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Grassroots organizations walk out of Greater Cleveland Partnership sustainability summit, offer alternative vision

On January 23, Greater Cleveland Partnership got an early morning wake up call when Sam Allard of Axios Cleveland broke the story that a coalition of grassroots organizations led by Cleveland Owns, the InterReligious Task Force on Central America, Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, and the Greater Cleveland Housing Justice Coalition would be leading a walkout at the second annual Sustainability Summit organized by Greater Cleveland Partnership.

GCP’s second annual sustainability summit was held Tuesday, Jan. 23 at the Huntington Convention Center in downtown Cleveland. The event promised to deliver attendees networking opportunities and a chance to learn about sustainable business opportunities. Last year, more than 400 people attended. 

The walkout was in protest of the summit’s keynote speaker, Kaitlin Bergan, a representative of the multi-trillion dollar investment firm BlackRock. For these groups, BlackRock does not embody sustainability values. Their main criticisms are that BlackRock invests in fossil fuels and that the company’s investments in renewable energy amount to corporate greenwashing. 

“While BlackRock uses sustainability rhetoric, they remain one of the largest investors in fossil fuels,” said Ayat Amin, one of the walkouts organizers. “…we want to draw attention to the fact that they are building [new investments in renewable energy] in an inequitable way that will deepen economic extraction from our neighborhoods.” 

BlackRock’s sustainability efforts have been met by criticism by both the left and the right. They have recently appeared to reverse course on their commitment to sustainability by backing off their ESG portfolio. (ESG stands for “environmental, social and corporate governance” and covers their sustainability work.) But for Greater Cleveland Partnership, their presence offered an opportunity to discuss “how the rapidly evolving sustainability space poses opportunities for companies across sectors,” according to the event description. 

“Sustainability is not just a buzzword for businesses in the region,” GCP’s event description read. “It is a catalyst for innovation, collaboration and growth across Greater Cleveland. This event convenes business, civic thought leaders and changemakers committed to sustainable growth. This event underscores our commitment to building a Great (and Green) Region on a Great Lake.” (The Land reached out to GCP for this article, but they did not respond in time for publication.) 

What the walkout offered, organizers said, was an opportunity to build community and momentum for a more equitable, local vision for sustainability in Cleveland. 

“BlackRock’s extractive investments… are a bad deal for Clevelanders,” said Craig Ickler, Cleveland Owns’ Energy Democracy Organizer. “We need community control over the clean energy investments that will enable Cleveland to transition into the clean energy economy.”

A teach-in to build community

When the participants walked out, they were invited to join a teach-in focused on authentic, alternative visions of sustainability hosted in the same building as the summit. For the walkout organizers said they were guided by the principles of a Just Transition, which is defined as “a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy.”

An extractive economy is considered one that takes away from people and places, through low wages, poor working conditions and environmental degradation, whereas a regenerative economy is one that respects the local environment and helps people achieve their potential through growth. 

After a brief grounding exercise, organizers presented information on local issues related to sustainability and racial justice. BlackRock was briefly mentioned, with some comments from Ickler about the vast majority of BlackRock’s $10 trillion in investments supporting “industries of death” like fossil fuels, private prisons, and weapons manufacturers. 

But the majority of the teach-in focused on educating people about local opportunities to build a more sustainable Cleveland with an emphasis on equity. Chad Stephens of Northeast Ohio Sierra Club discussed the need to update Cleveland’s housing stock in predominantly Black neighborhoods through practices like weatherization. Josiah Quarles, director of organizing and advocacy at Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, spoke about the experiences of the residents of Euclid Beach mobile home park, who are being displaced from their homes because Western Reserve Land Conservancy and other groups, including Greater Cleveland Partnership, helped lead an effort to turn the mobile home park into a lakefront park. He also spoke about community-based solutions that put residents in the seat as decision-makers about their own communities like cooperative housing and Community Land Trusts.

After remarks from Ayat Amin — one of the event’s organizers — about the possibilities of cooperatives to help advance environmental and economic justice, attendees heard from Jonathan Welle, lead organizer and founding board member of Cleveland Owns. Welle addressed the work that Cleveland Owns is doing to help build Cleveland Solar Cooperative, Ohio’s first community-owned solar cooperative.

When those who attended the walkout returned to the conference, they were given green ribbons and encouraged to share what they had discussed with the rest of the attendees. But for the organizers, the walkout was just the beginning of a longer conversation about a more equitable and just transition away from fossil fuels and towards sustainability in Cleveland.

Next steps for grassroots sustainability in Cleveland

One example is the solar array Cleveland Owns is helping to build in East Cleveland. Cleveland Owns, a non-profit cooperative and economic democracy incubator, is doing so through Cleveland Solar Cooperative, Ohio’s first community-owned solar cooperative that Cleveland Owns helped incubate. It is in the process of building its first array in East Cleveland.

Ickler hopes those who attended the walkout get involved in Cleveland Owns’ co-op circles, the next of which will be taking place on March 28th at a location to be determined. They are also promoting Joyful Resistance, an arts-based event in Cleveland Heights on Feb. 6. 

Ickler said he hopes that Sustainability Summit attendees know about the principles of the Just Transition and the grassroots groups working towards it in Cleveland. “We hope this action brings new energy to those who are currently working on projects to provide housing, energy, and justice in Cleveland,” he said. “For those that are new to these ideas, I hope it inspires them to question business-as-usual as the only option.”