Merrick House plays key role in community organizing in Cleveland
by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, December 2005) Community organizing by Merrick House has played a key role in the city of Cleveland over the past four decades, helping to create more peaceful relations between racial and ethnic groups and assuring access to affordable health care for our city’s poorest citizens.
Merrick House Executive Director Gail Long counts the following among the significant organizing efforts in which Merrick House has been involved:
- the efforts of WELCOME during school desegregation in Cleveland to bridge the racial divide - in the city to help create a more peaceful environment during that trying time period
- the struggle to keep Metro Hospital a public hospital
- the effort to keep the outpatient pharmacy at Metro open
- the free clinic movement which created a health care clinic in Tremont, and
- the formation of block clubs in the turbulent early 1970s in Tremont which eventually led to the formation of Tremont West Development Corporation.
More recently, Long says, Merrick House has been involved in coalitions that challenge policy makers on the city, county and state level to maintain health and human services for those in need.
Most of these efforts, said Long, involved coalition building, in which Merrick House excels. “When organizing around an issue, Merrick House is adept at asking ‘Who else is effected by that? What other organizations should we ask to join us at the table?’ ”, noted longtime activist Gloria Aron.
“Key to Merrick House’s organizing” says Aron, “is that they ask organizations and individuals that have a vested interest in finding a solution and a strategy to come to the table on day one. That way, all have a chance to take ownership over the issue. I don’t want to go to something where all the decisions have been made,” said Aron.
With Gail Long’s impending retirement, the Merrick House Board of Trustees is faced with hiring a new executive director for only the second time since the hiring of Long’s predecessor. Don Pittaway, in 1969.
Larry Bresler, Vice President of Merrick House’s Board of Trustees, says that one critical area of concern is that the new director have a commitment to grassroots community organizing. Bresler, executive director of Organize Ohio!, once served as an organizer at Merrick House. While the board may not be able to hire an executive director with both Long and Pittaway’s backgrounds in community organizing, Bresler says the new director “will have the advantage of building on a platform created by two longterm directors with community organizing experience.”
Long notes the important role that Merrick House’s Board of Trustees plays in what Merrick House does. “The board’s taking leadership is a solid component of what we do,” she said. She noted the board’s commitment in its current five-year plan to providing funds for a community organizer and its commitment to providing space and staff to work on issue organizing.
Long explains the role the executive director plays in the arena of issue organization. “As executive director you have to be the one willing to be the representative of the agency. ‘Here is where Merrick House stands on these issues.’ The message is we are here to empower people to stand up for themselves and to take their message out to the community and policy makers,” she said.
Pittaway, like Long, had a firm commitment to community organizing. Hired by Merrick House in 1966 as a community organizer, Pittaway later served as director of Merrick House’s Clark Fulton branch before being hired as Merrick House’s executive director. Pittaway’s obituary in the March 1994 Plain Press, titled “Legacy of a community organizer”, noted the many hours spent by Pittaway “in agency basements, church halls and community meeting rooms, struggling to improve people’s lives.” During his 1966-1987 tenure at Merrick House, Pittaway is credited with helping to start Tremont West Development Corporation, the West Side Community Mental Health Center (now Bridgeway) and the All People’s Federal Credit Union.
Prior to becoming Merrick House executive director, Long also had extensive background in community organizing. Donna Peters, the recently-retired executive director of the Tremont Opportunity Center and a past president of Merrick House’s board, first met Long in the 1960s when Long was a VISTA worker doing community organizing for the West Side Community House.
Peters worked with Long on many different projects over the next 30 years, as Long worked on a Black Lung project at Metro Hospital and then became assistant director of Merrick House’s Clark Fulton Center under Pittaway. She later became director there, and then assistant director of Merrick House before becoming the executive director.
Bresler sees community organizing as having two key components; 1) bringing people together to make an impact on issues, and 2) empowering people.
Long says community organizers at Merrick House, “first and foremost have to advocate for people coming through their doors for services.” Long says organizers then have to get people receiving those services directly involved in the organizing effort.
“Merrick House is one of the cornerstones of community organizing in this city. They have a strong belief in listening to what people in the community are saying is a problem and getting together and seeing what we as a community can do about it.” says Gloria Aron.
Community organizing in the Tremont and Clark Fulton neighborhoods in the late 1960s and early 1970s kept Merrick House intimately aware of the issues facing neighborhood residents. “Bridge over troubled water”, a 1976 summary of Merrick House’s services prepared by Don Pittaway. sums up Merrick House’s role and philosophy. “Within the broad concept of Neighborhood Development & improvement are services to community groups through staffing, organizing, and supporting with materials and office facilities. The Merrick House philosophy is to encourage community determination of its needs and then assist in organizing to resolve the needs. Currently Merrick House is involved in housing and tenant rights, produce co-ops, a free medical clinic, safety on the streets, mental health, health maintenance through lead poisoning detection, booster shots for tots, and economic development in families through an area credit union.”
Tremont People’s Free Clinic
In the early 1970s West Side Citizens for Better Health Care was organizing on the Near West Side and Tremont to address the need for more accessible health care services. Late in 1970 the Near West Side People’s Clinic opened on the Near West Side. A clinic in Tremont was soon to follow. Donna Peters says Gail Long “was the driving force for opening the Tremont People’s Free Clinic” which opened its doors in January of 1971 at W. 7th and Jefferson. Peters said at that time “people in the neighborhood didn’t have a doctor and didn’t have a place to go for health care. Tremont had fires all the time. People burnt out of their homes had extra special needs.” Peters said she believes a well- child clinic at Valley View public housing estates held once a week “had so many families attending that it put into everybody’s head the need for a local clinic.”
Shortly after its opening, said Peters, the clinic did throat cultures at Tremont Elementary School. She remembers that the high number of children testing positive for strep throat startled the clinic staff. Peters noted that the clinic trained a number of neighborhood residents as patient advocates, several of whom later became nurses.
The clinic, which moved to several different Tremont locations over the years, served a vital need. “We were packed – always busy,” said Peters, who worked for the clinic as an outreach worker, knocking on doors for 14 years after its opening. The Tremont People’s Free Clinic eventually became a City of Cleveland clinic in 1975, but maintained a neighborhood advisory board.
In recent years, when the city of Cleveland closed the Tremont Clinic, Merrick House was instrumental in efforts to bring another health clinic to Tremont. This past year Neighborhood Family Practice opened a Tremont office on Professor Avenue at the site of the former Tremont Clinic.
Racial and ethnic harmony
“West Side, East Side, Let’s Come Together” was the message of WELCOME, which organized Cleveland’s famous bridge walks and other efforts to help assure peaceful desegregation of the Cleveland Public Schools during the first years of court-ordered desegregation in the late 1970s.
A September 3, 1978 Plain Press features a photo of school children carrying WELCOME signs showing a bridge and a black and white hand clasping in a handshake under the bridge. The caption reads “1,200 walk, sing, pray for peaceful desegregation.”
Near West Side resident Gloria Aron remember that the West Side Community House and Merrick House “were two major forces behind peaceful desegregation.”
“My sense is that the school system wasn’t doing anything to prepare the community for desegregation”, said Aron. “Because of the commitment of the directors, boards and members of the community, the West Side Community House and Merrick House took it on.” Aron recalls that at the time most neighborhood groups shied away from desegregation because it was such a divisive issue.
In its first year of operation WELCOME was housed at the West Side Community House. In its second year WELCOME moved to Merrick House. Gail Long said Cleveland School teacher Michael Charney took a year sabbatical to head the group.
Long stressed the importance getting the Merrick House Board of Trustees’ support on important organizing issues. She recalls that the Merrick House Board of Trustees held a half-day retreat to get abreast of all the issues surrounding desegregation before serving as WELCOME’s fiscal agent in the late 1970s.
Founded 1919 by the Christ Child Society and Catholic Charities to serve as a community center for the ethnically-diverse Tremont School district, Merrick House has always worked toward creating better understanding among diverse groups. According to Director Frank J. Catliota, writing in 1946, “throughout the years, one of the outstanding achievements has been the promotion of friendly relationships among nationality groups, races and creeds.”
Merrick House continues that tradition to this day. May Dugan organizer Tim Walters recalls that it was Merrick House organizer Dinah Blake who first called to invite him to come to a meeting after 9/11/ 2001 to form a coalition to keep the community calm and help address safety concerns surrounding the local Arab American Community. The result was a coalition, Toward a Safe Calm Community, which resulted in an opportunity for local Arab Americans and residents of other nationalities and cultural backgrounds to interact and learn more about each other. Several large community meetings and a community potluck were held in late 2001 and early 2002.
Over the years Merrick House organizers and staff have participated in a variety of citywide groups that advocated for improvements in educational policy such as the Cleveland School Budget Coalition. Molly Brudnick of Merrick House-based Tremont Advocates for School Kids says the organization helps bring together people from different parts of the community to advocate for improving literacy in local schools. The organization was also involved in protesting the proposed closing of Tremont School, in efforts to keep a social worker at the school and raising donations for needed school items. Brudnick praised Long’s ongoing commitment to literacy education. She also praised the quality of organizers Long has recruited over the years. Brudnick rattled off the names of the many organizers that have worked with her, volunteering to read to or play music for the children at local schools. Brudnick advises the board of trustees to pay the organizers more. “If they could pay workers more, they would stay longer,” she says, noting all the wonderful people who have moved on other pursuits after a year or two at Merrick House.
Health Care Coalitions:
Keep Metro Public
When the Board of Metro Hospital voted in 1986 to make the hospital private, a countywide coalition, Citizens to Save Metro Health, was formed and housed at Merrick House.
Metro Hospital had previously tried to go private, earlier in the 1980s. However, this time was different. The hospital board had convinced one county commissioner, Tim Hagan, to support making the hospital private. Hagan had previously been opposed to changing the public status of the hospital. The Plain Dealer editorialed in favor of privatization and called on the other two commissioners, Mary Boyle and Virgil Brown, to come on board.
Citizens to Save Metro joined with Low Income People Together at the West Side Community House, many Metro employees, and organizations and citizens throughout the county to work to keep the hospital public. A newspaper was created by the group and distributed countywide to counterbalance the efforts of the Plain Dealer. The coalition convinced the two undecided county commissioners to support keeping the hospital public and the battle was won. MetroHealth Medical Center remains a public hospital to this day. As a public hospital, it is doing most of the things it said it needed to be private to accomplish.
Save Metro Pharmacy
In the mid-1990s another crisis emerged at MetroHealth Medical Center. Gloria Aron recalls receiving a call from a doctor working at Metro about “a rumor that they were going to close the pharmacy. Eight or nine of us got together immediately to discuss the issue. We decided to go to Merrick House for help because of their involvement in health care issues and in keeping Metro public. People who have a concern gravitate to an entity that has some experience with it,” said Aron.
The group successfully demonstrated the extreme hardship the closing caused for those without a neighborhood drug store and those dependent on public transportation. “Going to Metro is often a day-long operation and it made sense for people to get their prescriptions filled while there. For those taking public transportation, taking another trip by bus to the pharmacy placed an unfair burden on a population that could least afford it”, said Aron.
The group’s first success was the reopening of the pharmacy to people on Medicaid. When it was learned that federal funds received by the hospital stipulated that services provided had to be open to everyone, the pharmacy was again open to the general public. Aron says the group stayed together to monitor the pharmacy services. They worked to assure that Metro continued the service after Cleveland Clinic, which administered the pharmacy for Metro for three years, opted not to renew the contract.
Aron says the group began to notice other issues concerning access to health care. A community forum was held at MetroHealth Medical Center around six issues. The forum resulted in a new coalition, Community Partners for Affordable Accessible Health Care. At the end of Mayor Michael White administration, the city threatened to shut down McCafferty Health Center and other city health facilities. Over 250 people showed up at McCafferty early in the morning for a rally called by Community Partners for Affordable Accessible Health Care to show support for keeping the facility open. Aron said it helped that it was an election year. Candidates competing to replace the retiring White promised to support keeping the clinic open as part of their campaigns. Community Partners for Affordable Accessible Health Care, which Aron chairs, continues to work on local, state and national health care issues.
Advocates for Budget Legislative Equality
In recent years Merrick House has joined with the May Dugan Center, Organize Ohio! and the Universal Health Care Action Network of Ohio (UHCAN Ohio) to form Advocated for Budget Legislative Equality (ABLE). “As federal policy continues to become more conservative, the federal government is backing off of its responsibility for health and human services for citizens. A shifting of responsibility for health and human services to the states began with the Reagan administration”, states Long. “Now, with a more conservative-leaning state government, combined with state government that has less income, social services are facing cuts.”
Long notes affordable day care is essential for the success of welfare reform. She says parents and daycare providers are now being affected from day care cuts as funding no longer pays for holidays and overtime, thus impacting the availability of day care.
Aron called it a shame that the county and state have Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) dollars that they are not using, while parents are not able to afford to go to work because of lack of affordable day care. Aron says parents are afraid of making one penny above the poverty cutoff level for day care, because without subsidized day care they can’t afford to go to work. She called upon the state to release TANF dollars instead of placing them in a rainy day fund, saying, “We are past the rainy days, the flood waters are coming.”
Looking to the future, Long says in addition to budgetary advocacy issues, some of her concerns are that “with the whole discussion of regionalism, is it going to include education or is it going to leave the large urban district out of the picture?” Another concern is that “as the local labor force has transitioned from largely industrial workers to largely service workers, there is a strain on the community from less resources”, said Long.
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