Workshop launches Sustainable Heights

Julian Rogers facilitates idea sharing. Photo by Jessica Schreiber.

Sustainability was the theme of a meeting of Cleveland Heights and University Heights movers and shakers at Forest Hill Church on a recent sunny afternoon, the last Friday of April. Limited to 50 invited guests, the workshop brought together a diverse mix of individuals and organizations for a half-day meeting designed to launch Sustainable Heights.

The meeting was an outgrowth of Cleveland’s sustainability summit last August. An ad hoc group of Heights leaders who attended the Cleveland summit decided to plan a similar process for the CH-UH community. The workshop titled "Sustainable Heights: An Appreciative Inquiry" was a first step.

Rev. John Lentz, the charismatic leader of Forest Hill Church, opened the program by inviting participants to engage and celebrate, appreciate, connect, network and model. The meeting was endorsed by newly elected UH Mayor Susan Infeld and CH Mayor Ed Kelley. Both touted their city’s environmental policies and green projects, such as recycling, rainwater collection, community gardens, a solar paneled bus stop and a retrofitted community center.

Cleveland Heights has a long history of promoting sustainability. Lana Cowell, who helped found Heights Community Congress more than 38 years ago, said, "In those days a sustainable community meant racial equality, fair housing and good schools. Today we talk more in terms of protecting the environment, preserving our natural resources and reducing our carbon footprint." Cowell defined a sustainable community with three E’s: environmental soundness, economic prosperity, and social equity.

Meetings that focus on environmental issues often include a lot of hand wringing. This was not the tone of this workshop. Deanna Bremer Fisher, director of FutureHeights, encouraged participants to "celebrate the things we are already doing right."

The real work began when Mark Chupp, assistant professor at CWRU’s Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, led a process called "appreciative inquiry," which explores the positive forces in a community when it functions at its best. From "what is" comes the possibility of "what could be."

Gathering first in pairs, then in small groups, the participants identified the assets of Cleveland Heights and University Heights. The result was an impressive inventory of local treasures that included a well-educated multicultural population, large stock of beautiful historic homes, locally-owned businesses, proximity to University Circle, numerous cultural resources and organizations, an excellent library system and "passionate people actively working to better the community."

Participants compiled a list of existing networks and associations. The breadth of local groups—nonprofit organizations, colleges and universities, medical centers, philanthropic foundations, religious institutions, city governments, public and private schools—surprised even longtime community members.

Exhilarated by all the good news about the CH-UH community, the participants entered the final phase: making decisions and determining the next steps. The facilitator asked if there was support for a Sustainable Heights summit. The response was an enthusiastic "yes!" Were participants ready to sign up for short-term action teams? Almost everyone signed up for at least one team.

A range of short-term action proposals percolated. Could we bring homes up to code, and repair blighted homes and neighborhoods? Extend recycling to businesses? Use the former Oakwood Country Club property as a public green space? Participants wanted to see safe bicycle routes to schools and green jobs development for local businesses.

One participant pointed out that good schools are the prerequisite for sustainability. If Heights schools fail to attract and keep families, our community is not sustainable in the long run. CH-UH School Superintendent Doug Heuer spoke about efforts underway to apply for a federal innovation grant that could yield up to $30 million to establish a district-wide Wi-Fi network. The network would support classroom programs and 24/7 learning for every student in the district. Too many kids in the CH-UH lose access to the Web when they go home.

Community activist Sarah Wean gave a PowerPoint presentation on community asset mapping, in which a community creates a map showing its green resources and cultural offerings. The proposed community "green map" would be accessible on the Internet and iPhone.

Closing remarks by Julian Rogers, executive director of Education Voters of Ohio, summed up the overwhelmingly positive response to the workshop. With palpable energy in the room and broad support to continue to the next phase, it was clear that Sustainable Heights is a project on the move.

Jessica Schreiber, a Cleveland Heights resident, is an attorney mediator with Schreiber, O'Donnell & Schwartz Mediators, LLC. She serves on the boards of HRRC and the Mediation Association of Northern Ohio.

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Volume 3, Issue 6, Posted 12:26 AM, 05.21.2010