Overcoming Inequality and Innovating Community Building: India Pierce Lee Lecture

Overcoming Inequality and Innovating Community Building: India Pierce Lee Lecture

On Thursday April 10, urban planning students were invited to a special conversation preceding a GSD-wide lecture with India Pierce Lee (LF ’09), the Cleveland Foundation’s director for neighborhoods, housing, and community development.

India Pierce LeePierce Lee began the evening’s discussion by introducing herself as “a closet everything: architect, planner, you name it.” Although her first job was as an air traffic controller, Pierce Lee began her career in Cleveland’s robust neighborhood planning community as a housing director for a local community development corporation.

For that role she hit the ground running, learning about all the relevant design and development professions by engaging in the field firsthand. She remembers some of her coworkers, however, sitting in offices and attempting to make decisions about the neighborhoods she had grown up in and knew well. Many of the solutions they proposed did not take into account what the people who lived in those areas actually wanted or needed. So Pierce Lee began leading her cohorts into the neighborhoods they were trying to improve, walking street by street, knocking on doors and talking to people. “Just because people live in a certain neighborhood doesn’t mean they want substandard things,” she said, articulating a major theme of her life’s work.

Pierce Lee carried the importance of experiential learning and active civic engagement into her role at the Cleveland Foundation, whose mission is to cohesively and effectively distribute the city’s charitable resources within the greater Cleveland region. There, staff work together and actively participate in the communities they support, “not in silos,” said Pierce Lee. “Cities today need to be planned around people, not just bricks and mortar. Planners need to understand how neighborhoods work and engage the people who live there.”

After speaking with the planning students, Pierce Lee gave a lecture to a larger audience during which she announced the upcoming tenth year anniversary of Cleveland’s Greater University Circle Initiative, the very project she proposed to study during her year as a Loeb Fellow.

GUCI is a unique program that captures the strength of the large medical, educational, and philanthropic anchor institutions in the Cleveland University Circle area. They are committed to working together and with the city systematically to develop ground-up programming for economic development and social enterprise. Their aim is to address the significant wealth gap that exists between the ring of impoverished neighborhoods that surround the culturally and institutionally rich University Circle.

Pierce Lee and her team at the Cleveland Foundation, including Lillian Kuri (MAUD ’96), program director for architecture, urban design, and sustainable development, developed a “buy local, hire local, and live local” strategy to nurture a reciprocal relationship between the anchor institutions and their neighbors. The resulting programs empower community members to direct their own initiatives, foster economic inclusion by connecting neighbors to jobs within the institutions and rebuild the dilapidated sections of the physical environment.

GUCI’s successes have included micro-lending to overlooked businesses and implementing infrastructure design  solutions for a public transit station to help children reach their school safely. One of their initiatives, a neighborhood conversation program, has become a national model for community building. “People are so caught up in technology that they can’t see that the resources are in the room,” Pierce Lee said, “which is why it’s so important to develop neighborhood connections.”

Green City Growers“We are not just grantmakers,” Pierce Lee explained. Rather, she described a “lightbulb going off” when the GUCI team devised a program that prepared youth for the tech jobs of the future, realizing that it accomplished several goals by meeting at the intersection of education, economic development, and job training. Such multi-tiered investments have become the hallmark of GUCI’s achievements, particularly the Evergreen Cooperatives, a series of worker-owned operations that provide laundry and solar energy engineering services to the local institutions. Similarly, the 3.5-acre Green City Growers, the largest greenhouse dedicated to food production in the country, annually produces 3 million heads of lettuce that are purchased by the institutions and others in the community. These wealth building strategies exemplify Pierce Lee’s vision of changing the narrative of how we imagine community and how we leverage resources.

Today, GUCI is model for other urban areas looking to dynamically reimagine the power of collective leadership. The precedent’s unique approach persuasively demonstrates the power of local philanthropy as a catalyst for scalable community change. A published report on GUCI establishes guidelines for how to organize the economic leadership of anchor institutions to effectively invest in their surrounding communities, “making small changes and scaling it up,” as Pierce Lee said.  So far, the model has been used to educate community leaders in major U.S. cities, including Washington, DC, Jacksonville, and Atlanta, where it inspired the successful Atlanta Lettuce Project.

Pierce Lee concluded the lecture by underscoring how important her relationships are within the Cleveland Foundation and the greater Cleveland community to the success of all GUCI’s projects. She advised, “Be open and willing to listen. Be open and willing to learn, because you will never do it alone; other people get you there. No matter how successful you are, don’t forget that someone helped you get where you are.”

After the conversation, Allison Green, a first-year planning student, was impressed. “India Pierce Lee is a great example of an urban game-changer. I came away from her talk with a wider understanding of how urban planning, great design, and economic development can create more equitable cities.”

Jonathan Springfield (MUP) agreed. “It was inspiring and refreshing to hear India Pierce Lee describe her work in Cleveland, and made me think about the ways that community organizing and neighborhood planning can bring a wide range of actors on board to fund and implement really innovative programs, particularly programs that bring new resources into a neighborhood while building community and avoiding displacement.”

Learn more about the Greater University Circle Initiative,  Evergreen Cooperatives and Green City Growers.

Photo of India Pierce Lee courtesy of the Cleveland Foundation. Image of Green City Growers via the website.

Fellowship Year: 2009
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