Karen Posner finds a new career, and new purpose, at Tri-C
May 24, 2017
Karen Posner was at a career crossroads when she arrived at Cuyahoga Community College. She was already in her 40s and had 15 years as a real estate agent under her belt. But at a time when many people begin to contemplate their readiness for eventual retirement, Posner was headed toward a career reboot.
In the aftermath of the 2008 and 2009 housing market crash, the Brook Park resident’s real estate career was drying up before her eyes. Staying the course was no longer an option – she had to find a new career.
At Tri-C, she found that. She also found a new path in life.
“I actually started at Tri-C focusing solely on international business,” Posner said. “Once I realized my career in real estate was no longer a viable option, I decided I wanted to have a career where I could travel the world and work for human rights, which I’ve always been passionate about. I felt an international business degree would allow me to get into that type of work.”
But it was when Posner met Tri-C professors Tyler Olson and Susan Lohwater that the work turned into a mission. Olson introduced Posner to Tri-C’s Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies certificate program; Lohwater introduced her to the plight of Native Americans living on reservations throughout the Great Plains.
In particular, Posner was moved by the challenges faced by the Lakota people at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
“Dr. Lohwater puts on an event called ‘Culture Shock’ at Tri-C West, and that’s where I heard about the problems at Pine Ridge – the low graduation rates, the high suicide rates,” Posner said. “I wanted to see more for myself.”
Nationwide, Native Americans deal with the highest poverty rate of any racial or ethnic group, an alcoholism rate double the national average and a much higher incidence of depression, substance abuse and suicide – particularly among youths. At Pine Ridge, the statistics paint an even bleaker picture.
According to some estimates, 97 to 98 percent of the Pine Ridge population lives below the federal poverty line. The unemployment rate fluctuates between 85 and 95 percent, the infant mortality rate is three times the national average, and 60 percent of homes lack adequate water, electricity, sewage and other services.
In March 2015, Posner coordinated a weeklong trip to Pine Ridge for Tri-C students and faculty. The contingent met with community organizations and tribal leaders, and visited historical sites, including the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.
“I don’t know how to completely describe the impact of being there,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful place – beautiful land, beautiful people, beautiful culture. But there is a lot of hardship along with it. Pine Ridge is probably the most contradictory place I’ve ever seen. You have all of this beauty alongside so much hardship. It’s a place with great hope, but a ton of despair.”
The trip inspired her to create a nonprofit called Honor the Drums. The organization aims to improve the lives of those on the Pine Ridge reservation. Already, Posner has helped spearhead a book drive for the reservation’s library and organized a donation drive for prom dresses and tuxedos for the reservation’s high schoolers.
“For the book drive, we collected about 3,500 books and drove them to the reservation,” Posner said. “We let the kids there pick up the books, which was rewarding. They have a library to call their own.”
Posner graduated from Tri-C in 2015 with a conflict resolution and peace studies certificate. She received a scholarship to John Carroll University, from which she graduated this spring with a degree in peace, justice and human rights. She plans to study for a master’s degree in youth counseling and eventually relocate to Pine Ridge.
“I want to live near the reservation and provide community services,” she said. “Youth counseling, suicide prevention, things like that. But that probably won’t happen for a few years yet. I have a daughter in high school, and I promised I wouldn’t move while she was still in school.”
For now, in addition to her studies, she continues to work on causes important to the people of Pine Ridge, in addition to a historical documentary about Native Americans. The documentary, a collaboration with a John Carroll professor, features interviews with some Cleveland-area residents of Native American ancestry.
“A lot of people don’t realize Cleveland has a decent-sized Native American population,” Posner said. “Cleveland was one of the cities that Native Americans moved to as part of the Relocation Act of 1956. I’ve been interviewing elders who came here as part of the Relocation Act and still live here.”
Posner said she will likely complete the documentary sometime next year. It’s labor of love that serves to preserve and protect the culture and well-being of a largely forgotten people who have inspired her life’s mission – a mission she didn’t discover until she approached middle age.
“It might sound strange, but I’ve gone my whole life trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up,” she said. “I had my own business as a real estate agent, and that gave me a great feeling of accomplishment. But this is entirely different. Now I’m doing something that is impactful for other people, not just me. I think that’s a purpose that a lot of people search for in life, and you know it when you find it.”