By Amy Hanauer
In 1998 my husband got a job offer in Kent, Ohio. Between us we’d lived in New Jersey, New York, Washington, D.C., California, Colorado, Wisconsin and Germany, with brief stints in Israel, France, New Zealand and Australia. Un-intimidated, we consulted a map. Kent looked about an inch away from Cleveland, which seemed fine.
Six-month-old in tow, we flew here for a weekend, hooked up with a real-estate agent by a soon-to-be Kent State colleague. “I think Cleveland Heights or Shaker Heights seems like the right fit for us,” I told her assuredly, but she insisted on dragging us through Cuyahoga Falls and Hudson, her out-of-work executive husband unhelpfully along for the ride. “Hudson,” he drawled, in his Texas accent, “is a regular U-NI-ted Nations.”
We ended up ditching the Realtor and buying the first house we looked at in Cleveland Heights, a for-sale-by-owner, walking distance from a park, a shiny new bookstore, a movie theater and a bunch of coffee shops. We signed the papers that day on the front porch, after they’d wisely lent us a stroller and sent us out in the neighborhood.
We didn’t know then that the roomy bookstore would close a few years later, along with countless other bookstores in America (some tiny but spunky ones endure — thank you Mac’s Backs). We didn’t yet know that one failed school levy too many would eventually push us, then with two kids, three miles south to Shaker, another well-integrated suburb but one that more consistently funds its schools. But we did know that block of inner-ring Cleveland seemed like a place we could be happy.
I stayed home with my son for a few months after we arrived, but work is in my blood, and I was driving us all crazy. Alas, when I started nosing around for a job doing applied research on workers as I’d done in Madison and Milwaukee, there were no takers.
But as a Belt column by Anne Trubek pointed out, Cleveland is a place “where you can get something done.” So my husband and I crunched some numbers and wrote a report exploring how working people were doing in Ohio, finding an answer of “not too well” (although the late ‘90s now look pretty good compared to the years since). The Akron Beacon Journal wrote a six-part series on our findings and a small posse of progressive labor, business, community, foundation and academic leaders began asking whether Ohio could support a think tank doing more research like this. And the nonprofit research institute Policy Matters Ohio was born.
With a spirit less literary but in other ways similar to that of Belt, we sought to create a more vibrant, equitable, sustainable and inclusive Ohio. One with lower unemployment and more opportunity. Fewer potholes and more bike paths. Fewer trap doors to drop out of the middle class, more on-ramps to climb into it. Fewer predatory loans, foreclosures and labor law violations. Better schools, more preschool slots, cheaper tuition, nicer parks, more immigrants, better jobs, cleaner energy, stronger communities.
Fourteen years later, our Cleveland and Columbus-based staff has helped craft layoff-aversion programs, fund worker training, and explain to voters why we should preserve collective bargaining. Our research has played a role in requiring more clean energy, increasing and indexing the Ohio minimum wage, and better regulating financial products. We’ve also banged our heads against a lot of walls, railing in vain against ineffective tax cuts, privatization of essential public services, defunding of schools, and giveaways to corporations.
As a whole, if our goal has been more vibrancy, equity, sustainability and inclusivity, it’s hard to argue we’re winning. Since we launched in 2000, the planet has heated up, America has become less equal, Ohio has sprawled without growing much, and we’ve left more people behind. And yet, and yet.
Like many Belters, I sense possibility in Ohio and here in Cleveland. I’m suddenly seeing more sharrows as I bike around Shaker. A still-incomplete-but-nonetheless-better bike route has sprung up between my house and my office in Midtown. Among the other state think tanks in our national network, I’m not sure there are any with rent cheaper than that of our sunny fourth-floor space, with its leaky ceiling and “sure-you-can-let-staff-bring-their-dog-in” vibe. We’ve seen advocates unite around the need for revenue in the state budget, watched an emerging green-economy movement gain strength, cheered as the Ohio Organizing Collaborative developed a reputation as one of the nation’s best new organizing efforts, and applauded at a labor movement that can still sometimes take on the governor and both houses of the legislature.
A few weeks ago, I rode with Cleveland Critical Mass, a crazy collection of hundreds of cyclists on everything from high-end racing bikes and tagalongs to red crushed-velvet-seated low-riders and beat-up hybrids like mine. Starting at Public Square, we rode past housing projects and working-class neighborhoods, past three college campuses and two art museums, past bars, board-ups, a nursing home and a farmer’s market.
“Happy Friday,” the bikers yelled, one playing Superman theme music, another blocking cars at a busy corner. “Happy Friday,” the onlookers yelled back, toddlers and parents and students and barhoppers. That insanely perfect night felt, just maybe, like the beginning of something great.
Amy Hanauer is the founding executive director of Policy Matters Ohio.