Welcome to Westwood, where residents are changing racial attitudes one conversation at a time

Racially at least, the neighborhood of Westwood is a microcosm of the broader city of Cincinnati.

The West Side community’s population is almost evenly split among Black and white, with 46% being white, and 43% Black. In all of Cincinnati, the population is 47 percent white and 42% Black.

As they do in the broader city, those numbers suggest a degree of racial integration, but the reality on the ground is much different.

Just as many Cincinnati neighborhoods are segregated — Avondale, for example, is 76% Black, while Mount Lookout is 89% white — the Westwood neighborhood is largely divided along racial lines, with the aging apartment buildings along the main drags of Harrison and Montana avenues populated by people of color, and the solid bungalows in the neighborhood cul-de-sacs predominantly populated by whites.

That divide has been a source of tension — and even fear — in Westwood for decades.

Not content to live in an environment of distrust forever, a few concerned neighbors decided to do something about it — they started talking to each other.

“One thing I learned really quickly was that Westwood was really divided into two parts — white and Black,” says John Eby, a longtime resident who started getting involved in the community about 20 years ago.

Eby was among those who started a project called One Westwood, which at its heart was little more than a small group of diverse people who cared about the neighborhood sitting down, looking each other in the eyes, and expressing some difficult thoughts about race and the place they call home.

Those conversations continued for a couple of years, with the goal being for the participants to spread their learnings among their families, coworkers, friends, and networks.

“To spread the love,” as Rodney Christian, one of the participants, says.

Their work was recognized last year by the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio, which presented the group with one of its annual Journey Awards.

The work has also led to upcoming community projects that will reach larger groups of people, including students at the impressionable middle-school age.

But it wasn’t always peace and flowers.

“It took 16 months for us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable with each other because of the discussions we were having,” Eby says.

Those at the table included Eby, an engineer and longtime Westwood activist; Christian, the youth director at Third Presbyterian, a predominantly Black church in East Westwood; Reggie Roberts, an elder at Third Presbyterian; Sara Overstake, director of the neighborhood YMCA; Maxine Gray, pastor of predominantly Black Shepherd’s Heart Christian Fellowship Ministry; Tyrone Gray, also of Shepherd’s Heart; Rev. Mary Carson, pastor of predominantly white St. James Episcopal Church; Jack Jose, then-principal of Gamble Montessori High School; and Abe Brandyberry, founder of the nonprofit Cincinnati Urban Promise.

The group hired two professional facilitators — one white, one Black — to help keep the dialogue on point.

“We started a process of really intense conversations over the next year-plus,” Rev. Carson says.

Perhaps reflecting the thinking of the ministers in the room, the group created a covenant, a formal document that stated the group’s intentions. Called the One Westwood Covenant, it says:

“Racism exists in Westwood, contradicting our core values and endangering the health of our community. One Westwood stands for equity, justice, and a unity that respects the dignity of all people. We intend to heal our racial divide while dismantling the collective structures and personal practices that deprive people of color the opportunity to live equally in our community. One Westwood invites all residents to work together to end racism by listening to voices of the disenfranchised, committing to meaningful action, and holding each other accountable for change.”

The covenant, Rev. Carson says, “was really about naming the disparity, and saying we’ve got to deal with this.”

At the group’s urging, the community councils of both East Westwood and Westwood formally and unanimously adopted the pledge. That was considered a big step forward, especially in Westwood, whose official neighborhood council in the past had been accused of provoking racial divisiveness.

“It’s important for people to know that we’re not going to put up with this racist attitude in Westwood anymore,” Eby says.

When the Covid-19 pandemic emerged in the spring, the group went on hiatus, as the members — especially those associated with churches and ministries — focused on serving the growing needs of their constituents, and face-to-face meetings became inadvisable.

But, true to plan, months of dialogue have encouraged action.

“They’ve been reckoning with telling the truth about race and racism in Westwood and what damage it’s done,” says Leslie Rich, executive director of community group Westwood Works. “Now, they’re in the stage to repair the break and say Westwood is a place for everyone and, if that’s true, then we need to do actionable things.”

One of those is The Big Read, a community-wide reading program that will include adults and youth. In January, the program will be piloted with sixth graders at Dater Montessori Elementary and St. Catharine of Siena Catholic school and will be linked to their social studies and language arts curricula.

They’ll begin by reading Stamped from the Beginning, a youth version of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, which won a National Book Award for nonfiction in 2016.

“I hope our school-age kids can see themselves as racial justice leaders despite their age and that this builds a connection to the community for them,” Rich says.

They’ll be an adult program too, with the grown-ups choosing one of three books to read, including Stamped, along with in a three-week study on white privilege.

“We don’t want it to be a coffee club,” Rich says. “We want action to happen.”

Not everyone’s a reader and, as Rich says, “Some people process experience through talking things out.”

For them, Westwood Works is collaborating with The Hive, a Northside center that provides workshops on putting mindfulness and compassion into action. A six-week session called “Courage to Connect” — which will be virtual or in small groups — will explore how to bring different kinds of people together around a common cause.

“We’re building a community of anti-racists,” Rich says.

That will take time and persistence — and more difficult conversations. “That’s an example of what communities need,” Christian says. “People coming together and talking.”

The On The Ground: Westwood feature series is made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. / U. S. Bank Foundation.

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.