On first impression, Earl Pike is a kind, caring and relatable person, clearly drawn to helping others.
“I don’t see the people we serve as the other I see them as part of me, and because of that, I feel like what I’m doing is not building a better community for other people, but building a better community because that’s a community I’d want to live in,” Pike said while speaking about his executive director role at University Settlement in Cleveland’s Slavic Village Neighborhood. “So, there’s something really selfish about it.”
University Settlement’s programs are divided into four categories: community programs, family programs, youth programs and senior programs. They work to address needs of residents in Slavic Village.
“One of the reasons that I’m here is that, while I didn’t grow up in the kind of poverty you’d see literally across the street from where I’m standing, we didn’t have a lot of money and we had a lot of challenges in our family,” Pike said, frankly.
The former CEO of AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland said he is driven by the idea that there is a place at the table for everybody.
“If you think about it, I’m a straight white male who spent 25 years working in AIDS, and for large parts of that, I was sort of not part of the typical community,” Pike said.
He has often been the unexpected person to advocate for different groups or to be in a certain place.
“I think people like me who do have some privilege, by the color of my skin and by gender and so on, have a positive obligation to use that privilege to benefit other people’s lives,” Pike said. “It’s not just a gift, it’s not just a blessing, it’s not just an add-on. It’s something we are only given to do something with and the only thing to do with it is to help other people.”
Pike is proud of his work for the anti-poverty agency, which serves the residents of one of Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods.
The nonprofit just broke ground on a $20 million investment to replace its headquarters and build 88 units of affordable and market-rate housing in the hopes of revitalizing Slavic Village.
“It’s difficult to overstate the impact that it’s going to have on how people think about themselves around here,” Pike said. He described University Settlement’s current building as being in such bad shape the roof leaks to the extent that the kitchen floods when it rains and seniors congregating in its multi-purpose room get wet. Pike added there were seven raccoon nests on top of the building when he climbed it earlier this year.
“It is falling apart, unhygienic unsafe, but more than anything else, the argument that I’ve been making the last couple of years is: a building that dilapidated tells clients that their lives are dilapidated,” Pike said. “By building this new project, we’ll be able to help residents in the community write a new narrative for what the future will look like, because instead of entering a dilapidated building, they’re going to be able to enter this beautiful building.”
John C. Williams, the award-winning architect responsible for Heinen’s Fine Foods’ downtown Cleveland location, will also be responsible for University Settlement’s new building.
“They’ll be able to enter this building that will tell them, ‘You are better. There are better things for you in the future,’” Pike said. “I’ve just come to believe that architecture doesn’t just tell us what happens in a building, it literally tells us who we are, because if we’re allowed to be in this space or that space and they’re beautiful spaces, it tells us that our lives are beautiful as well.”