Nancy Sullivan transformed her life in Price Hill, works now to transform Price Hill itself


Tucked back on a dead-end street in East Price Hill, the Enright Ridge Urban Ecovillage is an intentional community for the ecologically-minded.

Launched by the neighboring nonprofit Imago, the community is now over 10 years old. What began as a grassroots cooperative of neighbors on Enright Avenue is now an innovative model of urban sustainability, complete with an urban farm co-op, backyard micro-farms, eco-home tours and soon a Village General Store.
 
Nancy Sullivan is a Maryland native who made her way to Cincinnati nearly 40 years ago and has lived in the Ecovillage for about eight years. She and her (now ex-) husband spent their first years in Cincinnati living in Ft. Thomas in Northern Kentucky, where they raised their two sons.
 
Sullivan’s early professional career was spent in development, working for various companies. She always felt a bit out of place in the conservative suburb of Ft. Thomas and spent the majority of her time during those first years on the Ohio side of the river, cultivating her political and ecological interests. So, when a home on Enright Avenue came up for foreclosure, she made the purchase and moved to East Price Hill.
 
Upon its purchase, Sullivan renovated the home from top to bottom, using as many sustainable building practices as possible. Beams were salvaged from a defunct amusement park for floorboards, and radiant heat flooring and energy-efficient appliances and windows were installed. She even uses a solar hot water heater and a wood-burning stove.
 
Sullivan’s home itself is impressive enough, but her 1.2 acres are a natural wonderland. Her property extends back into the woods, butting up against Imago’s 16-acre nature preserve and has a rain garden, a productive vegetable garden and a permaculture garden, plus a revolving cast of wildlife and other animals like ducks and honeybees.
 
Her home may sound out-of-place in a neighborhood located only five minutes from downtown Cincinnati, but it’s a fairly standard find in the Ecovillage. Many of the other residents have installed similar green-infrastructure in their own homes and it seems that whenever a new home is up for sale it’s quickly purchased.
 

Up on the Hill
 
Price Hill is a three-neighborhood community directly west of Cincinnati’s central business district. West, East and Lower Price Hill span roughly six miles and boasts one of the best views of the city from Mt. Echo Park.
 
Although Price Hill was named “Greenest Neighborhood” by the City of Cincinnati a few years back, its population is not quite what you’d expect from the designation. Rather than the wealthy, educated, progressive demographic usually associated with “natural living,” Price Hill is extremely diverse and has more of a light urban than a suburban feel.
 
In the late 19th Century, Price Hill was one of Cincinnati’s fast-growing incline rail-accessible neighborhoods. Though the area has struggled with crime, blight and vacancy issues in recent years, it continues to draw a growing, diverse population with its wealth of interesting and affordable real estate as well as strong educational and religious institutions.
 
The Price Hill community also houses organizations such as Price Hill Will (another nonprofit started by Imago) that help coordinate efforts among many residents and stakeholders to address shared community issues. It may be one of Cincinnati’s most diverse communities, and it’s definitely one of the most cooperative.
 
Price Hill’s original residents were German and Irish, bringing with them a strong Catholic tradition. In recent years, though, the population has diversified and the area now includes a large African American population as well as Hispanic and Latino residents. The economics of these communities now reflect their diversity — the East Price Hill Kroger store, in fact, is almost entirely bi-lingual, featuring many Latino ethnic foods and Spanish signage.
 
The Greater Cincinnati Latino Coalition estimates about 60,000 Hispanic immigrants reside in Cincinnati. Many of them migrated to the U.S. for economic reasons because even unskilled labor here demands an exponentially (10x) better wage than in their home countries. More than half of these immigrants are from Mexico and Guatemala, and as many as 80-90 percent of new arrivals are undocumented.
 
Although a topic of debate in the current political scene, the hot button issue of Hispanic/Latino immigration is not new in the U.S.
 
Around the end of the 20th Century, various nations in Central America were in the throes of violent conflict, resulting in hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguan, Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees fleeing their homes in search of shelter. Of those who migrated to the U.S., only a miniscule percentage was granted asylum by the government. The rest were detained or sent home.
 
In the 1970s and ’80s, a strong network of religious and justice-minded citizens began organizing a web of support for the hundreds of thousands of refugees turned away by the U.S. government. This network became known as the Sanctuary movement and was based on the Judeo-Christian concept of providing a safe place for the persecuted and was loosely modeled after the Underground Railroad. At one point, there were over 500 church and temple congregations nationwide providing sanctuary.

 
Re-evangelized in El Salvador
 
The Sanctuary movement was how Sullivan first entered the arena of immigration issues. Through various church connections, she was able to travel to El Salvador to witness that poverty and violence firsthand and, upon returning to Cincinnati, was newly motivated to social action.
 
“It is fair to say that I was re-evangelized when I visited El Salvador during the civil war there in the ’70s and ’80s,” she remembers. “Church was being lived out in a radically different way by those who were bearing the brunt of the violence and this had a profound effect on me.”

These religious workers in Central America, the people “living on the edge” of their faith and service, were a significant influence on her.
 
In the time between her young professional life and her eventual move to Price Hill, Sullivan enrolled at The Athenaeum of Ohio in Mt. Lookout and received a Master’s of Art in Religion. Years later, once firmly planted in the Guatemalan-populated East Price Hill, she would have her own opportunity to work “on the edge” with the immigrant population.
 
Sullivan is a member of Church of Our Saviour (La Iglesia de Nuestro Salvador) in Mt. Auburn. This Episcopal church community is intentional about cultivating diversity among its membership and, years ago, decided to make a conscious effort to serve the immigrant population as well. Fast-forward a few years later, and much of the church’s services are now bilingual, presented in both English and Spanish.
 
Church of Our Saviour started the organization Transformations CDC, which was originally designed to aid in re-entry for those leaving the justice system. But the organization shifted focus to meet obvious needs among the growing immigrant population and now does the majority of its work in East Price Hill. Sullivan is its only employee.
 
“An increasing number of immigrants have moved to Price Hill and they are virtually all from the same state of Guatemala,” Sullivan explains. “Originally it was mostly men, then it was women — those who had children back home who they were trying to feed but couldn’t. Then, because of the upswing in violence and the downsizing in the economy, we see more and more young mothers with little kids and also unaccompanied minors.”
 
Roberts Academy, a Cincinnati Public Schools neighborhood school in Price Hill, reflects this influx as well.

“It’s now an English language learner magnet school, and it’s full,” Sullivan says. “ It’s well over 50 percent Hispanic.”
 
Many of the services provided daily at Transformations CDC are for these young children of immigrants who need extra support in acclimating to American culture and learning the English language, which is necessary for growing into active, engaged citizens.
 
“They say it takes three years for social fluency in a language and seven to eight years for academic fluency, but that’s assuming support,” Sullivan says. “Kids who are born here are still at a disadvantage because they’re only hearing Spanish at home and often their mothers never had the opportunity to go to school, so their mothers can’t even help them with their math. They are illiterate.
 
“I asked one woman, ‘Did your parents just not believe in educating girls?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘We didn’t have money to buy pencils and you couldn’t go to school unless you went with your own school supplies.’ Plus, very often, the schools would be an hour’s walk away with no bus.”
 
So, in addition to services provided for children, Transformations CDC provides educational opportunities for Spanish-speaking adult immigrants and helps connect them with important resources for daily life in a new country. Sullivan also helps put the complicated logistical and legal puzzle pieces together for those seeking asylum in the U.S.

 
A day in the life
 
An average day for Sullivan may include an early morning call from a new immigrant who needs a ride to work, taking a child to school or to the doctor’s office, making plans for driving someone else to Cleveland for immigration proceedings and then counseling a young woman about domestic abuse and family planning.
 
This is on top of the official programming of Transformations, which includes after-school programs, tutoring and ESL, GED and computer classes for adults. The organization also helps connect those in need to medical care and physical resources (like food, furniture and clothing) and teaches basic financial skills. Recently, they’ve formed a cooperative of women making tamales for income since they can’t legally obtain employment elsewhere.
 
Sister Tracy Kemme works with the Latino immigrant population in Price Hill as well. She is a Sister of Charity and the Latino Ministry Coordinator at Holy Family Parish. She knows Sullivan from her work in the neighborhood and, though they don’t often work together directly, they have parallel missions.
 
About Sullivan, Kemme says, “She is very close to the people of Price Hill. She is very committed to those who are marginalized in our community. She is authentic in living the values she wishes to see in the world, incredibly generous with her time and resources, always willing to go the extra mile to help someone in the community. She is strong in her beliefs and unafraid to speak out for what is right.”

Part of what motivates Sullivan in her work is her commitment to protecting the rights of immigrants and helping them move toward full legal status as residents. She says that this is the same thing many immigrants want for themselves, but the process of seeking asylum is laborious and confusing, sometimes taking years to complete between the various court dates, interviews, examinations and paperwork. Sullivan walks them through the process.
 
Jorge H. Martinez is a Cincinnati lawyer specializing in immigration law. When Sullivan needs to find legal representation for an immigrant seeking asylum or for a family in danger of being separated by deportation, Martinez is the first person she calls. Likewise, he knows he can count on her for connecting his clients to other non-legal resources.
 
“The immigrant population coming from Central America (and specifically from Guatemala) are illiterate and many don’t even speak Spanish,” he says. “They don't know how to access public transportation and they need help going to medical and legal appointments. Nancy helps them to find the resources they need and helps them with transportation, not only to my office in Butler County but to immigration court in Cleveland or to the consulates in Chicago.”
 
Her work, Martinez believes, is life-changing for these immigrants and that her empathy for them is her greatest strength.

“She is a guardian angel for the poorest immigrants,” he says.

 
Pastor, shepherd
 
As to whether or not she considers her work to be religious in nature, Sullivan explains, “I feel as if I do have a pastoral role, but only in a broad sense. ‘Pastor’ in Spanish is ‘shepherd,’ and I am generally helping people find greener pastures in the sense of education, health, employment, resources. Once in a while I take a more explicit role.”
 
Even with her hectic role at Transformations CDC, Sullivan is still active in the Enright Ridge Urban Ecovillage. She volunteers and sits on committees and participates in the community events like potlucks and workshops.
 
Though keeping backyard ducks and teaching English to Latino immigrants might seem like incongruent work, these two parts of Sullivan’s life don’t feel in conflict with each other at all. They feel more like natural expressions of her commitment to seeking justice and her desire to build a sanctuary in the earth and for her immigrant neighbors.
 
Her motivation is simple and was inspired in her long before meeting her Guatemalan neighbors, back when she first saw the radical faith and work of those in Central America.
 
“I want to work with people on the margins to transform their lives,” Sullivan says.

It seems that, in Price Hill, she’s found the perfect place to make that happen.
 

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.
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