Making Change: What Brain Drain?

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Attention all Clevelanders! All you skeptics and naysayers; all who insist that this region is going downhill. You who make a big deal over some 20- or 30-somethings skipping town and you throw your arms up mumbling something about brain drain. Every time you do that, you are insulting 31-year-old J.J. DiGeronimo.

J.J. DiGeronimo: We have arts, sports-every aspect of a great community. The biggest obstacles are people who've never left, who don't realize how good they have it.

You're offending Frank Spicer, a 30-year-old curatorial fellow at MOCA.

Frank Spicer: Those who have chosen to stay are very happy. That's a good sign to me. It speaks to the idea that where you live is what you make it.

You're sounding silly to Joanne Roberts - who, at 28, is project manager for Corporate Human Resources at National City.

Joanne Roberts: I've had nothing but positive experiences. I have no reason to be a pessimist.

And you're frustrating Katya Chistik who says if people think brain drain is such a problem, then complaining about it does no good.

Katya Chistik: You can either bust through and change it and go ahead or you can just keep shrinking and letting this continue.

Chistik is 23 and project coordinator for Green Energy Ohio and Sustainable Cleveland. She's also a native. After going to college in St. Louis, Chistik returned to Cleveland amazed to find that her hometown was full of cool neighborhoods - like Tremont - great restaurants, people living in lofts downtown, and professional opportunities galore. She says her friends that flocked to the so-called cool cities are jealous.

Katya Chistik: You know what they're so impressed by? It's that at my age I'm doing as cool a thing as I'm doing at work. I'm not an office manager; I'm coordinating projects with executive directors, with foundation leaders, community leaders, business leaders... working in Cleveland, I've found that people and opportunities are very accessible.

So did J.J. DiGeronimo - although for her, those opportunities didn't come in the form of full-time, high-tech jobs that she's trained for.

J.J. DiGeronimo: I've really thrown myself out there. I just go to meetings. I mean I really... it's goofy but I have my limits. Anything less than $50 I'll go to and just get out there, get to know... and then I find projects and sometimes I volunteer my services whether it's creating programs or facilitating whatever to establish credibility and usually you are asked back again.

DiGeronimo moved to Northeast Ohio two years ago after marrying a native. She says she lacked the social network necessary to find work easily and realized a lot of college kids were facing the same dilemma. A natural entrepreneur, DiGeronimo thought that problem was begging for a solution. Her answer:

J.J. DiGeronimo: Many small businesses and non-profits have projects that are tech-based, but don't have skills in-house and there are students in Northeast Ohio that are interested in doing part time work to get real life experience. So this is an online virtual forum to bring these two groups together.

Aside from providing an obvious service, the web site gives young people with desirable skills a reason to stay in Northeast Ohio. There are plenty of young people that would chose to stay in the region if they could, says Frank Spicer - an art PhD candidate at Case.

Frank Spicer: Am I going to spend the rest of my life in Cleveland? It depends primarily on employment opportunities.

Spicer grew up grew up Canton, went to college at Kent and wasn't sure if he would stay in Northeast Ohio to pursue his doctorate. Opportunity knocked in the form of a fellowship as a curator at MOCA.

Frank Spicer: I've been in the area all of my life, so there must be something about the area that has enabled me besides employment opportunities. I very much like the city. I think that Cleveland is very underrated and this is something I have to deal with in my job. What is the perception of the role of art - something that is very important in my life. How does that affect the way that I view the city and the city views the art scene?

Spicer says the failure of Issue 31 on the March ballot - which would have provided funding for the arts - was a kind of litmus test. Unfortunately, the results show that the region isn't living up to its potential, Spicer says. And many Gen-X and Y-ers want to see more from the region. They want a lakefront built for recreation; they want endless job opportunities; they want a city, in sum, that's proud of itself. Two years after moving to Northeast Ohio from Atlanta, Joanne Roberts has come to the conclusion that the will to improve is there, but it's buried under a mound of inertia.

Joanne Roberts: You can say everything is leaving, but you can also have optimism and hope and belief and put in effort in what could grow here, for twenty years from now.

That applies to business, Roberts says, as well as amenities. Everyone in the cohort say, there won't be a so-called brain drain if the region's leaders exploit the energy and flexibility of the younger people to revitalize the region's economy. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.

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