Moving the needle on social justice

Jennifer Summers, Director at Peaslee Neighbourhood Center, Cincinnati, Ohio

Feature | Cincinnati, Ohio | 16 May 2023
Jennifer Summers, Director of the Peaslee Neighborhood Center located in Cincinnati, Ohio says that growing up she knew she wanted to be a teacher. Working at Peaslee gives her the opportunity to combine her passions for both education and social justice activism. ILO Photo/ Megan Hague
“This is part of a deep well, people who consistently showed up when they had absolutely no expectation or hope that things would change. And if they all showed up, then I better show up, and I better use my power and figure out how I can encourage other people to do the same. How do I create a world that human beings deserve to live in? Because there is no dignity in work when the care of people is not invested in,” says Jennifer Summers, Executive Director of Peaslee Neighborhood Center.

Located in Cincinnati’s historic Over-The-Rhine neighborhood, Peaslee Neighborhood Center is a women-led community hub and non-profit organization that provides social justice education and enrichment programs. We sat down with Jennifer Summers along with two members of her team-community education coordinator Jennifer Arens and community organizer and youth program facilitator Joele Newman to learn about the center and their work.

“Peaslee was the top academically performing school in the late 70s and early 80s and it was ranked 17th out of 75 schools in our whole Cincinnati public district when the school board decided on its closure. But the moms and community members did not find that acceptable, so they started fundraising and organizing to keep the school open,” explains Summers.

On December 14th, 1984, this group of women and mothers raised $209, 000, bought out the school, and made it a community resource center for education. “The work that we do here stands on the shoulders of those women, who knew what they needed for their community and went out and did the work,” alludes Jenn as she shares how Peaslee came to be.

The center which has been around for 38 years, is grounded in creative expression where children and adults have a space where they feel safe and can develop their voice and put your voice into the world. “Our mission is based in participatory education for a specific purpose which is social change to create the world that we all deserve to live in,” Jenn states. Participatory education she explains is “not just the pouring of knowledge into a person but the back and forth between learners and teachers who bring things into the mix and learn from each other.”

While Summers works mostly on the administrative side of Peaslee, Joele Newman’s work includes running the educational enrichment programs for youth, while in her role Jennifer Arens focuses on the social justice education, partnerships and programs side. ILO Photo/ Camp Hill, Alabama
By offering a variety of programs such as the piano, youth education, kids summer camps, social justice education, education-based community organizing, and more, Peaslee works to make positive changes in the lives of the Over-the-Rhine community by fostering creative expression, self-determination, and social change.

Partnerships with high schools and universities that provide opportunities for students to learn about core urban issues, policy, advocacy, and equitable development are also offered by Peaslee as highlighted by Jennifer Arens.

“We also have connections and partnerships with high schools and colleges here in Ohio such as Miami University- where Joele went, and these programs allow young people to get the experience and immersion into the work we do,” Arens says. “Helping young people learn about systems and structures, and to become civically engaged contributors to social movements is really important work for us. So they get their training up on campus, and then they come here and learn with us.”

“I joined Peaslee as a college student doing the immersion internship program Jennifer Arens mentioned,” says Joele Newman as she chimes into the conversation. “I’m now a staff member and in addition to working on our development work, I also do our youth education enrichment programs such as the Writing Circles for young girls, and our Agents of Change program which actually takes place in the space we are in now.”

For Summers who is originally from Louisville, Kentucky, being a teacher is something she wanted to be from a young age. While she was academically trained as an educator, through her volunteer work, and the community around her, she explains that she was able to gain training in activism and social justice issues.

Peaslee’s mission is rooted in participatory education, for social change. The enrichment education programs provided such as the Writing Circles for girls, the Agents of Change and the summer camps provide impactful learning opportunities for many of the members in the Over-The-Rhine community and neighborhood where Peaslee is based. ILO Photo/ Liz Gottmer
“In the midst of my training in college, I got connected into doing volunteer and housing work in this community with activists that were working and pressing for affordable housing and ownership and agency of persons with low incomes in this community,” she says. “I mostly got trained in activism through many wise women who did not have titles but had a lot of authority in our community here.”

When asked what motivates her to do this work, Summers says “I'm in this work because I've seen what happens when people come together and are committed to building up,” explains Summers. And I get so much joy working here, especially because I get to work collaboratively with not just the team here but with many different people.”

“My day at Peaslee involves meeting with the staff, residents, board, and committee members, and our other non-profit partner tenants who are in this building. Making plans and arrangements for potential exhibits and art shows, and making other connections and things possible through the space that we not just own but also steward within the community. And then I also do a lot of administrative stuff, which includes a good deal of writing and exploring fundraising opportunities.”

“I’m a hard worker and I am collaborative,” shares Summers when asked to describe her personality. She then adds that communication- both written and verbal, empathy, problem-solving, and cultural compatibility are some of the skills needed to carry out the work that she does.

“My work has never felt like a paycheck to me. It’s always felt more grounded into life and given me the benefit of being a continual learner and the privilege of being part of a freedom movement in whatever I do,” Summers says. She then emphasizes that recently she begun to see work as something that provides value in her life in the form of self-care and balance for herself and the community around her.

“Part of the work that we try to do in this community is to build up resilience through connection, in real ways, so that we can have dignity as human beings,” says Summers and her hope for the Peaslee Neighborhood Center is that it continues to be a community power-building movement for social change that provides inspiration and education intergenerationally for many years to come.