Big Ideas 2020

. January 14, 2020.
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While consumer society, bootlegging, jazz and flappers characterized the 1920s, we predict that community-driven social change spearheaded by passionate activists, advocates and influencers will define the 2020s.

Welcome to the new roaring 20s, where dedicated dreamers, like these Toledoans, will direct our future.

Alfonso Narvaez

President of ONE Village Council

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By Jeff McGinnis / Photo By Kelli Miller

Why you should know him:
Fighting against blight and revitalizing North Toledo neighborhoods drives this activist.

North Toledo has always been an enormous part of Alfonso Narvaez’s life, as he was born, raised and still lives there. When he saw parts of that community begin to deteriorate, it lit a fire within him to do something.

“We can improve our neighborhood by working together, and doing different things. That has always been my goal— to get the neighborhood back to what it once was,” says Narvaez.

ONE Village Council is a community organization dedicated to the well-being of North Toledo neighborhoods for more than 30 years. As president, Narvaez focused the organization.

“I became president about four years ago to become even more community-oriented,” he says. “At the time, they were protesting bad landlords, but we needed to go a little further.”

Narvaez set his goals— combating blight in North Toledo neighborhoods, organizing community cleanup events and spotlighting neglected properties in need of upkeep, explaining that, “Doing stuff like that has really evolved the mission of the Village Council.”

“Once businesses left, economic development went downhill, and it’s no secret that the voting records, especially in North Toledo, are extremely low. Voter turnout is just not happening here, so I think elected officials have just kind of brushed us off because they don’t need us, in that sense.”

Narvaez’s leadership has focused ONE Village Council on more than just the physical changes to the neighborhoods. In his first year, the group successfully fought against a planned relocation of Ohio’s death row inmates to the
Toledo Correctional Institution.

Many of ONE Village’s successful protests have made use of social media, which Narvaez said has been phenomenally useful for educating the public and City Council on its goals.

“I know a lot of people talk about social media being negative, but I think, from a social advocacy standpoint, it has been very beneficial. Not only from the perspective of being an activist and getting our message out but being able to find us and getting to know who we are. We can talk about the past, show where weíve been, where we are, and where we’re going.”

Damon Brown

Author, Speaker & Consultant

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By Jeff McGinnis

Why you should know him:
As the Toledo Library’s first Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Brown sees big potential in the area’s future.

Damon Brown had seen the nervous, excited energy of Toledo before. Born in Atlantic City, Brown had worked for years as a journalist covering technology and culture for
outlets like The New York Post and Playboy while living in Silicon Valley at the heart of the computer boom. When Brown and his family moved to Toledo, he found some
surprising similarities to his old stomping grounds.

“What was funny was, a lot of the discussion, a lot of the energy, and a lot of the ‘We’re not sure what’s next’ energy— it reminded me of Silicon Valley back in 2008,” Brown said. “And what I mean by that is, Ohio in general, and in a few particular cities, including Toledo, there’s new energy in trying to figure out what’s next.”

Brown recently wrapped up a stint as the first “Entrepreneur-in-Residence” at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. Every week during October, Brown led a presentation and discussion on the journey of prospective business owners, inspired by his own experiences and the resulting books he has written.

“What was a really humbling and beautiful experience for me was to come back to the Midwest and be able to share some of those things. And, as a coach and as an Entrepreneur in Residence, I was able to say, ‘Okay, this is the direction that things are going, in general, and in America. Let’s get everyone prepared for that.’”

As a teenager, Brown lived in Lansing, meaning he was present for a time of significant upheaval for the three big automakers and the arrival of their Japanese counterparts on American shores. Brown shared his perspective on changes in major industries, as well as his own experience launching the successful app Cuddlr during his presentations at the Library.

“For me, becoming an Entrepreneur in Residence, it was kind of bringing the future discussion to Toledo, but also for me, an ability to help people in the past, too. Because I saw the challenges with the auto industry, and in some ways, we weren’t willing to adapt.

“And now, we have an opportunity to adapt. We can do it ahead of time. We can go ahead and say, okay, the legacy industries, the stalwarts— they matter. And they’re trying to adapt.”

Though Brown has now relocated to Las Vegas, his lessons in Toledo endure.

Rachel Gagnon

Executive Director of the Toledo-Lucas County Homelessness Board

By David Maxwell Fine / Photo By Kelli Miller

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Why you should know her:
She is working to reduce homelessness through a framework of being wholehearted, community-minded, and justice-oriented.

Rachel began working in November 2019 to end homelessness in Toledo and Lucas County. “I love this community,” she says, referring to Toledo, and she says she wants to make an impact by effecting “positive change in the community.”

Before the Toledo-Lucas County Homelessness Board (TLCHB), she was the Chief Operating Officer at Sunshine Communities, a provider of services to people with developmental disabilities. At Sunshine, she implemented a $5 million housing project providing accessible community homes in Lucas and Wood counties. Originally from Toledo, now 35 years old, she has a law degree from Capital University and her bachelor’s degree in criminology and sociology from Ohio State University. Early on, Rachel clerked in a law firm, working on child welfare and domestic relations cases. She also worked at Children Services and with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).

“The mission of helping that same type of population aligned with my experience,” she said, adding, “it is a cool opportunity because the homelessness board is going through a huge transition with its overall service coordination for the community… Everybody is ready for a change. That is appealing to me, as this is a new day in homelessness services.”

Rachel points to other cities, like Milwaukee, which has seen a nearly 85 percent reduction in homelessness, as potential role models for Toledo. “One of the things I’d like to see us do is take a more holistic approach to our service delivery. One of my ideas is to look to some of the cities around the nation that have really good, comprehensive, coordinated service delivery systems that connect community stakeholders, such as education, hospital systems, mental health and recovery systems, and the business sector. I’d like to see the community as a whole come together to try to find a bigger solution as opposed to us all working in our individual lanes.”

“I think we need to stop with the stigma and stop with the blame that we place on individuals who are homeless and recognize that no one means to end up in this particular condition,” she said. “Whether you come from a stance of compassion solely, or you come from a pragmatic taxpayer stance, we all have a vested interest in solving this problem. It costs us more to keep the status quo than it [would] to devote more energy to the solution of providing more housing.”

Sandy Sieben

Co-Chair, Lucas County Trafficking Coalition

By Jeff McGinnis / Photo By Kelli Miller

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Why you should know her:
This UT lecturer brings a lifetime of passion to her work on behalf of trafficking victims and survivors.

The horrors of human trafficking have come into focus over the past few years. An estimated four million individuals globally are victims of organized sex trafficking. One of the individuals at the forefront in the Glass City’s fight against the issue has been Sandy Sieben.

Born and raised in Toledo, Sieben has a passion for community service. After earning a master’s degree from the University of Michigan in social work, Sieben worked in Cincinnati and Columbus for ten years before returning to Toledo. She is currently working as an assistant lecturer at the University of Toledo.

“Each community has its issues. Being able to move back into Toledo and being a part of the fight against human trafficking has become a passion of mine,” Sieben says.

For the past five years, Sieben has been heavily involved with the Lucas County Human Trafficking Coalition (LCHTC). Founded in 2008, the Coalition focuses on shining a light on the issue of sex and labor trafficking, as well as helping to connect victims to programs that can help them get their life back on track.

“We’re all volunteer-based, with about 70 members from 40 different Coalition member agencies. We provide education, awareness, prevention, and we have a wide range of areas that we try to reach in our community,” Sieben explains.

Sieben, now co-chair of the Coalition, states, “We don’t work directly with survivors. We work as a coalition with the service providers, in other words, the professionals that provide direct care. So we work with nurses, therapists, social workers, counselors. And one of the biggest things we do is working with legislation, passing laws and advocating for things like the Safe Harbor Law.”

Thanks in part to the efforts of the LCHTC, Sieben said that local awareness of the issue of Human Trafficking has risen dramatically in the last few years. “There’s always more room to learn more and to continue talking about it
because it is a major social justice issue that is still underground. But I think we’ve come a long way, so that gives me hope and gets me excited.”

Alicia Smith

Director, Junction Coalition

By Steven E. Sloan / Photo By Kelli Miller

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Why you should know her:
Smith is a driving force in the revitalization of the Junction Neighborhood with conviction that city leadership fails its people if it doesn’t heed their voices.

2019 was a big year for Alicia Smith and the Junction Coalition. They shepherded the Junction Neighborhood Master Plan through Toledo city government, culminating in its inclusion in the City of Toledo’s 2020 Plan. This year promises to be even bigger.

“I’m particularly excited about economic development and
elimination of blight,” said Smith. “I’m looking forward to helping black businesses, and for all businesses to learn from that plan.” She believes the Junction Neighborhood Master Plan can serve as a blueprint for community revitalization to be applied throughout Toledo.

The plan captures Smith’s two bone-deep convictions. First, people have two needs from which everything else flows: clean water and each other. Second, the public is supposed to be running their city. Leadership that isn’t aware of the voices, desires, and concerns of its constituents is failing in their duties.

Smith’s goals are tangible— better education and support for the people of Toledo, especially Black Toledoans; promotion and stewardship of the Junction area’s excellent housing stock; re-investment in neighborhoods that are hurting— but the values beneath them run far deeper. She talks about a community’s need for one another, the deep divides and inequalities caused by past and present racism in Toledo, and about municipal leaders who too often lose their way while tending to their city by losing sight of those who live in it.

Smith’s advocacy work, with the Junction Coalition and beyond, is driven by the questions her elders asked her— “What have you done to help your community? When you leave here, what did you leave for us to benefit from?” Smith takes those questions seriously and strives to answer them every day.

In 2020, Toledo will see the fruits of Alicia Smith’s labor. She is quick to add that she’s merely one of many in her community who have chosen to raise their voices together to form strong partnerships with their representatives, making sure that Toledo’s tomorrow is better than its yesterday.

Tim Harrington

Executive Director, The Ability Center of Greater Toledo

By David Maxwell Fine / Photo By Kelli Miller

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Why you should know him:
Tirelessly advocating for disability rights with a passion for service.

Tim has been working to promote disability rights and improve the lives of people with disabilities while helping them to achieve greater independence for 41 years. Tim has cerebral palsy and, as a child, accessed The Ability Center’s services. Tim has a B.S. in Business Administration from the University of Toledo. In 1996, Tim received the E.B. Whitten Award from the National Rehabilitation Association for his work in advocacy and leadership in helping to promote opportunities for people with disabilities. Tim makes an impact, serving as a voice for the disability community in the greater Toledo area. “A voice to speak out, that’s our role as an organization, and we take that role very seriously.”

Tim has worked in various capacities at The Ability Center, as Camp Director, Recreation Inclusion Specialist, Director of Housing Services, and, for the last 20 years, as Executive Director. “I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to grow in my positions [with the Ability Center]. My favorite part is representing an organization of truly dedicated individuals who want to improve people’s lives.”

A primary ways to improve people’s lives is by helping them to become independent. One primary means of increasing independence is by bringing people with disabilities back into the community. “In 2002, we determined that folks were living in nursing homes that didn’t need to be there,” Tim explains, adding that a program was developed to transition those people. Since 2002 the Ability Center has helped more than 850 people with disabilities move out of nursing homes and into new homes in the community.

As the Ability Center celebrates its centennial year in 2020, Tim says, “We are committed to helping bring along the discussion of making Toledo the most disability-friendly community in the country.”

Tim thinks there is much yet for the greater Toledo area to do to become a disability-friendly community. “We’re going to have to develop more housing that can accommodate folks with disabilities. We have to make sure employers are open to opportunities to hire folks with disabilities and allow them to make a real living. We need to make sure that our community understands how vulnerable the disability community is without a sustainable [public] transportation system.”

Tim gave a TEDx Toledo talk in September 2019, noting that people are afraid of the tragedy of disability coming into their lives, affecting themselves or family members. “But the real tragedy of disability,” he says, “is the discrimination and the ignorance that we face after disability.”

Michelle Gorsuch

Financial Opportunity Center Manager / Financial Coach, ProMedica Ebeid Institute

By Athena Cocoves / Photo By Kelli Miller

Michelle Gorsuch Good

Why you should know her:
Illuminating the relationship between financial and physical health.

Most of us, given the opportunity to drastically improve their financial situation in less than a year, would be attracted to the premise. Considering that the average American has about $38,000 in personal debt, excluding home mortgages, and that two-thirds of U.S. adults doubt they will ever live debt-free, confronting financial hardships can be more than just intimidating— it often feels impossible.

Michelle Gorsuch wants to correct the record: “No matter how bad it might be, all financial hardships are fixable.” And she has spent the last 12 years proving her point by helping Toledoans realize their power through education, hard work and an unbridled, contagious sense of optimism. Her work began with grassroots community organizing at the East Toledo Family Center and developed into a full financial coaching program at ProMedica Ebeid Institute’s Financial Opportunity Center. Since November 2016, Gorsuch and her team have helped hundreds each year escape debt, boost their credit scores, and better understand their finances with free financial coaching services.

“When financial hardship hits, people (often) cannot prioritize. They are unsure what to do or pay first, so we help break it down and determine the most effective path,” says Gorsuch. “We want them to breathe and take it one step at a time so they can still come out ahead of the game.”

Although the Center assists a large low-income population, the Center works with a broad spectrum of clients from all socio-economic ranks. “Anyone could be struggling with finances,” points out Gorsuch. “And, if someone is struggling financially, what is it doing to their physical health? It could be causing (health issues while) affecting their work performance. The relationship between financial and physical health goes both ways. ProMedica sees that, if we help individuals with social determinants of health, such as housing, finances, food insecurity, domestic violence, and mental health, we can promote better health outcomes for our community.

Ed Harmon

Chief Executive Officer of NAI Harmon Group

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By Athena Cocoves / Photo By Courtney Probert

Why you should know him:
Developing communities where business growth can thrive.

For someone who manages 14 million square feet of property in 18 different states, Ed Harmon is astonishingly humble. While casually discussing his laundry list of accomplishments, Harmon avoids taking credit— but don’t confuse that as affected humility. Harmon’s modesty is genuine because he firmly believes that
the most crucial element of his success is other people.

“Partnership is always the most important factor,” explains Harmon. “Without it, we cannot do what we need to do as developers. Before we go into a community, we have to have its support.” The NAI Harmon Group forges those partnerships through strong relationships with local government, economic developers, and the overall business community. Harmon’s professional philosophy, based on establishing a shared understanding of collaboration, has a proven track record of developing communities where business growth can thrive.

The Group is currently developing projects in Dallas/Fort Worth, Arkansas, Kansas City and Charlotte. Local successes include the Harmon Business Park in Rossford, the 80-acre Overland Industrial Park, and the Group’s visible change to Perrysburg’s Town Center at Levis Commons.

In 2016, the NAI Harmon Group began to transform The Town Center at Levis Commons significantly with the purchase of the then-struggling Orleans Building, a 67,000 square foot space at 30 percent occupancy. In a few years, the building was at full capacity, supporting at least 180 jobs. Today, the Orleans building boasts four high-end restaurants (including Benchmark Restaurant), as well as the Funny Bone Comedy Club and two Fortune 500 company offices. The NAI Harmon Group made a recent acquisition of adjacent 40,000 square feet of vacant land, which the company will develop into mixed retail space beginning in the spring.

“To be a developer, you have to have a lot of energy and great people,” says Harmon. “And I think we have both. We have the right people in the right place, and I’m where I need to be in Northwest Ohio. This area has been good to us, good to me, and we’re appreciative. We want to give back, not just through manufacturing and developing jobs, but through social and community activities. We want to do whatever we can to do to make sure this area continues to grow.”

Thomas Jackson

Urban Agricultural Activist

By Kelly Thompson / Photo By Kelli Miller

Thomas Jackson Good

Why you should know him:
Jackson grows and delivers fresh, organic produce in our community.

Thomas Jackson has spent the better part of the last decade investing time and money in urban agriculture. After seven years of legal battles with the City, Jackson’s message is beginning to take hold: urban agriculture may be an answer to the fresh food shortage in our community.

Jackson saw relief in the summer of 2018 when the Sixth District Court of Appeals ruled that wood chips that Jackson had placed on vacant lots in the Auburndale neighborhood (preparing for organic vegetable gardening) were not proven to be a nuisance. Jackson’s education and knowledge in organic farming have transformed neighborhood lots into his organic produce company, Mighty Organics, LLC, now producing roughly 20,000 lbs. of produce annually, expected to grow in the years ahead. The produce gets distributed to local businesses, schools, organizations and local restaurants, with a high demand for future expansion. “Our goal is to be a prime working model [of sustainable urban farming],” says Jackson.

Most recently, Jackson and other community members formed the Urban Agriculture Alliance of Lucas County, a nonprofit organization that exists to educate the public on urban farming. Currently, the organization is compiling data on every urban farmer in Lucas County.

The hope is that having this info will lead to a better understanding of the urban farming process in the future. “The more you educate people, the more they want to get involved,” Jackson explains. “People often have no idea where their food comes from, or the infrastructure needed [for urban farming].”

As to his success, Jackson remains humble, emphasizing that the journey from a big idea to a successful project is not always paved in gold. “I am ecstatic because I’m now living a prayer,” he says. “Be careful what you pray for because you don’t know the road you’ll have to take to get it.”