Barrett: The case for a Cleveland Studies program at CWRU

Eva Barrett, Columnist

It’s high time that Case Western Reserve University thinks seriously about instituting a comprehensive, academically rigorous Cleveland Studies program. Much like University of Chicago’s Chicago Studies program, the function of Cleveland Studies would be to educate our students on the complexity and nuances of the city’s history and social structures and to provide an opportunity for CWRU students to help develop pragmatic, equitable and radical solutions for many of the issues that this city faces.

This may seem like it’s coming out of left field; Why should CWRU students care about the city? You may feel like you don’t have a stake in the city’s well being. You may also be here for your degree and to get the most out of your own college experience. There’s no fault in that; after all, we are college students.

But pause for a second and think: Does it make sense to turn up Machine Gun Kelly’s “Till I Die” yet not have a clue about the references he makes to the different areas in the city, or the many, many triumphs and struggles that Clevelanders have experienced since the city’s founding? Does it make sense to only represent Cleveland when our sports teams win, but remain silent when our institution plays a role in the militarized policing of the city during the Republican National Convention (RNC)?

In light of the growing national interest in this city, partly due to two Cleveland sports teams making it all the way to their respective championships and partly due to the extreme racial tensions that were revealed during the RNC, the question of whether we should plan to incorporate Cleveland Studies into our curriculum is not just an academic one, but an ethical one.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of the students in the #webelonghere movement, the new residence hall was dedicated to esteemed Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones. As a Cleveland native, this dedication hit close to home: I had never seen CWRU honor anyone from my city in such a lasting and unapologetic manner. In many ways, this was a valuable first step for CWRU towards recognizing the unquestionable importance of Cleveland and its gifts of labor and leadership to the university. The key words here are “first step,” and coming from a proud Clevelander, here is why we must take this effort even further:

I am a third-year history major at the university. I grew up on the west side of Cleveland, in the Stockyard neighborhood, and went to high school in Glenville, a neighborhood two miles away from our campus. Seeing firsthand two vastly different worlds inhabiting the same two-mile radius has been challenging at best and deeply depressing at worst.

CWRU is surrounded by five low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods. Most of our dining and custodial staff live in Glenville, East Cleveland, Hough, Fairfax or Kinsman, yet we have a disproportionate amount of black and brown students from these neighborhoods attending our school. When I first came to campus, I was stunned by how few people of color, people who looked like me, people from Cleveland, actually attended this school. I would walk into most of my classes, the dining hall or study breaks, and feel not only an extreme loneliness, but a general sense that I didn’t quite know which Cleveland I belonged to. It didn’t feel like this place respected the city that has sacrificed so much for our students. This suspicion was confirmed for me after the death of Tamir Rice, a twelve year-old boy from my neighborhood who was gunned down by a Cleveland police officer. Very few people on campus seemed to care. How could it be that a boy, only 20 minutes away from me by public transportation, could die in front of a recreational center, only to have his death be met with an apathy that seemed, at that time, so characteristic of the university?

The silence on campus was deafening and traumatic.

I love my city, and I am appreciative of the education I’m receiving at CWRU. But as a black, queer woman student from “inner city” Cleveland, living on this campus and seeing my city being loved and appreciated only when one of our sports teams wins can be, well, damaging to the spirit.

That being said, we must step up as an academic institution and acknowledge the ways in which our university has been complicit in the exploitation and suffering of Cleveland residents, as well as the ways in which we can contribute to community healing. Instituting a formal program through which serious academic research on Cleveland can be accomplished is a possible first step. It provides with us an opportunity to actually aid those who we claim to appreciate. It also carries with it a wealth of opportunities for significant scholarship in the areas of sociology, political science, critical race theory, economics, medicine and the arts, all through a critically ethical lens.

Bio: Eva is a third-year student, black, queer, poet and teacher who wants to make the load a little lighter for the next generation of students of color.