Citizen action is something to celebrate

In 1966, Painesville residents Diana and Ted Woodbridge started their search for a home closer to the city. As they looked for housing in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs, the white couple was steered away from a neighborhood that had recently started to integrate—a distressing artifact of the days of legally sanctioned racial segregation. The experience began a life-changing journey that, five years later, produced a powerful resource for justice that endures today: Home Repair Resource Center (HRRC).

In 1968, after moving to the predominantly white Oxford neighborhood of Cleveland Heights, Diana Woodbridge became a checker for the Suburban Citizens for Open Housing. When she learned that an African-American woman seeking to rent an apartment was rejected by the landlord, Woodbridge posed as a prospective tenant for the same unit and was offered a lease.

“It was blatant discrimination,” she recalled.

Woodbridge’s commitment to justice and inclusion developed further when she participated in the Church and Society Committee at Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian. The committee studied race and reconciliation one year, and the next year focused on social change and fair housing. The group felt compelled to act.

Woodbridge knew exactly what she wanted to do: make Cleveland Heights—a community that was just beginning to include African-American homeowners—a model integrated community. She had passion, conscience, vision, and a trusted group of colleagues with whom she shared determination to make a difference.

“We were lucky,” remembered Woodbridge. “Members of our group had the expertise for creating a nonprofit. In September of 1971, Charlie Ault helped us incorporate as Forest Hill Church Housing Corporation. We had a vision for our community. We wanted to make a difference. We settled on something we knew was critical to a stable, diverse, welcoming community: keeping the houses in good repair.” Woodbridge eventually became the executive director of the new nonprofit and held the job for 35 years.

Forty years ago, the church-based group began to evolve and build a supportive board separate from the church. Today it operates as HRRC, and through an enduring presence made possible by an inspiring and critical mission, effective programs, and the financial support and energy of community members, it has empowered homeowners to invest more than $14 million in their homes—touching nearly every street in Cleveland Heights.

This combination of zeal, empowerment and a group of caring citizens with a common purpose is a recipe for successful citizen activism, the building block of a just society and a strong community. 

Since then, many other citizen-led and supported nonprofits have been established to enrich community life. HRRC was followed by the Heights Community Congress, Heights Parent Center, Reaching Heights, Heights Arts, Future Heights, Open Doors, Heights Youth Club. This year Lake Erie Ink and the Heights Bicycle Coalition joined the ranks of locally focused nonprofits, and more will follow as needs change and new generations of activists step forward to shape our city.

This year Home Repair Resource Center, Heights Community Congress and the Heights Parent Center will achieve significant milestones. These programs built stronger ties and deeper commitments among our residents. They built community, which is the strongest resource there is for stability.

As we celebrate this great history and tradition, I hope it will renew our sense of responsibility to one another, and inspire a new and diverse generation of community leaders to come forward to pursue their vision for our community and society through collective citizen activism.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is former director of Reaching Heights and a board member of the Home Repair Resource Center. She has lived in Cleveland Heights since 1979.

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Volume 5, Issue 5, Posted 10:38 AM, 05.02.2012