When Evelyn Burnett was growing up in Ohio, she didn’t encounter public space that centered Blackness. It wasn’t until graduate school — when she learned about the concept of third places and frequented community hubs like Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C. — that she realized the importance of public space, separate from home or work, designed by and for Black people.
So when Burnett moved back to Ohio in 2013, she was keenly aware of that lack. “I moved to Cleveland, I moved downtown, and while it felt so cosmopolitan I was encountering these overt experiences with racism in the public domain,” she says.
Five years later, in partnership with Mordecai Cargill, the pair opened the third place Cleveland had so few of. Occupying the first floor of the Medical Associates Building in Glenville, the ThirdSpace Action Lab has hosted racial equity workshops, community events, art exhibits and projects like Chocolate City Cleveland, a multigenerational and multimedia experiment to center storytelling about the city’s Black neighborhoods and recreate the Black map of Cleveland.
“It’s been really humbling, frankly, to allow the community to help shape this space,” Burnett says. “We’re building our own capacity as Black business owners, as Black entrepreneurs, as Black civic leaders … and we get to represent our values in this physical space.”
Burnett and Cargill met while working at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, where they did movement building around racial equity and inclusion trainings. They left in 2018 to start ThirdSpace Action Lab not just as a physical community hub but also a “grassroots solutions studio,” as Cargill calls it.
A bulk of ThirdSpace’s work is research and strategy consulting for clients that span the spectrum from local community development corporations to national foundations. “We’re applying a racial equity framework to traditional community and economic development problems,” Cargill says.
The pair opened their office at the Medical Associates Building, commissioned in 1963 by nine Black doctors who couldn’t practice at Cleveland hospitals and funded their own building and community practice. “On the first floor, which is the space we occupy, there was a pharmacy and a ‘third place’ for activists and organizers for years,” Burnett notes.
What began as ThirdSpace’s office is evolving into a flexible community hub. In some ways, the space complements their consulting. Prior to COVID-19, the organization partnered with the Racial Equity Institute to provide workshops there. (Workshops now happen virtually.) The pair also hosted “community collaboration” sessions for its clients. “We’re going beyond traditional community engagement methods … we want to go deeper and engage communities as co-conspirators in creating justice in the built environment,” says Cargill.
There were also casual community gatherings, events that ranged from weddings to poetry readings. “The space itself is responsive to the needs of the community,” says Burnett.
This year, in response to last summer’s social justice movement and COVID-19, the physical space was activated with a new sense of urgency. Between February and June, ThirdSpace was one of three locations hosting the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland exhibit Imagine Otherwise. (One of the artists featured, Amber N. Ford, is ThirdSpace’s resident artist.) “The works were explorations of Black identity and they were both looking forward, Afro-futurist inspired,” Cargill says.
The space also became homebase for Chocolate Cities Cleveland, a partnership with the George Gund Foundation and Little Giant Creative to curate primary sources and cultural artifacts that represent the Black experience across the city. The first project is the “Chocolate City CLE Map,” an interactive virtual tour of the areas around East 105th Street, a historic Black business district.
The team soft-launched the map over Juneteenth weekend, hosting a demo of the app it lives on as well as a conversation with roughly 100 residents from across the city.
Now that the map prototype launched, ThirdSpace is actively collecting stories from Cleveland residents to continue the larger Chocolate Cities project. Engagement happens during events like Freedom Fridays, which occur the last Friday of every month and “we encourage folks to take their last meeting of the day at the space and catch the vibes,” says Burnett.
The team will also collect stories during ThirdSpace’s Intergenerational Lunches event, its film screenings and book discussions, the July event series Common Ground Cleveland and other partner events. Both Midtown Cleveland and Twelve Literary Arts joined on to support the outreach, engagement and storytelling collecting.
The future of the space, Burnett says, “will be more demonstrations of joy.” The goal is to open a formal cafe; until then Burnett and Cargill will be responsive to community needs. As Cargill puts it, “We use the physical space as one of these liberated Black spaces that serves as a vessel and home for the celebration of what makes us unique.”
This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.