Building Community through Racially Inclusive Network-Building in Cleveland’s Slavic Village

July 2023
By Pam Turos

Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Sharena Zayed always felt that her neighbors had to “look up to someone, look for something, wait for something” rather than feeling a sense of ownership in their community. A former nursing assistant, Sharena began attending Citizens to Bring Back North Broadway out of a sense that her neighborhood was being left behind as the more visible and well-known areas of Slavic Village began to attract re-investment.   

For many of those who call it home, Cleveland’s Slavic Village is a diverse, resilient community with a rich history and deep, untapped potential. To most outsiders, the community is recognized primarily for its place at the epicenter of America’s foreclosure crisis. Like other disinvested communities, its empty lots and abandoned storefronts are often seen as “a great opportunity” for developers, good and bad. 

Shortly after Sharena began attending community network meetings, she met Earl Pike, the executive director at University Settlement, a local social service agency. The two quickly began to collaborate, and Sharena now works as the organization’s North Broadway Network Weaver, helping neighborhood residents see the leadership potential in themselves and the possibilities for their community.

Several years ago, when University Settlement began considering a capital building campaign, Pike was rightfully concerned about the twin evils of gentrification and racism that often undermine community redevelopment efforts. Pike contacted Mark Joseph, PhD., founding director of the National Initiative for Mixed-Income Communities (NIMC) at Case Western Reserve University, to combat this. 

Over the course of a multi-year partnership, NIMC, University Settlement, Trusted Space Partners, Neighborhood Connections, and Slavic Village Development designed and implemented a community-network building approach that would “shift the operating culture of Slavic Village from one that is characterized by fear, isolation, and hopelessness to one of trust, aspiration, and interdependence.” 

Each partner organization was asked to commit to shared principles that underscore community engagement efforts. The principles, heavily influenced by the community networking-building philosophy of Frankie Blackburn and Bill Traynor at Trusted Space Partners, include: 


  • Human-Centered: We aim to connect as genuine human beings first
  • Aspirational: We promote aspiration and innovation over fear and despair
  • Humility: We commit to respecting and honoring resilience and wisdom through the community
  • No Neutral Space: We take an explicit antiracist stance and seek to disrupt existing power dynamics
  • Non-Institutional Forms: We cultivate inclusive community-based networks over exclusive organizations
  • Give and Get: We believe everyone has something to give and something to gain in all contexts
  • Demand-Driven: We engage community members as co-investors and co-owners, not clients or customers
  • Healing-Oriented: We prioritize healing for all and acknowledge historic and ongoing trauma at many levels
  • Curiosity: We engender a spirit of inquiry, lifelong learning and perpetual personal and organizational growth

Throughout the process, Sharena saw how resident perspectives were valued, and partners frequently reminded them to trust their abilities: "NIMC helped reinforce the fact that we know what to do. And we can trust ourselves to do what’s right . . . It’s hard to get out of that mindset, even as an adult. I’m still that little girl walking with her mom to get some assistance.” In contrast, she now feels empowered to remind her neighbors, “This is your community. This is your life. You have power, and it’s time to use it.” 

T-shirt being designed with respect the groundhog as a logo

Recalling the early days of their work together, Sharena and Earl shared that the first issue Slavic Village residents organized around was groundhogs. Yes, groundhogs. Nuisance groundhogs burrowing into building foundations seemed to overtake the neighborhood. The City of Cleveland’s bureaucratic process for trapping them was falling short, so the group worked with Neighborhood Connections to acquire $5,000 in grant funding and hired an expert. 

“Operation Groundhog” involved working with a local trapper who contracts with rural landowners to release the animals safely. The number of groundhogs (and resulting damage) has decreased, and Sharena reports that other neighborhoods have contacted her to see how they can repeat the process in their community. Resolving this issue together in thoughtful and ethical ways lit a spark of empowerment in residents. 

group of people posing for the camera wearing Respect the Groundhog t-shirts

Weekly meetings continued online during the pandemic, generating a sense of connectedness and interdependence that would underscore a power shift in the community. Inspired by the community network-building process, residents began to rally around other issues, such as a “Welcome Wagon” to connect new residents with local businesses and the successful opposition to a new county jail in the neighborhood. 

Beyond the impact felt by Slavic Village residents, the process has also empowered their community partner organizations.  Taryn Gress, former strategic director at NIMC, initially led the engagement with University Settlement and transitioned to a new role as Network Manager for Community Weaving at Neighborhood Connections in 2022. After focusing on research and policy for much of her time with NIMC, Taryn immersed herself in the person-to-person connections this project allowed.  

two people wearing masks and t-shirts with the slogan Respect the Groundhog

Highlights for Taryn included “getting to know neighbors and all the gifts that they offer while making connections across lines of difference.” Reflecting on her transition to a more front-and-center role, she shared that “community building needs to be intentional, but it’s not hard to do. It takes persistence, consistency, being your authentic self, and being vulnerable.” 

For Earl, working with NIMC provided the guidance and support he needed to take some risks as a nonprofit leader. The last few years have felt like a “return to the core values that were right all along – democracy, organizing, equity” – concepts that are simpler in theory than in practice with a board of directors and longstanding systems of power to navigate.

If the Slavic Village network building efforts could be measured as a success, it would be for its achievement in “building a community, not a building,” says Earl. For Sharena, the best evidence of its success comes when she sees more children outside playing and steadily improved living conditions for her neighbors. 

“While we were talking about this new building and the residents it would bring to our community, it kept coming up that many of our longtime residents were living in pretty terrible conditions.” To address these concerns, Sharena and another group member developed a Housing Evaluation form used to audit local houses and identify repair needs. This was a process that required tremendous trust among residents. “It can be embarrassing to bring someone in and show them your struggles, like if you don’t have running water,” said Sharena. Using the data from those assessments, University Settlement applied for grant funding to complete critical repairs on 15-20 homes, with more to come. 

Even if a resident does have the personal funds to make repairs, those who live in disenfranchised communities are often the targets of unscrupulous contractors. Sharena experienced this several years ago when contractors stole over $10k and never completed the work on her home. Now, because of the success of their network-building efforts, she and her neighbors rely on each other, in big ways and small, to access the resources and support they need to live well together.