By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
Your greatest accomplishment may not be something you do but someone you [lift].
– Andy Stanley
Rosalyn Clemens arrived in Toledo in October 2019 from Prince George’s County, Maryland, bringing her passion for building wealth in underserved communities.
Initially hired as a commissioner of Housing, within six months, she rose up the ranks to her current position as Director of the City’s Department of Housing and Community Development.
In her short tenure, Clemens has begun to make Toledo “fit for a prince” by totally transforming the culture in City government and the way services are delivered in Toledo’s most challenged neighborhoods.
One of Clemens’ more notable “five-star” accomplishments is a new Wayman Palmer YMCA. This $20 million project would not have happened without her leadership, creative thinking and funding acquisition skills.
When asked about Clemens, Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz was effusive with praise. “I think she is a rock star,” he beamed. “I don’t want to rank the people I’ve hired because I think they’re all wonderful. But Ros might be the best person we’ve brought into this organization in my four years as Mayor.”
I caught up with Clemens for a one-on-one conversation to discuss her perspective on leadership and her work:
Perryman: I heard through the grapevine about your incredible work at the Department of Housing and Community Development. What is the difference in the department now compared to when you first arrived?
Clemens: What’s new and different is that the administration has really set an agenda and started to lead on housing and community development policy. That wasn’t the case before.
Perryman: Please elaborate.
Clemens: We need to be more strategic in how we spend our federal dollars. We need to steer investment in our neighborhoods and be more aggressive regarding investment in our cities. I think this is the Mayor’s mandate, and certainly, this is something that I’ve championed since coming here.
We have now designated three areas of the city that we are strategically investing dollars in – the Junction/Englewood area, Old South End, and East Toledo. We are also looking strategically at creating affordable housing with the sites that the city owns. So, we’re not just waiting for developers to come to us. We are looking at those sites, cleaning them up, and saying: ‘Hey look, we need housing, take a look! How can we help you to build units in this area.’
Perryman: You have been described as a rock star and the best in the country at what you do.
Clemens: I would say that I love what I do. I love being able to make a difference, particularly in neighborhoods that have my people. One of the things that truly attracted me to this position was when I came up and visited the city for the first time and saw the condition of our neighborhoods. I saw the condition of people of color, and I sincerely believe that it was something that I was being called to do.
Perryman: You describe this as a calling. What is the source of your vision?
Clemens: I am from Prince George’s County, Maryland. It is the wealthiest African-American community in the entire United States, and I am used to seeing African Americans empowered. I am used to seeing them running million-dollar businesses. I’m used to seeing our people in leadership positions in our city and our legislature. I’m used to seeing us rocking and rolling, and there’s a feeling of empowerment among our people in Prince George’s County that I don’t see here. So, it broke my heart because I know better, and I know what our people are capable of.
So, I was intrigued about the possibility of coming here and sharing some of my knowledge, and just trying to change our people’s paradigm. Many of whom, as you know, live in poverty.
Perryman: You have also increased the number of low-income people that now have access to home repair and lead work.
Clemens: Yes. When I got here, low-income people could not access housing repair dollars and, more alarmingly to lead dollars. It was the most punitive policy I’ve ever experienced, and it was indeed not a Toledo Municipal Code requirement. It was certainly not a federal requirement, but it was just something that we did here with no thought process on its impact on poor people. That has been eliminated, and as a result, we’ve probably done 30 homes in the Junction area in this past year alone. This would never have occurred with the previous type of thinking.
Perryman: Let’s talk about the YMCA, a project that also would not have happened without your efforts and out-of-the-box type thinking.
Clemens: Certainly, The Wayman Palmer Y is a big project and something that I have championed with the Mayor’s support. People say the Mayor doesn’t care about these neighborhoods. But he does care. One of the things he said to me was: ‘You know, I just want all these neighborhoods to be viable and to be places that people want to live. I don’t know how to get there, but that’s why we were bringing in people like you.’
I can say that there’s never been an idea that I’ve spoken to him, ‘Look Mayor, I think we’ve got to do this, I’m going to have to push for this.’ So, I may not always know how, but I think the spirit of this administration is that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Perryman: Specifically, how did the Wayman Palmer Y Project come about?
Clemens: I think the roof was leaking before I got here. They had been working for over a year on how to fix the roof and then to turn the building over to the Y and all of that. So, I said, ‘I can find money to fix the roof, to stabilize it.’ But after venturing out through the city, I asked, ‘Mayor, why does the Wayman Palmer look like that and the Y’s across town look like something else? I can’t, in good conscience, only be contented to just fixing the roof. Let’s explore this a little bit more.’
We paid for a consultant to analyze the market for recreation amenities where the other Y’s were located. The study showed that there was a market that could support a new Y.
The best scenario was to use the City’s land, do the demolition and bring a whole brand-new Y right on Bancroft and making sure you built into that facility the things not just that the neighborhood survey showed that it needed, like swimming, senior services, a commercial kitchen, or game room. It will be a state-of-the-art YMCA. Anything that’s in a Y anywhere else in the country or across town will be in that Wayman Palmer Y.
Perryman: How will you fund a new state-of-the-art YMCA?
Clemens: The cost is estimated to be about $22 million, which includes contingencies, and we’re going to definitely build that Y. We’re using ARPA dollars and will follow that with some CDBG money and some market tax credits. However, more importantly, this is an example of a project that will be catalytic for that neighborhood. I use the term ‘catalytic’ to describe the potential for the project to spur other investments and give our young people and families the recreation amenities they need and deserve. It is something that this administration is very serious about doing.
Perryman: How do you address the doubters?
Clemens: During the recent electoral campaign, I was at a forum, and somebody asked, ‘Can you guarantee us that that Y will be built, or is it just a political game?’ Mayor Kapszukiewicz said, ‘I guarantee you that it’s going to be built because we’re committed to doing it.’ So, that’s where it starts …. it starts with commitment. It begins with strategic planning and with the people who can execute and get something like this done. So, I see this project as a major priority of mine to make sure that we move that forward.
Perryman: What does success generally look like for you?
Clemens: At the end of four years, I would like to address the lack of affordable housing in this city. That would be major if we could deliver 500-750 units of new housing in the inner city in the next four years. If everybody who needed a new roof for their home in the inner city who couldn’t afford it but needed it because their roof was falling down, if we could facilitate that construction, that would be what I would like to see. Every home that had lead and chipping paint poisoning our own young children, if we’re successful with this lead initiative and we could address that, that would be a success.
I would also like to see more training opportunities for our young people. One of my visions is how do we have Owens or Penta to open up satellite offices or facilities here in the central city where our young people can access them. I’m told it’s hard for them to get out to those sites. How do we facilitate more training for our young people, more integration after they train to get jobs? The available jobs, why are our young people not able to access them, what are we doing about that? We need to be a little bit more aggressive in comprehensively looking at the employment of our people.
Fiscal or financial literacy, increasing homeownership among our people, how do you get there? What role can the churches play so that many of our young kids know about balancing a checkbook and handling a credit card? What role can churches play to teach them that? Because how do you build legacy and wealth, not just by creating small businesses, but among our people? How do you ensure that they can make the right decisions so that they’re strong financially? It’s an extensive menu, I know.
Perryman: Finally, organizational culture is so important. So, how do you change what has been sometimes, perhaps, a toxic culture and keep team members motivated and focused on your vision?
Clemens: It is by making the team feel empowered, creating, again, not a punitive environment, but one where there’s dialogue and brainstorming. Change occurs when a proposal or new program is not just handed down to the team but bubbles up from engagement of your staff and their experience and knowledge while you lead them in reorienting programs or putting new programs in place that further the mission of the agency better.
Previously, there was a culture here of saying, ‘oh no, we can’t do that or that’s not what we’re supposed to do, or you can’t get help if you don’t have this.’ So what I’m trying to get them to say now is, ‘how can we help this person or use the money we have to help? Instead of saying we can’t, how do we say we can?’
So, the culture we’re building now involves brainstorming about using the resources we have to get something done instead of always saying, ‘I don’t think we can do that.’ Or, that, ‘the rules don’t allow us to do that so, we can’t do this.’
Indeed, many people who have been calling the shots here for a long time and have been getting a lot of money don’t like that.
But we’re making gradual progress in changing the culture as people see some of the tangible progress we’re making in the community.
Perryman: Thank you.
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD at firstname.lastname@example.org