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What started in living rooms decades ago has left a lasting legacy in Shaker Heights

SGORR session
tree lined street
Posted at 11:52 AM, Feb 21, 2020

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio — Imagine a child, a little girl, growing up in an idyllic neighborhood. It’s the late 1950s and her street was quiet and tree-lined.

Friends walked to each others homes and played endlessly in backyards until lightning bugs came to join in the fun.

Long past bedtime, she and her friend next door would talk to each other out their bedroom windows.

On Christmas mornings the little girl’s father would make her and her brother and sisters wait at the top of the steps while he got his camera ready to take pictures of them coming down to witness the magic Santa brought that year.

It was the American dream.

Now take a moment to hold an image of that little girl in your head.

Be honest with yourself.

What color is her skin?

Slide the white circle below to find out.

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A Magical Experience

When you talk to Shelley Stokes-Hammond you quickly realize her childhood was unique.

“We were fortunate to grow up in a community that worked hard to give us that experience,” she told News 5.

That community was the Ludlow neighborhood that straddles Cleveland and Shaker Heights. In 1956 someone planted a bomb in the garage of a black family building a house in Ludlow. It sparked an awakening, and the Ludlow Community embarked on a now famous experiment: diversity. It was an experiment forged in fire.

"Look, we want to have an integrated neighborhood, but it isn’t going to be this way unless we make it happen,” said Judge Dan Polster, United States District Judge for the Northern District of Ohio.

He grew up in Ludlow, too, and his family was there when the bombing happened. It inspired his parents to join in the founding of the Ludlow Community Association.

Shelley Stokes-Hammond & Dan Polster
Shelley Stokes-Hammond & Federal Judge Dan Polster grew up together in the Ludlow community

When black families started moving in and “the banks, the real estate companies drew a big red line around that neighborhood: no mortgages,” Polster explained, the LCA “showed homes… they pooled what little they had together to offer second mortgages,” to stop white flight from Ludlow.

Stokes-Hammond's parents also got involved in the LCA when they moved to Ludlow. The result, her mother told her, was nothing less than "magical."

They'd created an intentionally integrated neighborhood.

But their work isn’t done.

The Experiment Continues

Today the most popular program in Shaker Heights Schools is the Student Group on Race Relations, or SGORR. It’s taught to 4th, 6th and 8th graders by high school students.

“They are kind of led to look at bias, they’re led to look at diversity, they’re led to look at prejudice in different experiences,” Woodbury Elementary School math teacher Brittany Webb explained.

There are nearly 300 SGORR members.

Three times a year they go into elementary school classrooms to get kids comfortable with being uncomfortable.

SGORR Woodbury Elementary School
A SGORR session with 6th graders at Woodbury Elementary School

As a result, 6th graders like Kingston Oliver are sharing wisdom beyond their years. “We’re all people and we’re all from Earth so I think we all should be equal,” he told News 5.

6th grader Alexa Carpenter explained that she’s come to understand the beauty of our differences: “A lot of people have different things to bring to society; their culture, ideas. And when everybody’s ideas is combined it just really makes a good place.”

At the Core

These classroom sessions are painstakingly prepared.

During the school year a couple dozen SGORR core leaders meet every Sunday night in a classmate’s living room.

They talk about what makes them different, what makes them the same, and how to break it all down for kids at different grade levels.

“I was most impressionable when I was a kid,” core leader Aaliyah Williams said, “and I think I came to understand how important it is to like, engage children in issues like this.”

These are conversations that are as important as ever.

While Shaker Heights is still celebrated for its diversity, U.S. Census data shows the black population growing, and the white population shrinking.

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Stokes-Hammond warned what could happen when white families leave town: “The concern of the black population was it would become a ghetto. They felt if no whites lived there their services would deteriorate and the quality of education might deteriorate. It’s not the people, it’s the history of racism."

Shaker Doesn’t Quit

And so today, more than 60 years after that bombing in Ludlow, the experiment continues.

But the early results are promising.

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