“Courage, Commitment & Change. A Reflection.” By August A. Napoli, President & CEO of United Way of Greater Cleveland

Augie Napoli, President & CEO of United Way of Greater Cleveland

Thank you to the Cleveland Public Library for the invitation to participate in this very special day. 

Cleveland Public Library has always been a giant force for good in Cleveland, with a rich history of 150 years.  It lives its moniker of “The People’s University” with a strong and daily commitment to provide a living, breathing space of learning for ALL people in our great community.

With that kind of commitment, in its many forms, it is fitting that the library hosts a celebration to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I am a student of history—certainly not a scholar, but a learner nonetheless. So, I look to history for its guideposts.  Not only to track and study a course of events, but to explore their context.  

As we all know, when we look back to the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. King’s influence, visionary leadership and ultimate sacrifice was pivotal in so many ways.  It was a profoundly formative in my own personal history.  Perhaps because it was a time of such transformation and progress.  Perhaps because those years were so memorable – a roller coaster of tremendous hope and achievement, juxtaposed by deep discontent and soul-crushing sorrow.

During that time, as a country, we all seemed to be united in the ecstasy of discovery, in science, with the race to the moon. But, we were also a country deeply divided by wars in foreign lands, and even more critical, the wars waged between us on our own soil. With pervasive and deep-seated factions of power and privilege fighting to perpetuate a history of discrimination through inequitable traditions, systems and laws—and all-too-often, violence.

There was also a rising tide of voices and a growing army dedicated to unraveling those practices. One of the strongest voices, of course, was Dr. King.  In life, he became a leader for civil rights of such magnitude that more than a half-century later, we still look to his words and to his example for both education and inspiration.

The photograph depicts Dr. King speaking to a crowd in Cleveland on July 29, 1967.
Martin Luther King, Jr. in Cleveland, 1967

As we know, Dr. King was tireless in his efforts.  From 1957 until his death in 1968, he traveled more than 6,000 miles and spoke more than 25 hundred times in his quest to shed light on injustice and inequity. 

He was in a solitary confinement cell in 1963, incarcerated for his participation in an Alabama protest that reverberated around the world, when he wrote the words that I would come to know and embrace as a personal call to action. In the “Letter from a Birmingham jail,” Dr. King’s words were as strong and true then as they are now.  He wrote,

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Yes, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. 

The courage and commitment of Dr. King and thousands of others, directly and indirectly, influenced a multitude of actions designed to stem the tide against the expanse of injustices that had long been inflicted on African Americans, in particular. From the Civil Rights Act signed in 1964 to the Open Housing Act just four years later are just two.

Progress? Certainly. In light of the immense change we know still needs to happen today, it’s far from enough. 

History loudly rings hollow for those who still feel the sting of the racial slur scribbled under cover of darkness.  History is meaningless to entire generations who have suffered from the major inequities that have such a stronghold in housing, in policing, in legal representation and in so many other areas.

Those who have lost their health, their livelihoods, their potential – and even their lives – are foremost in our thoughts.  They serve as a tragic impetus for the actions we must continue to take TODAY. 

The scourge of racism continues to darken the cause for which Dr. King stood.  It remains up to each and every one of us to stand strong before the immense wall that often seems impermeable.

We do that with a consistent drumbeat of both small and large actions designed to tear down what is wrong, as we build up what is right.

I see this process as four-fold:

  • Information
  • Understanding
  • The Collective
  • Giving Voice

We begin with facts and information. They are the powerful support on which the platform rests. I do not think it is lost on any of us here today that we stand in our city’s bastion of historical and current information.  Information we can use to defend and to push forward the essential civil rights work that is so necessary—no question about it—to drive our community’s success. 

We need to have the courage to exercise our individual power, in whatever form it takes.

Beyond the data, a very real and deep understanding of the full scope of the issue – and its true cost – is even more critical.  It’s an understanding of economic terms, to be sure.  But, it is also an understanding of the day-to-day human terms. 

We must open our hearts and our minds, and come to grips with the heavy toll that systemic racism continues to inflict.  We must plainly see the daily struggle that so many of our black and brown brothers and sisters face simply to have a baseline level of quality of life. We must recognize this time as a moral moment that calls for constant questioning and continued conversation.  

With that understanding fully entrenched, what we each do as individuals, counts.  We need to have the courage to exercise our individual power, in whatever form it takes. 

We must use it when we can, to stand with others. Because we have seen what mountains a cohesive collective — that “coalition of conscience” — can scale. The voice of one, and the voices of many, are needed in the struggle that, as Dr. King continues to remind us, affects us all.

My own recent journey has followed this path. On this day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I would like to take a moment to reflect on that.

I joined United Way of Greater Cleveland nearly six years ago as its CEO. I was brought in to be the change agent that would set United Way on a new course, to strengthen an organization to better meet the needs of a region that was profoundly affected by systemic poverty. 

United Way simply had to transform itself from an organization whose primary focus, annually, was passing the dollars we raised to a disparate group of nonprofits. We were capable of so much more. 

We had 100-plus years’ worth of knowledge of poverty in our quiver and expertise that we could use to plant our stake firmly in the ground about poverty’s origins and its toll.  

The Branches and Root Causes of Poverty infographics: Symptoms - Homelessness, hunger, violence, crime, addiction. Causes - racism, public policy, low wages, childhood abuse, access to quality healthcare, affordable housing, and quality educaiton.
The Poverty Tree – The Branches and Root Causes of Poverty

That history was important as we developed a stronger and more active voice to help others truly understand just what is at stake, not for some of us — but for all of us, if we let this blight persist.  We had to activate our expertise, more fully, to lead and convene like-minded partners, and to follow others when called upon. 

Over these last few years, we have changed our entire business model so that we could more effectively assist those in poverty who need immediate help. We also set into motion a whole suite of programs and collaborative efforts designed to disrupt the entire cycle of poverty, to get at its root causes.

We have already succeeded on a number of fronts. I am proud that United Way is an integral partner and leader of nearly 10 new collaborations that are tackling issues ranging from free eviction legal help to a new housing model for single parents in poverty.

I am also pleased to see the growing and already fruitful partnership that this Library and United Way of Greater Cleveland have developed over the last few years as the Library is becoming a “boots on the ground” extension of our 2-1-1 operation, among other things.

As we moved further into our transformation, it became very clear that one of our primary obligations was to help grow the understanding of poverty; particularly how and why it emerges and perpetuates.

Long supported by facts, but rarely discussed, is the indisputable correlation between poverty and systemic racism as a major root cause of poverty. The transformed United Way absolutely needed to use its platform to shout that from the rooftops and to do our part to create the understanding and actions to tear down what is wrong and build up what is right. 

It is not surprising that racial inequity is a key social issue that contributes to poverty. It is not a surprise that many people either don’t understand the connection or don’t want to see it.

A handful of people counseled me to keep a low profile on such a controversial topic.  I’ll spare you their rationale. If I am being honest, their concerns gave me pause for a quick minute.  But I knew, in my mind, and in my heart, that burying that connection wasn’t an option.  Racism is part and parcel of poverty, so failure to address it stunts any progress we sorely need in this battle.

One of my life’s mottos is “be not afraid.”  Some days I am better at following that maxim than others.  It is a little boost of courage, maybe, but not the kind of bravery that so many others have displayed and continue to exhibit every day.

For me, those three simple words are a constant reminder that United Way’s critical mandate of change was much, much bigger than whatever trepidation we might feel, or resistance we would face.

I was fortunate that, as the leader of this venerable institution, I had decades of information at my fingertips to make the case.  I also had the support of a committed group of employees, access to top community trailblazers, and a Board that was willing to stand firm as this journey unfolded, and our organization became much more vocal about equity and justice. 

With that support, especially that of our own Equity Leadership Council, that’s made up of a number of top Black, Hispanic and Asian community leaders, we set the stage for yet another organizational sea change.  We want to ensure that, as a leading community organization, we consistently and deliberately demonstrated the internal and external actions to denounce the systems that oppress the black and brown community.

Despite the continued reservations of a few, we voiced this commitment loud and clear at our 2018 annual meeting.  Since then, we have looked more closely at our organization through the equity lens and have demonstrated that in a number of ways. One concrete example is our recently completed year-long community conversation centered around all aspects of Cleveland’s consent decree—which, was another topic that many thought didn’t deserve such a public forum.  We have also set our 2022 public advocacy agenda and have a very robust core of actions in progress on the local, state and national levels.  Our drumbeat will continue.

Internally, we have upped our education about racial justice with our own workforce and our Board of Directors.  To reflect United Way’s public commitment to racial equity, we are making sure that at least 50% of awards to our grantees this year are made to support black- and brown-led organizations, and that 76% of grantmaking dollars directly serve black and brown communities. This is just the tip of our iceberg.

Personally and professionally, I have learned so much as United Way of Greater Cleveland has traveled this transformational road. But, this is not about me. It is about the evolution and success of the process: information and understanding on a much deeper level; strength lent to the cause by a growing collective; a rising voice that is confident and committed. This process has served us well and will continue to be our foundation.

United Way is definitely a better organization because of the journey, and we are well poised to do even more in service to our community.  I am gratified by what has been accomplished so far but, like you, remain impatient for the reckoning that we know is long overdue.  We simply cannot sustain ourselves as individuals, and as healthy communities, if we deny others basic human rights.

I am not one for dispensing wisdom, but if there is a final thought I can leave with you, it is that silence is far from golden. Speak out, speak up and be not afraid.  As Dr. King put it even more succinctly:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”