and the accelerator’s executive director since 2016. “The yes is very documentable.”
Created in 2003 to serve local Black-owned companies with a minimum of $1 million in annual revenue, certification as minority-owned businesses and plans for accelerated growth, the MBA later added Hispanic-owned businesses to its mission.
The program based at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber has served more than 70 sizeable local companies in its portfolio, Redus said.
Those companies have created more than 3,500 jobs. Redus said 60% of those employees are minorities or women. The program’s average portfolio company has sales of $30 million per year, he said, with total combined annual revenue of more than $1.5 billion.
The accelerator has gotten national recognition for its success, including a grant from The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to create a “playbook” to show other communities how to replicate the program.
More U.S. cities are interested in doing that, Redus said, as a response to last year’s calls for social justice and a growing desire among big corporations to increase their spending with minority-owned companies.
“Cincinnati is elevated all the more as a national model,” he said. “The work over the past 20 years to create larger-scale African-American and Hispanic firms has certainly positioned this region as an absolute leader in the country.”
Still, Redus said, there is more work to be done.
The COVID-19 economic crisis took a toll on the MBA’s portfolio firms, Redus said, although none have failed.
The goal, he said, is to get those companies growing again. Redus also wants to help other minority entrepreneurs grow by acquiring companies whose original founders want to sell, for example, and the accelerator wants to help promising, minority-owned tech companies, too.
That, he said, would be good for everyone.
“There is often a misconception that this work is somehow a zero-sum game – that if more in the minority community are winning, if you will, then others are losing,” Redus said. “These businesses are not just creating jobs for people of color, even though that is certainly well-documented and needed. But they’re creating jobs for the community as a whole. They’re creating investment opportunities for the community as a whole.”
Success by Six
Among Cincinnati CAN’s theories was the idea that helping the city’s neediest children become better prepared for kindergarten would help them lead better lives.
That was the idea behind Success by Six, overseen by United Way of Greater Cincinnati.
Success by Six advocates for quality preschool and childcare for the region’s children from birth through 5 years old with a special focus on ensuring that low-income children aren’t left behind.
“If we don’t improve that, then we’re not giving all of our kids opportunities,” said Moira Weir, United Way’s CEO. “That’s where we have to make sure that we continue to be laser-focused that every child in our region has access to quality education.”
Since the program launched in 2003, other early childhood education programs have gained traction, too. Two of the best known are Every Child Succeeds, which focuses on children from birth to age 3, and Preschool Promise, which aims to ensure every Cincinnati child gets a quality preschool education.
A study released in January 2020 found those early childhood education efforts make a big difference.
That study found low-income children were 74% more likely to be on track in kindergarten after attending preschool, and Black children were 66% more likely to be on track.
Those benefits continued into elementary school, with Black children who attended preschool being 28% more likely to score proficient on third-grade reading tests, the study found. It also found that children who were prepared for kindergarten were far more likely to succeed throughout high school.
The work has become intertwined with United Way’s efforts to reduce poverty and help parents build the lives they want for their kids, Weir said.
“You have to work with a family to help children thrive,” she said. “It’s family work. It’s family systems work. It’s honoring families and recognizing that children do best in families. They do best in their communities. They do best with those that they trust.”
Cincinnati Arts & Technology Studios
Trust is also the “secret sauce” behind Cincinnati Arts & Technology Studios, which was endorsed by the CAN Commission in 2003 to provide after-school art instruction for high school students at risk of dropping out. The program has served 5,200 Cincinnati Public School students since inception and boasts a 95% high school graduation rate among its participants, 50% of whom enrolled in college.
“The secret sauce is relationships,” said Lee Carter, a local philanthropist who was already raising money for the program when Cincinnati CAN was formed.
“We all succeed for somebody beside ourselves,” Carter said. “What a lot of inner-city kids would like to have is a stronger relationship with a mentor who will help and pick them up when they fall.
Modeled after a Pittsburgh program called Manchester Bidwell, CATS employs a 1-to-12 ratio of teachers to students to allow its instructors to build bonds that help students through adversity.
“When you have a child who has done a piece of art and you talk to him or her about what she was thinking when she did this, you can learn a tremendous amount about these children’s backgrounds and the problems that they face,” Carter said. “They’ll tell you things that they never would tell you if it weren’t for the artwork."
CATS operated for 17 years at Longworth Hall, until the Coronavirus pandemic caused Cincinnati Public Schools to stop transporting students to the program. With a third of its funding gone, Carter started looking for partners to keep the program alive. That search led to the Children’s Home of Cincinnati, which is developing a new space to house the program going forward.
“The Children’s Home is just a perfect place to land, because they deal with 30 different school districts. So we can expand the impact of our work over a much broader spectrum,” Carter said. “In dealing with them, they’re just straight-forward, honest people who care about kids. We couldn’t have found a better home.”
Community Police Partnering Center
Finding a permanent home also kept the Community Police Partnering Center from fading into oblivion. Initially funded with an $8 million grant in 2003 from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, the police-community relations program was merged into the Urban League in 2015, said Dorothy Smoot, executive director.
“We have tenacity,” Smoot said. “The intent is what we have to keep going; the desire for our city is what we have to keep going. So, I think that’s why it existed, because there’ve always been people who keep championing the cause.”
The program has its roots in the Collaborative Agreement between the city, the Cincinnati FOP, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Cincinnati Black United Front. One of the reforms it required was the establishment of a Problem-Oriented Policing strategy that relies on community input to identify trouble spots and underlying causes of crime.
“Our role is not to tell people what to do but to facilitate those conversations so that they decide what they want to do,” Smoot said. “When I walk into a room, I tell them, ‘Look, I don’t know how to fix this problem. What I have is a process that will help you get through to a place where everybody can feel that they had a voice in what happened.’ We want everybody to have skin in the game for a safe community.”
Smoot estimates the program engages about 550 residents annually. In the last four years, 400 people attended its Youth Summit. It typically works in 10 neighborhoods at a time. Its most recent efforts include the development of a safety plan for East Price Hill and Westwood Uniting to Stop the Violence. She’s convinced the program made the collaborative agreement more effective, but she’s also glad it wasn’t the only reform recommended by Cincinnati CAN.
“When you take a look at what the CAN Commission learned, which is why they invested in all of these areas, what we learned is that the inequities that existed were contributors to the problems that we had," Smoot said. "So, I don’t know that you can do without any of them. I think the root cause is that we need to address those issues that create the sense of hopelessness."
Reid is pleased that so much of Cincinnati CAN’s work has endured, she said, but the community faces “new challenges.”
“If a CAN 2.0 were to be created, we have to learn how to have dialogue with people who are different than we are,” she said. “That was sort of a forced situation with CAN. Right now, the divisions have been exacerbated with politics and a number of other things.”
More people understand the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion now than they did 20 years ago, said Reid, who consults about those topics with some of the world’s largest corporations. But it seems more difficult than ever to communicate effectively and find solutions, she said.
There is good work underway, she stressed. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Greater Cincinnati Foundation and Crossroads Church are among the region’s leaders in those efforts, she said.
“I do think overall our community is in a better place,” she said. “We’ve proven that we can come together, and we’ve proven that we can make things sustainable.”
The question, she said, is how much more can Cincinnati accomplish?
“George Floyd’s horrific murder, I believe, has piqued a desire to move forward again in Cincinnati,” Reid said. “Can we do it again? The good news is that a lot of us from 20 years ago are still here. But there are a ton of new leaders. The younger leaders are powerful, and they come from a different perspective.”
Even with all the work that remains, Reid said she’s optimistic.
“This city,” she said, “is worth it.”