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Honoring Black History: The Legacy of Step Forward’s First Executive Director, Ralph Findley

In honor of Black History Month, Step Forward celebrates the remarkable legacy of Ralph W. Findley, the agency's first executive director whose visionary leadership and commitment to community empowerment transformed countless lives in Cuyahoga County.

 

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act, laying the foundation for the establishment of Community Action agencies nationwide. These agencies aimed to address poverty at the grassroots level, implementing programs and services empowering families in health, education, and employment. In Cuyahoga County, what was then the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland (CEOGC) - now Step Forward - spearheaded this mission. Ralph W. Findley, a distinguished civic leader and trailblazer in Cleveland Black History, assumed the role as the agency’s inaugural executive director.

 

Before stepping into his role as CEOGC’s executive director, Findley was paved with a deep commitment to civic duty and community service. A Cleveland native, Findley completed his primary education in the Cleveland school system, graduating from Central High School. He continued his academic journey at Ohio State University where Findley's dedication to civic duty became evident as he served on the Executive Committee of the Interracial Council and joined the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., foreshadowing his enduring passion for community service. Despite earning a bachelor's degree in premedical studies, Findley chose a career path different from medicine. Nonetheless, his professional pursuits would eventually lead him to make a significant impact by helping thousands of families throughout his career.

 

After graduation, Findley embarked on a career in insurance that took him as far as Washington D.C. Eventually, though, his path led him back to Cleveland.

 

One of Findley’s most recognizable contributions to Cleveland's history was his 11-year tenure on the Cleveland Board of Education, becoming its first African American member. There, Findley advocated for fair pay for teachers, improved facilities, high education standards, and programs benefiting disadvantaged students. In 1960, he made history again by becoming the first African American elected as Board President.

 

Findley's involvement with the Cleveland Board of Education wasn't his final mark on history. In the 1960s, Mayor Anthony J. Celebreeze appointed Findley Welfare Commissioner, the first African American to hold the position. During the following administration, under Mayor Ralph Locher, Findley was appointed Cleveland’s Health and Welfare Director, the first African American to hold a city cabinet position.

 

Findley consistently went above and beyond in serving his community. Throughout his career, he actively participated on various boards, such as the Cedar YMCA, the Goodrich Settlement House, and the Forrest City Hospital. He held leadership roles in organizations, too, including serving as Vice President of the Cleveland Church Federation, Chairman of the Legislative Committee for the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Vice President of the Urban League, and President of the Cleveland Chapter of the NAACP in 1948.

 

On September 1, 1964, The Cleveland Board of Education, Mayor Locher, the City Council of Cleveland, and the Cuyahoga County Commissioners authorized the newly established CEOGC to be the coordinating agency of anti-poverty programs in Cuyahoga County. With his track record in education, community welfare, and health, it was clear that Findley - a public servant wholeheartedly devoted to supporting and uplifting the community's most vulnerable population - was the ideal candidate to lead the agency. Findley assumed the role of executive director in April 1965.

 

With Findley at its helm, CEOGC received $12 million, one of the most substantial anti-poverty

allocations for a community of similar size in the country. With staff provided by the Cleveland Board of Education, the City of Cleveland, the Cuyahoga County Commissioners, and the Federation for Community Planning, Findley and agency staff administered energy crisis intervention, senior nutrition programs, a foster grandparent program, and more to Greater Cleveland residents.

 

By 1966, additional grants funded CEOGC programs like the Neighborhood Youth Corps, a Reading Improvement Program, Neighborhood Opportunity Centers, and Head Start, the latter of which are still used by Step Forward today.

 

Findley's leadership was distinguished by a strong emphasis on community engagement. In addition to overseeing the agency’s various programs and services, Findley actively sought community feedback to enhance client support. Ultimately, CEOGC collaborated with the Welfare Federation and Neighborhood Centers Association to launch a community outreach program. This initiative allowed the agency to hire residents from the Glenville, Hough, Kinsman, and Tremont neighborhoods to address specific community needs. Step Forward, even today, takes pride in its commitment to utilizing community feedback to ensure ongoing improvement of its programs and services.


Sixty years since its founding, Step Forward is proud to reflect on Ralph Findley’s enduring

impact. During his 14-year tenure until retirement in 1979, Step Forward blossomed into a beacon of hope for Cuyahoga County. Findley’s dedication to community service, equality, and education elevated the agency to new heights. As we celebrate the rich history of our past, Step Forward remains steadfast in its commitment to continue Findley’s legacy of positive change, building a stronger community, one person, one family, one step at a time.




 

Photo Credit(s)

Zahn Glenn 1962, Findley, Ralph W.: 1962, accessed 29 February 2024,

Thomas James 1960, Findley, Ralph W.: 1960, accessed 29 February 2024,

1951, Findley, Ralph W.: 1951, accessed 29 February 2024,





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