Posted on 10 November 2010
By Mark Miller
At age 72, Inez Killingsworth is a nationally recognized community leader who fights to help Ohio homeowners avoid foreclosure. But it all started 20 years ago with dogs–mean, stray dogs that harassed children and adults in the poor neighborhood of Cleveland where she lived.
Killingsworth worked then in building operations for the Cleveland public schools, and she was heading toward retirement and volunteer community organizing work. Then a community organizer already active in her neighborhood invited her to a meeting to discuss community issues.
“My issue was stray dogs,” she remembers. “My kids couldn’t walk to school because they’d be attacked by these packs of dogs. I had to get a stick and fight them off.”
At that meeting, Killingsworth found out that dogs were on the minds of her neighbors, too–and the result was a successful community campaign to pressure Cleveland’s city government to beef up the number of dog catchers policing the neighborhood and catch the strays. “That was the start,” she recalls. “I learned that, yes, people can get organized and make a change happen.”
That campaign started Killingsworth down a path that led to a remarkable midlife transition to where she is today, at an epicenter of the nation’s foreclosure crisis. Ohio and the Cleveland area were hit earlier–and harder–by foreclosure due to unusually high levels of predatory lending, heavy manufacturing job losses and population decline. The number of foreclosures in the Cleveland area doubled between 1995 and 2001, and then doubled again by 2007, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
Killingsworth started her own community organization in 1993, Empowering and Strengthening Ohio’s People (ESOP), which began by doing work on education and community safety issues, but has grown into a major power in foreclosure counseling and fighting predatory lending practices. In 2009, ESOP helped 8,000 families at 11 offices across Ohio.
Killingsworth’s work has just been recognized with a 2010 Purpose Prize. The award, given annually by the Encore Careers campaign, recognizes older career trailblazers who have demonstrated creative and effective work tackling social problems. This year, the winners were chosen from 1,400 nominees; Killingsworth is among five winners receiving $100,000 prizes, with another five recipients getting $50,000 awards.
The prize, now in its fifth year, was created to promote and encourage civic engagement among baby boomers. Along with Killingsworth, this year’s winners include a longtime arbitrator for an international law firm who’s working with Afghans to rebuild orchards and vineyards; a former housekeeper who became an activist fighting industrial pollution in her low-income neighborhood; and a former owner of a tool-and-dye shop who returned to his native West Virginia for a peaceful retirement, only to find himself fighting a coal industry engaged in mountain top removal.
“Purpose Prize winners are courageous, creative, passionate and strategic – all the qualities needed to make headway on some of our greatest challenges,” says Marc Freedman, CEO and founder of Civic Ventures, the award’s sponsor. “It is the combination of these qualities, their decades of experience, and the sheer size of the baby boomer population that make social innovators in their encore careers a promising and invaluable asset to society.”
ESOP began its work on foreclosure and predatory lending around 1995, when Killingsworth started noticing that residents who’d been regulars at meetings stopped showing up. “We started wondering where these people were going, and found out they were victims of predatory loans and foreclosures that were putting them out of their houses.”
ESOP started out fighting against foreclosures through traditional community organizing techniques, including demonstrations at the offices of banks, their attorneys and politicians. Today, those initial efforts have evolved into a network of cooperative relationships between ESOP, lenders and loan modification services.
“We are an advocate for the homeowner,” Killingsworth says. “We have agreements with a dozen different lenders and services to work with us to modify loans, and if the loan is presented to a bank employee at a lower level who isn’t doing what could be done, we have an escalation process to take it all the way up to the CEO.”
The results are impressive: more than 80 percent of ESOP’s clients received successful loan modifications last year, including lower interest rates and penalty fee waivers.
I asked Killingsworth if she ever imagined herself in such a dynamic leadership role during her years working for Cleveland’s public school system. “No, I was going to work in community organizing, because that was my passion–to reach out and help people. I didn’t think it would grow this fast, but the foreclosure crisis drove it–it just took control.”
Click here to learn more about the stories of other 2010 Purpose Prize winners.