Photo by Jon Groner

Just hours before the Nehemiah Action meeting on May 9, organizers of the interfaith social justice coalition BREAD didn’t know whether Mayor Andrew J. Ginther would make an appearance at the Celeste Center for the annual event. They had invited Ginther to weigh in on an economic initiative that would benefit residents of Linden, the Hilltop, and other marginalized neighborhoods. They had two different programs printed up for the evening: one in case the mayor would show up, and another in case he wouldn’t.

He didn’t.

Nevertheless, central Ohio faith leaders made their case at the meeting. “Early practices of deed restrictions, discriminatory lending, and highway construction have created a tale of two cities,” said Clyde Sales, senior minster at the Genessee Avenue Church of Christ. “There are the privileged neighborhoods and the throwaway neighborhoods, with clear boundaries separating neighborhoods like Linden.”

A recent study by the Martin Prosperity Institute ranked Columbus, with its pockets of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, as the second most economically segregated large city in the U.S.

“Over and over, we have heard strategies for economic development that focus solely on the needs of large corporations — abatements and other incentives,” Sales said.  “None of these corporations are located in our community. None of these corporations really care about the people who live in neighborhoods like Linden and the Hilltop.”

Linden and the Hilltop have unemployment rates of over 15%, compared to the overall 4.5% unemployment rate in central Ohio.

BREAD has identified a model for worker-owned businesses in Cleveland — Evergreen Cooperatives — that has created jobs in low-income neighborhoods. It involves creating small business that provide goods and services to large non-profits, such as hospitals and universities, which are anchored to the city and unlikely to move away.

“They’ve figured out how to use the billions of dollars that these anchor institutions are already spending for goods and services to help lift distressed communities out of poverty,” said Cathy Levine, a member of Congregation Tiphareth Israel. “They establish new local businesses located in these neighborhoods that fill the purchasing needs of these anchor institutions. In Cleveland they’ve created a green laundry service, clean energy, and fresh food.”

The businesses are worker-owned. Each worker gets an equal share and a voice in the way the companies are run. The jobs and the profits stay local, and the business profits are distributed to the employees.

‘It’s a win-win situation that’s building a local economy from the ground up,” Levine said. “Rather than giving big companies tax breaks to come into the city and create low-wage jobs, the Evergreen strategy creates jobs, and recruits and trains local residents.

“Hospitals and universities here in Columbus are also spending billions of dollars each year,” Levine said. “Doesn’t it make sense to use that purchasing power to build wealth in Linden and the Hilltop, instead of lining the pockets of corporate investors?”

Corporate interests who fund the mayoral and City Council political campaigns would not be happy about losing lucrative business to local neighborhood cooperatives. This may account for why Mayor has been ducking requests to meet with BREAD to discuss this proposal since January. And why he didn’t want to appear before the BREAD assembly on May 9.

BREAD members view social justice as God’s work. Being ignored doesn’t discourage them. At the end of the assembly they unfurled a large banner that read “Mayor Ginther Meet with BREAD!” and posed with it in a gigantic group photo. Most of the people present also signed paper petitions with the same demand.

Update:  On June 6 members of BREAD went to City Hall to deliver the banner and 1560 signatures to Mayor Ginther. City Hall staff received the banner and signatures. The mayor did not make an appearance.

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