'Inspirational and moving': The artists and activists changing the face of a US city

John Mulholland

Many cities across the US face significant challenges – places like Baltimore, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland are among them. Much has been written about how these former economic powerhouses have struggled over the last few decades.

But this week we want to tell a different story.

We want to highlight the remarkable people and groups (many of them not-for-profits and social enterprises) working on inspiring projects that show the resilience of those wanting to improve the lives of people in one of those cities, Cleveland, Ohio.


Many cities across the US face significant challenges – places like Baltimore, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland are among them. And much has been written about how these former economic powerhouses have struggled over the last few decades. 

But this week in the first installment of our City Champions series, we want to highlight the remarkable people and groups working on inspiring projects that show the resilience of those wanting to improve the lives of people in one of those cities: Cleveland, Ohio

Cleveland has many challenges - inequality, structural racism, infant mortality, shamefully untreated lead poisoning - but it also has a network of people creating innovative projects that are addressing these challenges with significant success. 

Collaborating with the local newspaper - The Plain Dealer - and the local PBS and NPR stations, run by ideastream, we canvassed residents for their suggestions for who to recognize and received hundreds of replies. 

We then created an advisory panel of mostly local public figures who helped select the final 25 champions, whose stories we will be telling this week. 

As part of this project we have also worked with the art collective For Freedoms to create a public art expression for this project. Working with For Freedoms and local artists, we commissioned artwork for six billboards that help tell the stories of the city and the challenges the champions are addressing. 

–John Mulholland, editor in chief, Guardian US



Cleveland has many challenges – inequality, a deeply segregated city, black infant mortality, shamefully untreated lead poisoning that mostly affects brown and black communities– but it also has a network of people creating innovative projects that are addressing these challenges with significant success.

We will be telling their stories over the next week in the first installment of our City Champions series.

We have collaborated with the local newspaper – the Plain Dealer – and the local PBS station, ideastream. All of three news organisations canvassed residents for their suggestions as to who should be recognised as Cleveland’s champions. We received hundreds and hundreds of replies.

Helped by an advisory panel of mostly local public figures, we selected the final 25 champions.

You can see a full list of the below; they include groups using art as a form of activism for the city’s youth, doulas supporting women to reduce the shocking rates of black infant mortality, the restaurant giving ex-offenders second chance, and the urban farmers creating a green oasis in what was a food desert in a blighted part of the city.

As part of this project we have also worked with the art collective For Freedoms to create a public art expression for this project. Working with For Freedoms and local artists we commissioned artwork for six billboards that help tell the stories of the city and the challenges these champions are addressing.

Cleveland is not perfect. It has failed many of its residents. They deserve better. But visiting Cleveland and meeting many of these people over the last few months has been inspirational and moving. Seeing the impact these people – our City Champions – are having on the lives of those around them has been remarkable.

We hope these stories inspire our readers too.

Birthing Beautiful Communities

Across the US, black babies are twice as likely to die before reaching their first birthday as white babies and in Cleveland they are more than three times as likely to die – a situation that the Ohio city’s doula collective, Birthing Beautiful Communities, is determined to change.

The collective, founded in 2014 by Christin Farmer, provides culturally sensitive education, advocacy and emotional support for women during pregnancy and up to a year after birth.

Shooting Without Bullets

“I go to sleep to gunshots. But that doesn’t stop me from being successful” says Lai Lai Bonner, 19, who is one of the young creatives being mentored by the art collective Shooting Without Bullets, whose founder Amanda King says: “Black youth have historically shaped culture and art, they just haven’t gotten the credit for it.”

Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute

Chef Brandon Chrostowski knows the power of getting a second chance after getting into trouble himself with the police as a young man – and now his restaurant training institute takes in 40 ex-offenders every two months and gives them a springboard to a job in the industry, and a path away from reoffending, which they virtually all seize.

Donté Gibbs

Gibbs and his volunteers have surprised 1,536 families with gifts and gift cards at Christmas in East Cleveland, Ohio’s poorest city, between 2013 and 2018, and hope to expand the effort to provide school supplies and clothes.

Rid-All

The urban farming group has transformed a desolate illegal dumping ground in Cleveland into a lush, eight-acre agricultural innovation site and spawned not-for-profit and business spin-offs, including a commercial fish farm and vegan catering and beekeeping.

Rust Belt Riders

In Cleveland, like most of the US, there is no government composting service. Rust Belt Riders is a local food-waste collection company that began in 2014 as two guys on their bikes collecting and composting food and now collects 50,000 pounds of food waste weekly from 150 schools, restaurants and grocery stores and homes.

Archie Green

Rapper Archie Green’s mental health initiative uses hip-hop to destigmatize mental illness and provide a “coping mechanism toolkit”, with a special focus on those in the black community. Through events that incorporate hip-hop performance, discussion groups and panels with pastors, artists and health professionals, Green has carved out an unlikely haven for those grappling with mental illness.

Refugee Response

Refugee Response creates programs to address the needs of the 2,500 refugees who have settled in Cleveland since 2008. The offerings include in-home tutoring, work on one of the largest urban farms in the country and a program for high school students.

Urban Community School

For the past 51 years, the Urban Community School on Cleveland’s Near West Side has offered an ecumenical education for preschool through eighth-grade students living in low-income neighborhoods. Its 578 students from eight surrounding neighborhoods represent a diversity of races and ethnicities. Most students pay just $110 per year, representing only 3% of the nearly $7m annual budget revenue.

Will Sanchez

Will Sanchez of La Cosecha Galleria has weathered nearly two years behind bars and a few other hardships. Among his early transgressions was trying to rob a store in the Stockyard neighborhood. That store is now the location of his art gallery, which has been closed since a storm last July. But he hopes to reopen later this month with a series of holiday markets and eventually open a store down the block.

Twelve Literary Arts

Twelve Literary Arts is an intergenerational teaching, learning and professional development organisation for poets, writers and performance artists who seek a safe space to write in the middle of Cleveland’s inner city. Is programs include after-school spoken word open mics.

Kim Foreman

Public health campaigner Kim Foreman, of the city’s Environmental Health Watch, has helped drive the creation of historic anti-lead poisoning legislation in the Ohio city earlier this year. And she has long been among those who have campaigned to better protect children at risk of ingesting lead from old paint either peeling or flaking or turning to dust, which is a particular issue in older rental homes in deprived communities.

Ricardo Leon

Ricardo Leon, 27, grew up on Cleveland’s West Side thinking his goal was to leave it. Now he is helping transform neighborhoods there in his role at Metro West Community Development. After helping convert some 30 abandoned homes into residences, he’s engaged in several projects including affordable housing efforts.

Renee Jones

For 17 years, long before human trafficking in Ohio became a topic on billboards, Renee Jones fought human trafficking on two fronts: Educating communities about the problem and helping women get out of the forced sex trade.

Erika Anthony

If a group doesn’t exist to address a problem, Erika Anthony, of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, helps create one, like she did as co-founder of Cleveland Votes in 2014, and multiple community development corporations that span the city.

Hazel Remesch

Hazel Remesch leads an alliance that has been successful in making it easier for Cleveland tenants to seal eviction records, and in getting the city to adopt legislation that gives tenants in eviction cases the right to legal representation

LeJean Ray

Ray is director of the Fatima Center in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood, where children enjoy summer day camp, teens come for leadership training, social activities and, during spring break, visits to college campuses. Ray also fosters a positive relationship between teens and police.

Making Our Own Space

Making Our Own Space introduces kids from low-income, minority middle and high school students to the design professions and processes that shape cities – and shows them how urban design affects their lives, and might even influence career paths they take.

My Com P-16

Slavic Village P-16 Council (for preschool, 12 years of school and four of college) has a simple goal: to help students learn more and build better lives.

Rhonda Crowder

Rhonda Crowder of Hough Reads is helping foster of love of reading in the Cleveland neighborhood that has a high illiteracy rate among adults.

Tim Tramble

Cleveland leaders call the Burten Bell Carr neighborhood development director, Tim Tramble, “one of the most under-sung but influential people in the city’’ and “a star of community development’’ because of his creative ability to solve problems.

Vel Scott

Vel Scott, a former Cleveland restaurateur, has been proving to skeptical Clevelanders that they can cook great meals with less meat, less salt and more fresh vegetables. Scott’s forays into cooking plant-based meals began when her husband, Don, was diagnosed with hypertension. She learned to cook for him and got a new career – teaching people how to cook healthy. She has two not-for-profits, Vel Scott’s Healthy You Program and the Purple Oasis community garden, fueled by the belief that good food is the best medicine.

Stephanie Morrison Hrbek

Morrison Hrbek, 65, founded the Near West Theatre with a $800 grant in 1978 and has overseen its growth into a vibrant community hub now operating from a $7.3m building in the Gordon Square Arts District that she helped create.

West Side Catholic Center

Serving more than 7,000 needy people each year, West Side Catholic Center feeds and clothes its clients and also offers a shelter for women and families, workforce development, help in finding housing and efforts to help people overcome the trauma that comes with being poor.

Damien Ware

Cleveland’s Buckeye neighborhood is well-acquainted with the words of poet Damien Ware, whose prose is painted in bright colors on buildings and embossed in the ground at the base of a statue of a water tower, a monument to the fresh water in nearby Lake Erie that replenishes the neighborhood. He is busy with a day job as a social worker with the Department of Veterans Affairs, but he manages to find time to teaching poetry workshops across Cleveland, particularly in areas that struggle to prioritize the literary arts. Some neighborhoods in Cleveland have illiteracy rates of 90%.

Profiles written by the Plain Dealer and Guardian staff

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