Q&A with Joe Black: Promise Engagement Manager and National Urban Fellow

Joe Black, Promise engagement manager, has been selected by the National Urban Fellows for its Academic & Leadership Development Fellowship Program. This is a rigorous, 14-month graduate-degree program comprising four semesters of academic courses and a nine-month mentor-ship.

As part of this program, Joe was required to spend this past summer at Bernard M. Baruch College School of Public Affairs in New York City. The program culminates in a master of public administration. Graduates of this program include diverse public-service leaders who have gone on to assume influential positions across government, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors.

Since returning from NYC at the end of July, Joe has jumped right back into his work at Promise while continuing his academic requirements for the Urban Fellowship program.

Joe shares his experience so far and how this opportunity has given his advocacy for Promise a national stage:

What is the National Urban Fellow Program? 

The National Urban Fellows Program (NUF) combines academics and leadership with the goal of advancing mid-career professionals into executive-level positions.

The group is truly a community of leaders who seek to address society’s dysfunction by implementing strategic actions through public administration.

Joe Black and his National Urban Fellow classmates in New York City
Joe Black and his National Urban Fellow classmates in NYC

Why did you want to pursue this?

My professional career has involved many different professions ranging from working in a daycare to mentoring, followed by social work, youth program development, and now community reform and engagement. With such a diverse work history, I realized that service, particularly serving people, was the common thread. I also discovered that politics combined with lack of an advanced degree is what limited my professional growth and impact. In response to those limitations, I decided to seek opportunities to address both, which led me to apply.

The opportunity also positions me to serve as an advocate for Cleveland. I am pursuing NUF with the vision of making sure that people have a seat at the table. My motto was that if you are not at the table you’re more than likely on the menu. Over the summer, my vision and motto shifted. My responsibility was no longer just about being at the table, it was about “being the table”. My pursuit to be an advocate for the community shifted to being a platform for advocacy.

What has been your biggest learning so far?

It’s not often that an individual can prepare for a life changing experience. In my case, I knew I was about to embark on a journey. I knew the journey would be filled with a list of challenges that included leaving my family for an extended period of time and stretching my finances to afford living in New York while managing the needs of my family in Cleveland.

I challenged myself to remain present in the moment and to talk with anyone and everyone. My openness benefited me more than I had imagined. The way that I have been conditioned to think living in Cleveland was completely different from those who lived in New York. I realized that “you don’t know what you don’t know” but my experience in NYC broadened my horizon to at least absorb that concept.

Living in Jersey and commuting to the city daily taught me a lot about managing my space and time. I learned the importance of a book bag in comparison the trunk of my car. I also learned what it meant to have good walking shoes.

When I returned to Cleveland, a small portion of me missed the public transportation so much so that I have started riding my bike through the community and walking to work when at all possible.

How will this impact the work you are doing for Promise?

Thus far my experiences as a student have challenged me to dig deep and look at root causes in a different way. For example, I was engaged in a conversation with a deputy commissioner from RTA. The conversation focused on the fiscal problems that RTA is projecting will occur in the next 3-5 years. The projections included another rise in cost and a reduction in services rendered. Overall the issues have some significant implications on the community as a significant portion of the community relies on public transportation.

I expect that if I had this conversation prior to my time away I would have assumed that the solution was to explore strategies to stabilize the rise in cost. Now that I have spent this time away, I think that looking into the rise in cost is one component the other aspect is exploring how to creating alternate travel options:

  • How do I work with the Community Development Corporation to make the community more walk-able and bike friendly?
  • How do I increase snow removal strategies to support that effort?
  • How do I increase jobs in the community to reduce reliance on public transportation?

What have you learned about resident engagement during this experience?

Although I had a generic understanding of the power of residents, I now have an even deeper appreciation for the power of resident voice. I think there is a significant value in being civically involved and with such involvement comes a unique source of power.

How do you juggle coursework with your family and career?

New York City at night
New York City at night

To date, I find that the most difficult task is managing the list of responsibilities that I face as a father, student, and community servant. Each task requires that I prioritize my responsibilities and set boundaries. At this point, I try to engage with my family as much as possible taking time to cook dinner on Sundays and take family bike rides as time permits throughout the week. When it comes to work, I try to leverage my existing relationships to create opportunities for new professional experiences. Overall, the challenge of managing school, family and work is difficult but the lessons learned are well worth the challenges I face

What was your experience like living in NYC for the summer?

Prior to my summer in NYC, I was confident that New York was not the place for me. I thought the city was obnoxiously expensive and overcrowded. Now, I would maintain my beliefs about the cost and the crowds, yet my tone has softened as I discovered the greatness of the city.

I have come to appreciate the mass of people and the range of people that you can encounter on a 15-minute commute on the subway.

What I found to be even more unique about the city is the vibrant energy that naturally parades the streets. There was a sense of optimism that lingered in every discussion. That optimism being the foundation for a display of talents that were worthy of a premier stage in many other markets.  I vividly remember encountering talented people such as a homeless man who charged my phone while telling me stories about his hand made guitar. I listened to musical performances from entertainers who performed on the subways with the same tenacity as if they were on Broadway.

My experience in New York leaves me anxious to return, but only under the terms that Cleveland will always be home.