Equity challenge

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of stories about this week's Richland County Community Equity Challenge. Today's topic deals with wealth and income disparities.

MANSFIELD -- Steve Cobb said Monday that information shared in the first day of the Equity Challenge didn't surprise him, including the fact there are deep disparities found in local income levels.

"It's messed up. It's been messed up," said the longtime businessman, whose local interests include ownership of Garbage Guys Who Care.

Paul Kemerling, founder and owner of Relax, It's Just Coffee and also 3rd Cup Tea, in downtown Mansfield, also participated in the first day of the challenge.

"I'm always amazed by how much of my own experience I take for granted," he said Monday. "On the one hand, I am aware of the history of racism, and am self-aware enough to know I have implicit biases, but the extent to which these impact my daily life is so modest compared to others' experience."

The idea behind the equity challenge is to create dedicated time and space to build more effective social justice habits, particularly those dealing with issues of race, power, privilege and leadership, according to organizers.

"Participants will explore racial equity and social injustice through activities to dismantle racism and other forms of discrimination," task force co-chair Amy Hiner saiid.

According to the local organizers of the Richland County Task Force on Racism, many households in Richland County struggle to afford basic necessities such as housing, childcare, food, transportation and technology.

These households, also known as ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed), earn more than the federal poverty level, but not enough to cover the basic cost of living.

Task force leaders said that means these families must often make tough decisions: Pay rent or buy food? Risk homelessness or go hungry?

Zip codes and census tracts are "strong predictors of your opportunity in life," organizers said. "When these factors are combined with race, people of color are disproportionately impacted by this reality."

The average median income in the communities with high numbers of Black households in Richland County (Census Tracts 5, 6, 7 and 31) is $26,397, compared to $56,111, the median income for all county households.

According to a video that is a part of the first-day challenge, causes for the income/wealth disparity trace back many years, including housing "redlining," a discriminatory practice in which services were withheld from potential customers who resided in neighborhoods regarded as collectively financial risky. These residents largely belonged to racial and ethnic minorities.

Steve Cobb

Cobb came to Mansfield to take control of Weidner Motors in 1990, selling it in 2008. In addition to the trash hauling business, he operates a local real estate holding company and an energy sales company.

Steve Cobb

Steve Cobb

He said the Equity Challenge will be a success if "it can just get people to think a little more."

"I am a person who respects everyone," he said, "until they show me they can't be respected. If more people think like that ... I don't know what goes on in everyone's life. Just be thoughtful and kind."

Cobb, who grew up in Detroit and worked in a myriad of jobs, said he has a "waiting list with 100 people on it" wishing to work for him.

"There is no labor shortage in my place," said Cobb, who spoke up in March when Mansfield City Council was considering changes to local trash-hauling regulations.

He said the city was wrong to focus on trash issues when issues of systemic racism in the community still exist.

Cobb told City Council he employs 14 people, nine of whom are Black. He also said he employs eight convicted felons and pays an average salary of $18.75 per hour.

"My experiences have given me a revealing look at our world through the eyes of people who don't look like me," Cobb said during the council meeting, adding anyone who doesn't see systemic racism as a problem in Mansfield is "either blind or not looking."

Cobb said Monday he hasn't seen changes in the city's priorities.

"Things can happen with this anti-racism effort if (the administration) wants them to," he said. "How did they come up with garbage as a priority when all (Mayor Tim Theaker) wants to do is tear down (dilapidated) houses?

"I don't think people are talking and listening to one another, including the people in power. All (Theaker) wants to talk about in his annual report is how many houses he has torn down.

"It's a very frustrating situation. There are lots of things the city could do if it becomes a priority. But I don't think it will with the current administration."

Paul Kemerling

Kemerling grew up in a "relatively poor household" on east side of Columbus. Like Cobb, he began working at a young age.

"But here again, I knew at that time some had it much worse. I had a collection of friends, and friends' parents, and teachers who looked out for me, provided me with opportunities, like the opportunity to earn money, and eventually helped me to scholarships for high school and college," Kemerling said.

Paul Kemerlling

Paul Kemerling

Kemerling said both his parents worked full-time when he was growing up. He didn't recognize it at the time, but now knows they lived paycheck to paycheck, balancing income and debt.

"These stresses, at least partially, led to my parents getting divorced when I was in high school. After the divorce, I was pretty much on my own," he said.

Opportunities came his way.

"I started out teaching in the college classroom, moved into administration, spent a short time in California riding, and crashing, on the Internet bubble of 2000-01. I then returned to nonprofit administration, where I worked for a dozen years. Now I make coffee, and I couldn't be happier," he said.

Kemerling also said he knows some entrepreneurial career breaks came his way due to who he was, opportunities that may not have been available to people of color.

"Don't get me wrong ... I've worked my ass off! The first years that Relax was open I worked seven days a week, often open to close. There were many times that I had to choose which bills to pay, and which I could strategically put off. That kind of juggling is common place when you're poor or broke.

"But things like securing a lease, having access to credit, and building relationships with suppliers and customers undoubtedly came just a little bit easier because of who I knew and the networks I had built," he said.

"I believe that (that my family) has been relatively unharmed by segregation and bias. The hurdles we've faced, more often than not, have come from our own bad decisions," he said.

Kemerling said he opens the Equity Challenge will help expose local residents to perhaps some uncomfortable truths.

"A few years ago, I served on a vocational committee with inmates from MANCI and RICI. I was terrified the first time I walked into a secure facility, uncertain what I'd find.

"What I found was a collection of people who were not at all very different than me. What put many of them behind bars, was a bad decision or two, bad timing, and bad luck," he said.

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City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"