ThirdSpace Action Lab
Cleveland, Ohio
PLACES 2011 Cohort


ThirdSpace Action Lab
Cleveland, Ohio
PLACES 2017 Cohort

Photo Credit: McKinley Wiley

One of the missions laid out on the website of ThirdSpace Action Lab is to encourage people to “consider what will be possible if we insist on the beauty of forgotten places.”

Places like neighborhoods in the City of Cleveland.

The nonprofit is the result of a professional partnership forged between two PLACES alumni: Evelyn Burnett and Mordecai Cargill, who met while working together at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, a community development nonprofit that helps direct funds from larger foundations into the region.

Burnett and Cargill recently left the nonprofit to start the Cleveland-based ThirdSpace Action Lab, a research, strategy and design cooperative with a focus on “co-creating more liberated spaces for people of color.”

Burnett grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, in a pro-union and activism-driven family.

“Folks would talk about the wonderful place it used to be,” said Burnett. “It used to be a town with lots of shops, restaurants and good jobs at the steel mill, GM or Packard.”

But in her home and neighborhood, the good times were always spoken of in the past tense.

“The story I was raised under and through was a story of struggle, and fight to get some type of normalcy for folks,” said Burnett.

“I remember vividly a conversation my mom and grandmother used to have about my mom having me out on the picket lines when I was still in a baby carriage.”

Cargill, who was born and raised in Cleveland, also understands the dismay inherent in referring to prosperity as a thing of the past.

“One thing about Cleveland that probably isn’t unique to American urban centers is that Cleveland is very segregated,” he said. “The majority of the black folks live on the East side.”

After studying at Yale, Cargill returned to Cleveland in 2013.He encountered a city he barely recognized in the aftermath of the national foreclosure crisis.

“I didn’t fully grasp the severity of the foreclosure crisis. I knew that if America has the sniffles, black America has the flu,” said Mordecai. “I assumed it would be worse, but when I got to Cleveland I saw the revitalization starting to happen on the other side and I was thinking to myself, ‘When is this going to reach my community?’”

That led him to think more about neighborhood stability.

“I wanted to figure out how I might be able to add my ideas to make neighborhoods better.”

Why did you get into philanthropy?

Burnett: It was an accident. I went to undergrad and got into grad school and was introduced to philanthropy there. I met a woman through one of my organizations in college and she worked with the Cleveland Foundation. She encouraged me to apply for a fellowship.

Then I got a deep-dive into philanthropy, and at first I liked it a lot. Like, man, these cats have all the juice and they have a lot of money. If anyone can change the world, it’s them.

Then I started to understand philanthropy, and it opened my mind more about how it’s being deployed for transformation and for whom.

Cargill: My first job was at the United Way. It was my first job out of college, a temporary job asking people to give to the campaign, but I was unfulfilled. I was essentially a salesman, and it left me distant from the problems I wanted to work on.

From there I started working at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and that was really my first real exposure to philanthropy. They were at the epicenter of an ecosystem that was improving neighborhoods.

And I found there was this incredible opportunity to bridge the gap between the foundation and the people in the neighborhoods. Philanthropy has an interesting role in cities. There is an entire sector that has a lot of free rein in how it allocates its resources and how it uses its influence to solve some of the trickiest problems of our time.

You were both PLACES fellows, albeit in different cohorts. What was that experience like and how has it impacted your work?

Burnett: I did PLACES the first year I was living in New York City. PLACES came at the perfect time for me in my career. I was in a big city, in a big organization, and my first year of big-city philanthropy was hard. I didn’t even understand their language.

I knew inequities existed and considered myself woke. But it’s in PLACES I really started to understand power. I was from a town of fighters, but not necessarily a town of winners or losers. They just moved on to the next fight and there hadn’t been any movement. So to see people talking about their portfolios and how they were moving investments to fight gentrification— PLACES put power on the table.

I never thought about power at all, even though my mom was an activist with a civil rights organization. It had not been framed for me in that way. It has completely changed how I work and it gave me a confidence I didn’t have. It made me start to think about systems in a rigorous way that was very real and not just abstract.

Cargill: When we went to Miami on a PLACES site visit, that really blew my mind. It hit me that public art is not objective and it’s not just paint on the wall. Riding around Miami, going from Little Haiti and then to Wynwood, you see the city transform drastically from neighborhood to neighborhood. I started to understand how public art in some ways is a harbinger of neighborhood change.

We went to Miami, Charleston, New Orleans. Even though the places themselves were quite different, some of the problems the nonprofits and community organizations were working to solve were all very similar. It was at once disturbing and also encouraging that there were people doing the work who wanted to solve these problems.

What is one of the biggest challenges you’re facing right now in this work?

Burnett: We’re a business where racial equity and racial inclusion is nonnegotiable. People like us as people. They say they want to be anti-racist, but that falls off the agenda real quick when you’re talking about market-rate apartments in the hood. We’re trying to operate at the systems level and changing systems is not easy.

Cargill: The challenge is going from awareness to action. I think the most difficult part of making that shift is that there is still some cognitive dissonance: How do we wrestle with what you now know if you didn’t know it before? And how do you begin to inform interventions and solutions uniquely tailored to neighborhoods?

If you could write a very short letter — “Dear People In Philanthropy…” What would it say?

Dear People in Philanthropy,
You cannot solve systemic problems with programmatic solutions within a grant cycle. Please stop.

Dear People in Philanthropy,
Please continue to think beyond what is immediately possible and consider new ways of empowering people — people who are rarely brought to the table.

Empower people to envision radical new possibilities for their communities.

Is there an internal question you’re constantly asking yourself while doing this work? What is it and how do you answer it?

Cargill: Who do I need to solve this problem? I answer that question by constantly looking for collaborators and by trying to allow myself to be surprised by what comes from connecting with people, talking with people, and observing how people interact with space.

Burnett: Can I continue/Can I make it?

I’ve answered that with a reminder about abolishing chattel slavery in America. The more I’ve learned over the years, I believe there was no incentive at all for these white men to allow for the system of slavery to be destroyed.

A lot of things I’m working on feel insurmountable, I’m reminded that there were people that got rid of slavery, both black and white. There were everyday people that kept at it. And that drives me forward.