Stanley Miller grew up about 10 minutes away from Case Western Reserve University. But the college was far from a fixture of his childhood.
“You knew when you were growing up, you weren’t welcome on this campus,” the now 73-year-old said.
Miller is a Glenville High School grad. The neighborhood of the same name is next to the campus, along with Hough and the city of East Cleveland. Black residents predominantly live in each of those three areas. Forty-four percent of Case’s 11,465 total students last fall were white. Six percent were Black.
Case’s campus sits in Cleveland’s University Circle. A 2020 ProPublica report found the vast majority of charges issued in the area by private police forces operated by its nearby peer institutions, including the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals, involved Black people.
Miller said he knows the university’s main goal isn’t to grow the neighborhoods. It’s to enroll and educate students. But those are connected.
But as university leadership comes and goes over the years, residents remain. Take Miller’s sister, for example.
“You ask her about Case Western Reserve, she’s going to draw a blank stare and remember what happened in the old days,” he said. “I think the neighbors that are left will probably think the same way.”
Students, though, seem to have a broader and more vested interest in their surroundings. Miller has seen that through his participation in a grassroots group of students, neighbors and alumni called Know Your Neighbors. They’re working together to help build stronger connections between the Case community and residents of nearby neighborhoods.
The group outlined its mission in an early Instagram post: Recognize the effects of past institutional decisions. Establish positive relationships. Cultivate mutual pride. A hashtag summed it up: #ThinkBeyondTheBubble.
About 25 to 30 CWRU students and alumni actively participate, and just about an equal number of residents are involved. Some organizational representatives also take part, including those from University Circle Inc. and the Famicos Foundation.
Most of the relationship-building work has been online due to the pandemic. Things kicked off with a panel discussion between residents and students last fall. A masked bike ride tour of Glenville led by a resident came next, followed by a Zoom trivia event on Cleveland history in the spring. There’s also a buddy system in which residents and students get paired up together and are matched up on a one-to-one basis.
Before the group, some students only interacted with nearby communities when visiting for service projects.
“It’s trying to create community across these socioeconomic, racial and generational lines of difference,” said Delaney Jones, a 2020 Case alumnus who founded the group last year.
That includes helping students navigate off-campus. CWRU senior Jordan Reif remembers hearing about that during orientation week and the beginning of her freshman year.
The narratives about where to go were consistent. Coventry and Little Italy are highlighted on the school’s website. So are various other attractions across town, including those in Ohio City and on East Fourth Street. Places to eat at or visit in Glenville aren’t mentioned much.
One anecdote seemed to be repeated among students more than most, though: Don’t go under the bridge on Euclid Avenue that connects University Circle with East Cleveland.
In a survey the group did of about 130 students and alumni, nearly 20% of respondents said a campus representative advised steering clear of that bridge or explicitly said East Cleveland should be avoided.
“A part of it is just students passing it down, not thinking about the fact that we’re telling people not to go to the Black neighborhoods in Cleveland, while we’re encouraging people to go to the white neighborhoods,” Reif said.
Know Your Neighbors participants don’t want those anecdotes to be the only knowledge students use to shape their perceptions and experiences.
“It is important to have conversations about how to make sure that you’re staying safe and being aware of your surroundings,” Reif said. “But it’s this really delicate balance between making sure that students stay safe while not incorrectly portraying neighborhoods as ghettos.”
The group arranged for local residents to drop in as guest lecturers during some required first-year student classes last year. They’re now working on an action plan to give orientation leaders and tour guides, often the first Case representatives prospective students meet, better language that avoids stereotypes.
Group founder Jones stresses it’s not an “us vs. them” type of dynamic when it comes to working with the university. The group is neither an official student organization nor a nonprofit. Most events are done for free.
According to neighborhood resident Miller, if anyone can help make progress expand on this front, it’s Julian Rogers.
Rogers wears a lot of hats as Case’s executive director of local government and community relations. He’s appreciative of Know Your Neighbors’ efforts. The missions are similar. Plus, the office has struggled to directly connect with students.
The university is an anchor in the neighborhood, he said, and with that comes responsibility to contribute to the success of nearby areas.
“Beyond that, selfishly, we are better off as an institution when we have great relationships with our surrounding communities,” he said.
Civic engagement is important to many members of Gen Z. Students entering universities now want to contribute to where they’re living during their college careers, Rogers said, so institutions need to provide those types of opportunities.
“I think that universities that don’t move in that direction are going to lose out on faculty and students that consider community engagement, community service and those types of things as important to their overall learning,” he said.
The work continues as Know Your Neighbors enters its second year. The group will soon gain an intern with a community organizing background from the Mandel School of Social Work. Plans are now underway for an outdoor festival to welcome new students and introduce them to their neighbors later this summer.
Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.