I was born in Youngstown, Ohio – known to some, as the heart of the Rust Belt. My hometown is a place where hardworking people have weathered the ferocious 30-year storm of deindustrialization, with grit, determination, and an ever-resilient spirit. Yet, in my humble opinion, an essential component of any sustained revitalization effort is the availability of “third spaces,” or places where members of a community gather to explore their curiosity, and activate their creativity. Unfortunately, Youngstown is not typically recognized as a producer of curious people like me, nor does the city have many formal outlets in which to explore one’s curiosity, outside of Youngstown State University, public libraries, a handful of bookstores and grassroots efforts intended to educate and activate the public. I’ll return here in a moment.
I moved to Cleveland (a.k.a. The Big City) in 2007 as a graduate student at The University of Akron. As a newly-minted transplant, I was encouraged to participate in what seemed like an endless selection of activities and organizations. Among the most common recommendations was The City Club of Cleveland. I must admit that these City Club champions—despite their best intentions—often made it sound like a stuffy place for (white and wealthy) intellectuals—therefore, not a place for me.
Later that year, as a Cleveland Executive Fellow, I finally got my chance to visit this historic institution. While I remember neither the speaker, nor the topic, I chuckle when I recall the anxiety that accompanied my first visit to the City Club. I remember laying out my clothes the night before: black skirt, crisp white shirt and red jacket; which was my uniform for important events back in the day. Also, in case I was called to interview to be a guide a PlayhouseSquare, I needed to be prepared!
I arrived more than 30 minutes early for my first City Club forum. As the room started to fill up, my anxiety returned when I noticed that the majority of the attendees were older white men, many of whom seemed like very important people. When the event finally began, I remember feeling as if much of the content was going over my head, and that perhaps I must have been missing something, because I couldn’t understand what all the hype was about. Fortunately, I was undeterred by my initial discomfort, and kept attending.
In 2009, I moved to New York City, and despite all the incredible things NYC has to offer, I still missed Cleveland, and I missed the institutions, like The City Club of Cleveland, which make the city so unique. The opportunity to spend part of an afternoon listening to a thought-provoking speaker dive deeply into a topic that intrigued me, in the center of town, at a reasonable price, while doing so with an ever-expanding network of friends, colleagues and new people was not so easy to find in the real big city.
When I returned to Cleveland in 2013, I quickly became a regular at the City Club. My attendance changed largely because the topics and speakers were increasingly aligned with my professional and intellectual interests. However, I noticed something else had changed—and this change was perhaps most significant for me: the audience.
Then the day came when I was asked to sit on a panel on that esteemed stage. Many of the speakers at the City Club open by acknowledging the local, national and international leaders that have graced the podium over the past century. Interestingly, I didn’t experience the jitters that marked my first visit to the City Club nearly a decade earlier. It was an honor to climb those few short stairs to the stage, and I was eager to seize that opportunity because The City Club of Cleveland now felt like a place where I belonged. It was now a place where I went and was enlightened not overwhelmed. It was a place where I was able to deepen my understanding of issues that interested me, and explore new ones. Most importantly, the City Club became a third space for me to connect with others who shared my interests, and now, to share my own insights. And for that I am deeply grateful.
I began this reflection with my beloved hometown. Among the many welcomed changes The City Club of Cleveland has implemented over the past few years, the most encouraging to me, is the decision to take its rich history on the road, particularly, to Youngstown. This is exactly the type of collaboration our region needs. One that allows us to pause, reflect, think, and dig deep. I thank The City Club of Cleveland and its leadership for strengthening the City Club’s legacy by providing an outlet for folks around the region to unleash their curiosity and to tap into their creativity, which is critical to a citizen’s ability to become the change they want to see in the world, and in their hometown.
Evelyn Burnett is a Glenville Resident and Vice President of Economic Opportunity at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress. She has been a member of the City Club since 2015.