Last weekend, a small but fervent crowd came out for the second quarter of Amplify Baltimore, a series of community conversations that relay important issues to city residents.

The day of panel discussions included testimonies from leaders in public education, workforce and economic development and financial literacy. Roughly 150 persons trickled in and out throughout the day, but in most sessions, the large auditorium at the Maryland Institute College of Art seemed to swallow the tiny crowd.

April Garrett, the Baltimore-born mastermind behind Amplify Baltimore, said although the turnout was low, she was pleased Baltimoreans from “all walks of life” checked in to confer on how to improve the city.

She told the AFRO that attendance in Baltimore trails other cities such as Boston and New York, where she hosts similar forums through her non-profit Civic Frame. “At the end of the day, people have to make a choice to be agents of change in Baltimore,” she said, adding that the conversations are critical to Baltimore’s vitality because they link residents with innovators and activists.

“Baltimore is not short on brilliant people committed to doing the work; we have a shortage of community people committed to change,” Garrett contended.

She invited two dozen heavyweight leaders to prove it.

Charter school founders, high-ranking city school officials and public school principals discussed the state of the city’s education. The talks touched on a host of issues including the benefits of charters, the next phases to improve city schools and the ineffectiveness of student assessments.

Jack J. Pannell Jr., founder of the Baltimore Collegiate School for Boys that is set to open next fall, said it’s imperative for instructors to set high expectations for young Black males to “ensure their social and intellectual well being.”

Chief academic officer for city schools, Sonja Brookins Santelises, urged Baltimore residents to claim ownership of their schools. “If we continue to answer questions by waiting for someone, we will never move forward,” she said.

The panel members seemed to agree that effective teachers and parental involvement have direct correlations to student achievement.

About a dozen seventh and eighth graders from Hampstead Hill Academy attended the session and said they would like to see more creative curriculum and high school choices.

Walter G. Amprey, city schools superintendent from 1991-1997, asserted that in order for Baltimore to return to its status as the “premiere city in the state” for education, “this is the kind of forum that has to take place around our community to change this.”

While moderating the discussion, Garrett said ,“We’ve got to change the mentality and working as it relates to education.”
A second panel addressed the complexity of helping ex-offenders transition from prison to the work place, growing workforce demands and employee-employer relationships.

Ralph E. Moore Jr., director of the St. Frances Academy Community Center, estimated that about 1/3 of the city’s population or 200,000 residents are unemployed. He noted that about half of Black Baltimoreans are unemployed or underemployed.

“What were assets are preliminaries now,” Karen L. Sitnick, director of the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, said, referencing the importance of computer skills and some college experience in the evolving job market.

Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force, contended that employers should treat their workers as assets and create more inspiring work environments.

David Troy, another executive, said Baltimore has not enacted a “real” economic development strategy since the 1970s.

Lori Fagan heads the Bon Secours Family Support Center, which helps low-income women with children become better mothers, earn their GEDs and prepare for careers. She said state funding for the program is threatened. “If they cut these programs, we will continue to have a population that believes they don’t have to work because they can get help from the government.”

A final forum on financial literacy discussed the importance of money management. Comptroller Joan M. Pratt discussed the ends and outs of maintaining the states money flow and the executive director of the Baltimore Green Currency Association, outlined his efforts to pitch a local currency called B-note in Baltimore. Other speakers included a student teller at MECU and the director from the Maryland CASH campaign.

One Amplify Baltimore attendee said he’s supported several of Garrett’s events and appreciates her work but encouraged her to “take the conversations out to churches and community events where the common folk are.”

John Daley, a Morgan State University student suggested Garrett get club promoters to “buy into the plan,” which he said would garner the attention of more young people.

“I like that this is positive,” said community organizer Lanitra Jackson. “You can turn on the news, turn on the internet and see the negative. Who is going to talk about the positive.”

Succeeding installments of Amplify Baltimore will address neighborhoods, food access, public and environmental health, public transportation and other matters in June and September. The inaugural event was held in January.
Watch footage from all Amplify Baltimore events by visiting www.civicfame.org.

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO