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More than thirty years ago, a young woman became enamored with community organizing over a pretty mundane issue: stray dogs chasing her children as they walked to school. It was the beginning of a long career in community organizing, saving homes from foreclosure and empowering others to take action.
Inez Killingsworth was born January 10th, 1938, in Lexington, Mississippi. She was raised on a farm where her parents were sharecroppers, raising cotton and corn. Today she still owns that farm, leasing it to others who still grow cotton and corn there.
Growing up her life revolved around school, work and church as it does now. But there was another thing that made a big impression on her. Her father was one of the troops of the Civil Rights Movement. She called him a "field soldier," one of the people who was going out and making the path.
“I'd be in bed when he'd come home from things—and supposed to be asleep—and he'd talk to my mom, telling her what his day was like,” said Inez. “I was fascinated, and somehow what he was doing became what I wanted to do. He was making a difference in people's lives, and that's what I wanted to do. But the important thing was to help them do what they needed to do, not do it for them. And that's what my dad did. He was always about fairness, about making sure that things were just. And that's not just what he did, that's how he was.”
“When I'd established ESOP, one thing I remembered from him was that one person can't do something—say go up against the bank—but many, standing together, can. There really is people power. Look at the Constitution. It says of, by and for the people.”
Inez briefly lived in Chicago, working in a factory making bubble gum machines. She moved to Cleveland in 1959 when she married her husband Robert. They eventually bought a home in the Union-Miles neighborhood. It’s there that she became involved in organizing about those stray dogs.
“From our porch we could see Miles Elementary School, but my children were afraid to walk to school because of the stray dogs. Not just one or two dogs, this was a pack of dogs, and I had to get a stick to chase them away so the kids could go to school. One day this organizer came to the house and asked me if I could make a change in the neighborhood, what would it be? At first I just kind of ignored her, but she kept coming back to the house and asking me to go to meetings. I thought if I went that I'd get rid of her. But it didn't happen that way. At the meetings people talked about all kinds of issues but no one was addressing mine. So I got up and said: I want to get rid of these darned dogs. It turned out that a lot of other people were having a problem with the dogs. It took some discussion, but eventually we ended up going down to City Hall. And we got dog catchers to come and get the dogs. We had worked together to solve the problem, and that felt good. And that's how I got started, because I realized that when you take action you can make things happen.”
Inez was hooked and stayed involved with the group, eventually becoming its president and spearheading its transformation into the Union-Miles Community Development Corporation.
Inez remained active in her community in other ways as well. She worked at Alexander Hamilton Middle School as janitor but did a lot more.
“I saw children coming out of abused homes,” she recalls. “I saw children at school who didn’t have a home to go to. It touched me. Someone needs to stand up for these children.”
“I had a way with the students so the principal and the teachers would work with me to get them back in the classroom when they got thrown out. Or sometimes the principal would send me students who were a step away from being suspended, to do afterschool community service. And while we were working together—sweeping halls, cleaning bathrooms—I'd talk to them about how it was better to be on the inside getting something than on the outside looking in.”
She also worked with a group to shut down a motel next to the school that was giving students a different kind of education. “Students saw everything that was going on there. We, people from the community, people from the school, worked with the Attorney General to get the motel closed down. Today, it's a senior citizens' building.”
She did all this work while raising five children of her own with the support of her husband. “He was always supportive, always telling me: "Keep doing what you do." Robert Killingsworth passed away in 1979.
But Inez kept working in the community. In 1989 Union-Miles Community Development Corporation's Educational and Safety Organization Project worked on community educational and safety issues. It got started with getting rid of that motel next door to Alexander Hamilton. But there were other issues the committee wanted to work on. The CDC couldn't devote the time or resources to focus on those issues. So in 1993 she created a separate organization, the East Side Organizing Project.
In 1993 Inez and Mark Seifert, now Executive Director, started noticing that fewer and fewer people were at monthly meetings there. They started walking the neighborhood and we saw all these foreclosed and boarded up houses. At the next meeting they found out three senior citizens were going to lose their homes. Their stories were all the same. After researching mortgage companies, servicers and court foreclosure procedures they realized there was a predatory lending situation. ESOP tracked lending practices and procedures all the way to Washington, and that's when we realized how widespread the problem was.
“We got meetings with a couple of lenders and banks. A couple of them said they'd change practices for Cleveland. That just irritated us because they were doing something that wasn't right and they were trying to buy us off. We told them, no. And that we are going to keep telling the story about what they were doing till things changed nationally.”
“She’s a tough lady,” says Jim Rokakis, former treasurer of Cuyahoga County, an early partner in the foreclosure fight. “It’s really hard to go up against these guys in multithousand-dollar suits who are trying to make nice. She stayed focused and fought for what was right.”
In 2008 Inez testified before congress about the impact of predatory lending and the foreclosure crisis that was sweeping the nation. Finally someone was listening. “I told them it was greed that had snowballed. It wasn't just a few companies that were targeting poor people and people with poor credit histories for predatory loans; it was the whole financial system.”
After retiring from the school in 2001, ESOP and other community work became Inez’s second career. Today ESOP is Empowering and Strengthening Ohio’s People with nine offices to help homeowners statewide. But it’s not her only work. She has served as a Cleveland Police Auxiliary Officer, part of the Cleveland police community relations board, a trustee of Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, a board member of the Union-Miles CDC, Co-Chair of Ohio Organizing Collaborative, Co-Chair of National People’s Action, board member for National Training and Information Center, Treasurer for the New Cleveland Food Basket, board member of Neighborhood Progress Inc. and more. Over the last thirty years, Inez has led many organizing campaigns on a variety of issues: education reform, CRA, FHA reform, predatory lending, safety and day labor abuses.
In 2010 Inez won a Purpose Prize award from the national nonprofit Civic Ventures in recognition of her work in preventing foreclosures in Ohio and her work at the national level in foreclosure matters.
As one of the people who have seen Inez in action for the longest, Mark Seifert, ESOP’s Executive Director, marvels at her strength and dedication. “The thing about Inez, aside from being my partner in crime for nearly 23 years, is that she walks the talk. Most people don't know how many hours each week she worked at the New Cleveland Food Basket or how she served as an Auxiliary Policewoman to watch over our youth. Nor do they know just how committed she is to the youth of our community. That is to say nothing of her dedication to her church and her God.
The Inez I know has been my like a Mom to me, she has been like a wife and, most importantly, she has been my mentor and confidant that I never want to disappoint; not because I am afraid of her (as most bankers are). To the contrary, it was always because she always saw something I didn't and was patient enough to bring me along.
She and I have a running joke when I am trying to be her organizer. I always start off with, "Inez, don't you think...?" We should all be proud that SHE makes us think.”
“I get my energy and inspiration, I believe, from God,” Inez says. I believe He's given me tasks, things to do. And I read the scriptures. One of the books that really inspire me is the Book of Ester. What I see there is how persistent she was. And doing things that are going to help people, that gives me energy, too. If it's only one person who has been helped, that's OK. They help someone else, and they help someone else, and on and on and on.”
President, 1995-1997, 2000-2012
Chair of Trustees Board, 1994-2012
Board Member, 1980-1986
Board Member, 2001-2007
Board Member, 1987-1999