As the days of my internship wind down, I can’t help but feel extremely thankful for the opportunity to work at the Cuyahoga Land Bank. My main project this summer has been to find and catalog eligible commercial and industrial properties in Cleveland proper for potential reuse with end-users. This not only will help combat Cleveland’s ongoing struggle with vacancy and abandonment, but it has the potential to create economic opportunities for Cleveland residents and turn neighborhood liabilities into assets.
When I started my graduate program in January, I couldn’t have imagined that in June, I would have the chance to participate in real on-the-ground work as a student. As a future urban planner who hopes to work in the nonprofit or civic sector, I’ve found my time here to be very enriching. Not only have I had a chance to practice my technical skills, I’ve enjoyed working alongside people who are passionate about land reuse and maximizing the quality of life for Cuyahoga County residents. One aspect of this internship that has excited me is working for a value-driven organization, and I can say that after all that I’ve seen, read, learned, and experienced this summer, both the Land Bank and the Cleveland Foundation embody and live out their values.
Here are a few reflections on what I’ve taken away from this internship program:
- Take every opportunity to meet new people and attend events. When I first started my internship, I noticed this right away. Lilah, one of my supervisors, told me that she was inviting me to every meeting possible so that I could actually see on-the-ground work and meet people in the nonprofit ecosystem. In a short 11 weeks, I was thrilled that I got a chance to actually meet the people that I’ve read about. Furthermore, I didn’t just see them once, but I saw them over and over again. Sitting in on these meetings has been so helpful for me to see how partners work together in Cleveland and even the amiability that they have with each other as they collaborate. In addition, the Cleveland Foundation offered weekly professional development seminars that gave us access to Cleveland leaders and directors who graciously and candidly shared their wisdom and experience with us.
- Be on the ground in the community. I had a few opportunities to be out in Cleveland neighborhoods observing field work. This was important for me because I was constantly reminded that what we’re doing involves real people, and that the results of our work impact their quality of life. As I’m being trained in urban planning, it is easy and tempting for me to think primarily in the big picture. We discuss important social issues, housing, and the physical environment, but on a personal and community level, our design, planning, and action steps may change as we work with the real needs of real communities. This internship helped to shape and nuance my perspective on my academic work.
- Practice those technical skills and learn all you can – even after completing school. One theme that resonated week after week was to keep learning even as we go deeper into our careers, whether that’s through taking new opportunities in the workplace or continuing education at our local universities. I appreciated how these mentors continued to challenge their own thinking and learn new skills. Through their advice, I’ve changed my graduate curriculum to incorporate a well-rounded course load, and I intend to continue learning even after I graduate. Coming into the internship, I had a rudimentary understanding of land processes, land banking, and neighborhood stabilization, and I appreciated the depth to which the staff explained the legislative, financial and legal processes that came with land banking. In addition, I had fairly limited skills when it came to data mining and GIS mapping. I’m grateful to my supervisors who have patiently taught me how to expand my abilities and I’m amazed at just how much I’ve learned in a short 11 weeks. The chance to practice these skills, make giant maps, and contribute to a real Land Bank project has been meaningful and motivating.
- Connect with suffering and the suffering of others. Finally, perhaps the most personal and introspective takeaway from this summer came from a session with Ronn Richard, the CEO of the Cleveland Foundation. Our cohort had the chance to sit down with him for an hour this summer and he shared candidly and transparently about his own life and career. His word was this: for those in the civic and nonprofit sectors, personal experiences with suffering is the truest way to connect with the many people in our city who are also suffering. It drives in us a true sense of urgency and drives away a false empathy. This is personally challenging to me–and perhaps a challenge to our larger culture—since comfort, security, and shortcuts are the easier path in life. Truly entering into the lives of others requires a level of risk and it’s usually messy. Ronn reminded us that the work that we’re entering into may not necessarily be packaged into a 9-to-5 on our own terms—especially if we are working in value-driven organizations trying to address big issues and making real change.
Looking back on the whole internship experience, I am immensely thankful for the opportunity to be a part of an organization and greater network that so regularly touches the lives of Clevelanders. This summer has been formative in my thinking and personal growth, and I look forward to taking what I’ve learned and joining the many others in Cleveland who are creating real change in the city.
Joyce Huang, a graduate student at Cleveland State University, majoring in Urban Planning Design & Development, is placed at the Cuyahoga Land Bank. Joyce assists with the Hardest Hit Fund greening program, managing customer service and contracts for side yard applicants and coordinating work between departments and staff. She is also conducting a geographical land use study of the commercial-industrial lands between West 25th Street and East 55th Street from the industrial flats north to St. Clair Avenue.