Urban Innovator of the Week: Randy McShepard
There's a really good chance Randell McShepard doesn't sleep. He laughs it off when asked, but one doesn't need to be a mathematician to know there aren't enough hours in the day for him to do all of the things he does. Unless, obviously, he doesn't sleep.
"Thanks to my momma I've always had a very intense work ethic," he laughs. "I always try to go the extra mile and find ways to make an actual impact. Instead of talking about what I'd like to do or see, I'll talk about what I AM doing."
By day, McShepard is the Vice President of Public Affairs for Cleveland-based RPM International Inc., where his responsibilities include managing the corporate philanthropy program in addition to brokering relationships and acting as the public face of the company.
By night, he's Batman. If Batman were less of a billionaire playboy vigilante and more of a tireless community leader and activist.
"I spent the first 15 years of my career in the nonprofit sector," he says. "I quickly learned the role of the power of one, the role anyone can play in improving their community in one way or another. I became prolific with grant writing, put together programs and initiatives, and that gave me a lot of experience in how you cultivate an individual donor, organizations to collaborate with, and get foundations and corporations interested."
He is the co-founder and board chairman of Policy Bridge, a nonprofit public policy think tank based in Northeast Ohio with a legislative office in D.C., which monitors urban public policy issues and informs regional public policy debates by framing issues of relevance to the minority community.
He is also the co-founder of Rid-All Green Partnership, an urban farm that focuses on community building and youth education.
He was named the "Black Professional of the Year" in 2011 by the Black Professionals Association Charitable Foundation. Additionally, he serves on boards and advisory councils for Baldwin Wallace University (his alma mater), the St. Vincent Charity Medical Center, the George Gund Foundation, the multi-cityForward Cities learning collaborative, and is a graduate of Leadership Cleveland, among a score of other philanthropic and economic development involvements past and present. "All in the name of making my hometown a little bit better!" he says humbly.
"[This] adds significantly to the legend that I never sleep!" he emails later, followed by a link. Right, because he's also the first African American president of the Union Club, a historically wealthy white old boys' club. So let's go ahead and add "breaking racial barriers" to the list of things he does.
Which brings us back to Policy Bridge, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.
From Grad School Chit Chat to Think Tank Leadership
Policy Bridge spawned from a graduate school experience. "I was chatting it up with a colleague in grad school – we were both studying urban policy at Cleveland State – and we were talking a lot about how policies are set, the ins and outs of working with governments, those sort of things. He and I started talking about what could and should be done in Cleveland because we thought more should be done in terms of leadership, particularly around people of color, so we started looking around the area to see what we could find was missing."
The conclusion they reached was that the city had a number of programs addressing the needs and concerns of African American citizens, but those programs were derivatives of public policy in terms of how they were funded and the aims and objectives they were designed to achieve.
So off he and his co-founders, Mark Batson and Timothy Goler, went to D.C., where they visited the Brookings Institute, the Urban Institute, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies – all the big think tanks. "They were all intrigued by the idea of a local think tank led by minorities focused on public policy. They all said they had never seen anything like that. That was enough for us to get incorporated as a 501c3. Our real goal was to research, analyze, and respond to public policy from the minority perspective."
They agreed to write research reports and policy briefs, and convene the community for guest speakers and open dialogues on the issues of the day.
"We sort of had this old guard versus young guard – the old way versus the more collaborative, inclusive process that we were suggesting," he says. "People quickly understood our gatherings became a safe space for people looking for answers. Before, there was this idea that if you're not the mayor, your opinion didn’t count. My hidden agenda was to spur a civic awakening of those emerging leaders so that they understand the role they need to play is far more important than they understand."
Policy Bridge was covered in CNN, Black Enterprise, the Associated Press, and other major national media. They focused on five different key areas – workforce development, economic development, education, health and wellness, and neighborhood revitalization. In the last 10 years, Policy Bridge has gained tremendous respect, viewed as thought leaders on urban public policy with McShepard and Policy Bridge Executive Director Greg Brown asked to sit on several committees, panels, advisory boards, etc.
From Think Tank Talk to Data Reporting
For McShepard, the single most important thing Policy Bridge does is stick to the facts.
"We at all costs lead with data and not opinion," he says. "I think that has made us a unique organization."
One of their research reports was titled Rebuilding Blocks, about how efforts to revive Cleveland must start by treating what ails neighborhoods.
The catalyst for this report was, from McShepard's perspective, a fundamental misunderstanding of the years – decades even – of disinvestment that led to the housing market collapse and the decimation of major cities throughout America. "Around the time of foreclosure crisis, when the bottom fell out of economy, everyone was saying that foreclosures caused all of these problems in the city and led to the city's demise or the neighborhood's demise. The foreclosure crisis was the tipping point, but that decline had been going on for years."
Over the years people had been pulling out of urban communities. The population in Cleveland had declined over the 50 years prior. Social institutions that meant a lot to quality of life were pulling out of neighborhoods – YMCAs, Catholic churches. Every neighborhood had schools that were failing or on academic watch. "If you're a parent there and have resources, would you choose to stay there or would you move?"
Vacant lots and abandoned housing only drag down the neighborhood. People lose their sense of community, there's drugs and crime, people are disinclined to come outside and walk around, seniors are fearful. For all those reasons, they felt that something had to be done to patch those communities back together.
"Like any good report you stir things up. One of the findings we had, we challenged local policy makers and elected officials to no longer use the 'peanut butter approach' – to spread the money very thin and evenly – when some are in dire straits. We recommended to invest a little more mightily in neighborhoods that have significant promise with initiatives and economic opportunities and hope that those concentric circles spread and impact the surrounding areas."
Referring back to his own professional experience, McShepard compares his work at RPM to the work of economic development corporations. "I work for a publicly traded company and we have capital expenditure dollars. We are a holding company for 50 companies. Every year they make a passionate plea on what they need and we have to make a tough choice on which of these investments make the best sense for expansion – where you can get the biggest bang for your buck. You have to make your strategic investments where you can have the most impact."
From Data to Action
Policy Bridge always has recommendations at the end of their reports, and for this they posited that because of the foreclosure crisis and all these vacant, abandoned homes, the vacant lots should be repurposed, perhaps by establishing urban farms.
Two guys McShepard grew up with read the report and called him saying, "We should do just what you said and start an urban farm."
One of them, G. Keymah Durden III, was a 25-year vegan and had previously run a vegan soul food restaurant, and was drawn to the concept of an urban farm because it gave him the chance to not only show people how to grow their own food but also how to prepare it. The other, Damien Forshe, was a general contractor and could handle the details of building out the farm.
So they went to City Hall and met with the community development department, asking for help in finding land. They landed on a parcel of land in the area known as the "Forgotten Triangle" that was the most notorious illegal dumping zone for decades, full of burnt out cars, tires, refrigerators, 30-foot-high piles of construction waste, the occasional dead body.
As it happened, the city had wanted to make the area an urban agriculture renovation zone but had been told a tree farm would never work because of the quality of the soil. It was always on their wish list, though, so McShepard and his partners acquired 1.3 acres of land to be a flagship urban farming project for the city.
They learned the craft of composting and agroponics (fish farming) from the "godfather" of urban farming, Will Allen in Milwaukee. They sent a few people to do an intensive five-month urban agriculture training program with him, built greenhouses, cleaned up the lot, and now have 8,000 farm-raised tilapia and the only EPA-licensed compost facility in the entire city.
They also planted 18 fruit trees, erected a tree house and teepee to rent to groups for special programs, events and retreats, and landscaped. It morphed into a placemaking project, and the people in the community gravitate to it. McShepard recounts a conversation with a person he found sitting quietly in his car looking out at the farm who said to him, "I hope I'm not bothering you guys, this is just my 15 minutes of tranquility. I love coming here."
"The fact that we have a place where people feel safe, we're promoting healthy eating and active living, they have a high level of community pride and ownership, we hire community members and volunteers from the neighborhood – it addresses so many ills."
The farm has been used for community meetings and festivals. They work with seniors and refugees. They have programs working with area schools that bring in thousands of kids. They've done a young farmers program through the EPA and a city summer jobs program, and all of their youth education programming falls under the banner, "Green'n tha Ghetto," which includes a comic book series emphasizing healthy eating and environmental stewardship, where everyday people are superheroes.
Rid-All just acquired another 1.4 acres across the street and have plans to expand their fish farming, ramping up to 30,000+ fish per year, and build a second building with space for a community kitchen where they can do food prep, open a restaurant, and have classrooms for their youth and adult training.
Calling the Cavalry
For McShepard, all of the various things he does are just to show people what a great place Cleveland is, and can be. "I always thought Cleveland got the short end of a whole lot. It's a great city with a lot to offer. I'm doing a lot of this to show that Cleveland is a great place. Rid-All is emblematic of the kind of things Cleveland is capable of and the people who live and work here."
He believes in his personal ethos to do what you can while you can and be a part of the solution, knowing that it is going to require all hands on deck. He's fond of quoting Cleveland's Mayor Frank Jackson, who once addressed an audience by saying, "Well ladies and gentlemen, let me be the first to tell you: the cavalry ain't coming. It's up to us to figure it out."
It seems like McShepard might just have it figured out. Even if he doesn't sleep.
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