The Center for Community Resilience (CCR) within the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health has been working alongside a broad coalition of community groups in Cincinnati, Ohio on a Truth & Equity initiative aimed at dismantling decades of inequitable policies and practices rooted in structural racism.

Since 2015, Cincinnati’s Joining Forces for Children, a coalition of more than 50 area organizations, has been part of CCR’s national Building Community Resilience network. With support from CCR, Joining Forces for Children has been building a foundation for policy change and reparative action, with racial equity and economic justice at its core.

As part of this ongoing collaboration, CCR’s director Dr. Wendy Ellis produced a ground-breaking film, America’s Truth, that documents the effects of the City’s 1948 Metropolitan Master Plan and the resulting disintegration of the Cincinnati neighborhoods of Avondale, West End,  Lincoln Heights, and Kennedy Heights. Over the following 50 years – as in many other cities and communities across the country – the social and economic disinvestment in housing, schools, businesses, transportation, and other community assets, has led to the huge gaps in wealth, health, and survival that separate predominantly white and Black Cincinnati neighborhoods today.

Along with other work in the community, the documentary led to the first-ever formal apology by elected leaders for the city’s role in the deliberate destruction of these neighborhoods and the ongoing trauma and injustice the plan unleashed.

Significantly, in addition to the apology, the City of Cincinnati has committed to the important work of reconciliation and repair. What is unfolding in Cincinnati could become a valuable model for the nation.

The project’s ongoing initiatives are bringing together Cincinnati citizens from all walks of life, educating policymakers, and providing actionable recommendations for restorative investments using both public and private dollars. In less than ten years, the coalition has sparked a movement that is “shifting narratives, initiating healing, and sparking a political process for change.”

Urban Renewal: Displacement in the Name of Progress

Cincinnati, it turns out, is merely a microcosm of America. In the mid-Twentieth Century, hundreds of Black neighborhoods and towns were destroyed to make way for urban renewal. Millions of residents were displaced and thousands of homes, businesses, churches were destroyed in the name of ‘progress’ for city leaders across the nation.

In Cincinnati, the city government undertook a sweeping redevelopment project in 1948 that demolished the thriving Kenyon-Barr neighborhood – a predominately Black enclave – to make way for a light industrial area and an interstate freeway. Black citizens were evicted from land they owned with little to no compensation for their losses. Adding further injury, city leaders reneged on promises to build new housing for those impacted, caving in to political pressure and objections from white residents who did not want to foot the bill for the new housing.

Due to exclusionary real estate practices including redlining, displaced Black families had few options for resettlement within the city. Where they could buy, realtors used ‘block busting’ tactics – persuading white families to flee and further reducing the value of properties owned by Black families. Today, less than one-third of Black Cincinnatians own their own homes, the primary means by which many Americans build and pass on generational wealth.

Notably, three percent of those displaced by the Kenyon-Barr project were low-income white residents. These were primarily people with roots in the coal country in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee who came north for manufacturing jobs in the mid-20th century, earning Cincinnati the designation as “urban Appalachia.”

Racialized lending policies, reinforced by tactics such as redlining, devalued neighborhoods predominated by Black and Appalachian residents, created a legacy that continues to impact the ability of residents in these neighborhoods to accumulate, protect and transfer family wealth. 

One of the pivotal characteristics in CCR’s success has been in bringing these groups together to advocate for solutions to their shared challenges.

An Historic Apology from a City to its People

In an historic apology to the city’s Black community in 2023, Mayor Aftab Pureval enumerated the wholesale destruction that took place:

WHEREAS, Cincinnati’s lower West End was once a thriving enclave for many of the city’s Black residents and home to social, education, and faith institutions including the Holy Trinity Church and Holy Trinity School, St. Anthony and St. Henry parish churches, DePoores High School, Jackson, Sherman and the 12th District public schools, the 8th St. YMCA the Cotton Club, the Hotel Sterling, the Lincoln, Dixie and Pekin theaters, and countless small businesses; and

WHEREAS, the City of Cincinnati’s 1948 Metropolitan Master Plan and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 established funding and development of the Kenyon-Barr Urban Redevelopment project to construct the Queensgate Center for light industry and Millcreek Expressway (Interstate 75).

WHEREAS, under the guise of “progress”, the project razed the lower West End community forcing removal of 25,737 residents — ninety-seven percent of whom were Black.

WHEREAS, the displacement rooted in institutional racism resulted in the destruction of social, political, cultural, and faith networks and diminished proximity to family, work, leisure, education, and entertainment, for Black residents of the lower West End; and

WHEREAS, the City of Cincinnati failed to deliver on its promise to adequately re-house displaced residents, resulting in community trauma, the loss of generational wealth, and eradication of the social fabric of this Black community; and

WHEREAS, recognizing the harm perpetuated by this egregious act of institutional racism, Cincinnati City Council and Cincinnatians pledge to work toward recognition and remedy for this injustice; and

NOW, THEREFORE, the Cincinnati City Council extends to former residents of the city’s lower West End, their descendants, and to all Cincinnatians a deep and sincere expression of apology and regret for the emotional pain and material loss stemming from this time, and a sincere commitment to work toward building a more just Cincinnati.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the City of Cincinnati to be affixed this 14th day of June 2023.

Sowing Seeds, Nationwide

Using the Community Resilience Framework analysis and developing metrics for an Equity Dashboard, CCR partners in Cincinnati are paving the way for what many have dubbed “America’s Third Reconstruction.” 

The framework provides a clear process that allows community members and elected leaders to come to a shared understanding and vision for racial healing and economic reparations through strategic investments in the communities most harmed by structural violence.

The word is spreading. CCR network sites now include local cross-sector coalitions in Dallas, Tx.; St. Louis, Mo.; the Washington, D.C./Maryland/Virginia metro region; statewide collaboratives in Oregon and Washington State; and twelve local health departments across the country. In 2019, CCR began working with local health departments to help them address community inequities associated with structural racism. The Resilience Catalysts in Public Health network is made up of 12 local health departments across the country addressing structural racism as a public health issue.

By applying systems thinking and public health research to restorative economic and social policies, CCR has developed a powerful approach for communities to use in crafting policy solutions to dismantle structural racism. One powerful policy solution is being investigated through CCR’s Policies for Action hub grant: can intentional lending practices and homebuyer programs in disinvested communities lead to more cohesive, healthier neighborhoods and accelerate the closing of racial wealth gaps. The CCR team along with their partners in Cincinnati is exploring if small dollar mortgages along with strategic neighborhood investments can increase economic mobility in communities of color with a particular focus on Black women in the county who have some of the highest infant mortality rates and negative maternal health outcomes in the country.

Later this year, the CCR team will unveil Cincinnati’s Equity Dashboard aimed at guiding public and private investments in some of the city’s most marginalized neighborhoods, including Avondale, Riverside, Lower West End, and Price Hill. The Dashboard will become a key tool in the city’s newly formed Office of Equity, guiding place-based investments to repair racial and spatial inequities over time.

CCR Graphic

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