While many in the community know her for her vigil work, Ida Ross-Freeman’s community profile has expanded in her new role as a member of the Canton City Schools Board of Education. Now she’s facing the public backlash brought on by her first act as a board member — though her priority remains helping people.
Ida Ross-Freeman began the new year in much the same way she spent so many days in 2011: Hosting a candlelight vigil for a murder victim.
The most recent vigil was for Corey Turner, a church musician and graduate student from Canton who was killed in Dayton in December.
Ross-Freeman created the vigil program known as the “E.L.I.S.E. Project” in memory of her late stepmother, Elsie Jackson, who was killed in 1989 during a home invasion.
“To tell you the truth, I should have been there, but I had to work that day,” she recalled. “I saw the project as a way of dealing with my grief, and I knew other people had grief.”
Last year, 16 people were murdered in Canton, and Ross-Freeman organized a vigil for nearly every victim.
“People are told to be strong, but some people shake it off, they can’t be strong,” she said. “They need help. Vigils help give them closure.”
While many in the community know her for her vigil work, Ross-Freeman’s community profile has expanded in her new role as a member of the Canton City Schools Board of Education. Now she’s facing the public backlash brought on by her first act as a board member — though her priority remains helping people.
She contends that substance abuse is a co-factor in most, if not many, violent crimes. Freeman heads SCUMADOP, the Stark County Urban Minority Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Outreach Project.
“There’s a lot of anger out there,” she said. “No matter how much love, compassion and empathy you show them. And it’s not so much the children, but the parents.”
Even so, Ross-Freeman considers Stark County an ideal community because it’s rich in social-service programs. The difficulty, she said, is in sometimes navigating the system.
“Perception is everything,” she said. “If people don’t think they’re being treated right, they’re less likely to seek help.”
SCUMADOP offers intake and referral and system navigation services, Ross-Freeman said, “To help people transcend from where they are, to where they need to be. A lot of people don’t know how to identify the signs and symptoms of abuse, but you don’t have to be in treatment to get the education.”
Bev Jordan, founding director of the Stark Social Network, said Ross-Freeman is committed to helping others.
“She is really dedicated to the people she advocates for,” she said. “I think, at times, Ida can defend and advocate for her clients, against any system; systems don’t scare her. As a matter of fact, I think systems present a challenge for her. If she thinks a system is adding some kind of barrier, Ida will gladly confront it. I think she’s out to help people, not make friends.”
Page 2 of 3 - Jordan said she’s known Ross-Freeman for 10 years.
“You accept Ida for who she is, and what she’s about. I know that if I say something she disagrees with, she’ll tell me about it. I just have to suck it up and keep it moving,” she said, laughing.
Ross-Freeman stressed that SCUMADOP is not just for minorities.
“It’s for anybody that lives in the urban community,” she said. “You don’t have to be black to be a minority. Anybody that is poor and homeless is a minority.”
The agency also offers substance abuse education, mentoring, etiquette classes and is an affiliated agency with the Ohio Benefit Bank, the Regional Aids Group (RAGS), and CAN, the Collaborative Agency Network. It also is a chief sponsor of the local Juneteenth celebration held in Nimisilla Park.
“If you don’t know where you come from, it’s like a tree without water; you wither and die,” she said. “Low self-esteem is a co-factor for substance abuse.”
But Ross-Freeman has had her own issues. Public court records reveal some liens, a workplace-injury lawsuit, evictions and traffic citations. She’s unapologetic.
“Did I speed? Yes, I drive fast, sometimes. When people did me wrong, did I sue? Yes. Did it (court records) also show that I’m also a divorced, single mother who raised kids? Did I have struggles? Yes, I did. Some days, we didn’t know where our food was going to come from. When you get evicted in the city of Canton, it’s like you killed somebody.
“But I also have a slew of awards from community for my work over the years. I think the good outweighs the bad.”
Ross-Freeman is not afraid to speak her mind on controversial issues. When her brother, Darryl P. Ross, was killed during a police raid at his apartment in 2008, Ross-Freeman publicly criticized and questioned the validity of the action.
She’s a regular at City Council meetings, and was an active participant in The Repository’s Race Relations discussion series.
A second-generation foster parent, Ross-Freeman, 64, said concerns about the treatment of foster children in the school system led to her successful bid for a seat on Canton City Board of Education in 2011.
Last week, that new role thrust her further into the spotlight when she became one of three board members who voted not to renew the contract of McKinley High School head football coach Ron Johnson.
The firing has triggered shockwaves. Ross-Freeman said her vote was based on what she saw as the community’s divisiveness over Johnson, and his inability to communicate effectively with players’ parents.
“It’s always been about the children,” she said. “He was not working well with the parents. I could not in good conscience support the rehiring of the coach, or the recommendation of the superintendent for the rehiring of the coach.
Page 3 of 3 - “I’ve been here 45 years, and I’ve never seen such a divisiveness. ... We need to get or community back together. I thought the only way to do that is get him out and start over.”
Ross-Freeman further claims that after the vote was cast, she and fellow board members Nadine McIllwain and Lisa Gissendaner, all of whom are black, were called a racially-charged, derogatory name by two women in the audience.
“I never set out to be a politician,” she said. “I just saw some things that weren’t happening for the kids. I thought maybe I could help those kids who need our help. Time and again as a community worker, I’ve come in contact with (athletes) who went away to college and come back, and can’t find a job. They’re lost because the glory’s gone.”
Last week, as McKinley’s football team members launched a petition calling for Johnson’s reinstatement, Ross-Freeman posted an entry on the Facebook page of Mansfield Mayor Don Culliver, inviting aspiring coaching candidates to send their resumes to the Canton City superintendent’s office — a move that caused some to question whether the posting violates the district’s hiring procedure. She said she posted it after hearing a TV newscaster remark to viewers that the job was open.
Ross-Freeman contends that she talked to dozens of people prior to casting her vote. Though many McKinley players were honor students under Johnson, Ross-Freeman isn’t convinced he had players’ best interest at heart.
“What about the whole child?” she asked. “Yeah, they might have improved in their grades, but grades drive the football (program).”
Yet, she also chides uninvolved parents.
“I can’t fault the schools as much as the parents,” she said. “They need to step up and take their proper position in the schools.”
Ross-Freeman said voters she spoke to urged her not to rubber stamp board policy, so she expected a “ruckus” over the Johnson vote.
“I will try to get along, but my main concern is the children,” she said. “... I’m not a ‘yes’ person. If I don’t see it benefits the children, I won’t vote for it; that’s the bottom line. I guess I’ll be the fish that swims the wrong way, upstream.”