Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) is determined to create safer workplaces and communities throughout the city of Baltimore.

By Nicole D. Batey,
Special to the AFRO

With new leadership at its helm, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, Baltimore (BUILD) has called on elected officials and federal agencies to make a $1 billion public investment to address more than 15,000 vacant and abandoned properties in Baltimore City.

Since the passing of their beloved leader and pillar in the community, Bishop Douglas Miles, BUILD has continued their efforts in making the city a better place to live, work, and raise a family with a renewed sense of urgency.

In a recent phone interview George Hopkins, co-leader of BUILD and pastor of SOWEBO Community Church discussed the surge in gun violence, murders in the city, and how it has affected the faith leader personally. 

Hopkins also spoke with the AFRO about the passing of his beloved mentor, Bishop Miles, his legacy, and why BUILD needs $1 billion now to address the communities that have been desolated.

AFRO: First of all, how are you?

Hopkins: I’m okay, there’s a lot on my mind as far as Baltimore City and the violence. One of the murders was of someone I knew, Trevor White, who has been a big part of our community and a leader in our work.  

[Trevor White, shot to death on Father’s Day in Northeast Baltimore, was co-owner of the RYMKS Bar and Grille, and community leader with ReBUILD Metro, a non-profit organization revitalizing East Baltimore neighborhoods.]

Hopkins: For me personally, the gun violence in this city at large reminds me of my own experience with it– growing up in Cherry Hill, and the people I’ve lost along the way. It increases my frustration as I’ve gotten older and the violence is still here and how many people we’ve lost over time. It begs the question, when will there be a different story about Baltimore. It brings frustration and great sorrow because with every life lost, there’s a family impacted, there’s potential and promise of that loss, and the finality of that brings tremendous grief.

AFRO: You and BUILD also suffered the loss of Bishop Douglas Miles. My condolences to you all. I had the privilege of meeting and interacting with him at several community rallies. He was definitely a force to be reckoned with!

Hopkins: Bishop Miles was an amazing man. His sudden loss is something that we at BUILD, as well as this city, have still been grieving.  We want to continue to honor him in the work that we are committed to doing. There’s plenty to be said about Bishop Miles and the significance and longevity of his work for over 40 years, as well as the deep relationships from his work. These are all things that have stuck with me since his passing. 40 years to be fighting to move Baltimore forward to the city is impressive, especially when he does it with integrity. 

At his funeral, there were people from all sectors of life there, including politicians, and city and faith leaders– all coming to honor Bishop Miles’ life because of their deep relationship with him.

He didn’t just meet you where you were, he also left you with some encouragement as to how to move forward, and to really be who he could see that God called you to be. He did that for me, as well as for others. I think his life’s work was doing that for the city at large, always compelling us forward. He mentored me in co-leading BUILD for about a year before his passing. 

AFRO: What’s next for BUILD?

Hopkins: There’s a great sense of urgency- we don’t have any time to waste. Bishop Miles would often say the greatest leader is in touch with their grief. There’s a mixture of feelings within me of frustration, sorrow, and urgency. The reason that BUILD has to continue in its work is that Baltimore is not where it should be. The grief we’ve experienced– not only in the loss of Bishop Miles, but in others who lost their lives to gun violence– like Trevor White, fuels us towards hope. As long as there is grief in our city, then there’s work to be done towards hope and justice. 

ReBUILD Metro has made a lot of contributions on the eastside of Baltimore and that’s the organization that Trevor worked with. What BUILD has seen with ReBUILD Metro is how to revitalize a community without displacing people. That work is two-fold – it takes developing homes and rebuilding community, which is deeply relational so that you’re empowering people as you rebuild. As a result, in East Baltimore, we’ve seen a drastic decrease in vacant housing and an increase in population, with more people having access to rent or buy homes. We’ve also seen a decrease in violence in those same neighborhoods, according to the data reports we’ve looked at.

We looked at what’s being done in East Baltimore and asked what can we do to make a change on a large scale across Baltimore City. We were discussing this last year and continued the discussion with greater intensity this year after three firefighters died in South Baltimore fighting a blaze in a vacant house right around the corner from my house. Again, this created a greater sense of urgency. Baltimore gains about 1,000 vacant homes every year. How do we, not just stop that tide, but reverse it and regain neighborhoods?

AFRO: What do you think the housing issues stem from?

Hopkins: Much of this is due to the strangling effects of redlining. BUILD is saying that now it’s time for strong leadership to dismantle the impact of redlining. Baltimore is where redlining was born and where we want to bury it so that Baltimore and its neighborhoods can be reimagined. Much of redlining was supported on a state level, and so we need leadership on that same level.

Addressing the issues of redlining will address health discrepancies, generational wealth, and violence. We need to revitalize our communities.

AFRO: What are you calling on Baltimore City leaders to do?

Hopkins: BUILD is calling on the leadership of Baltimore to make a financial investment in these neighborhoods that are heavily blighted. We need Baltimore leaders to see a bigger vision for Baltimore. The return on their investment will take some time, however, there is a long-term financial benefit that will bring more people with stable incomes into these communities. This will also require leaders and the city’s administration to shake up what has been the norm for housing in Baltimore and create a system of practices within the housing development to move to a larger scale, much faster. 

AFRO: What about the next governor of Maryland? Any endorsements?

Hopkins: BUILD is a non-partisan organization and so with this upcoming election, what we’re looking for is a governor with a big enough vision to see how Baltimore can move forward. We don’t need a small vision with band-aid solutions. Nor do we need a governor who’s just going to look at the city as a thorn in Maryland’s side, but instead see Baltimore as a thriving contributor to the well-being of our state. Also, the government should recognize that Baltimore does have great leadership and should be willing to work alongside them in our revitalizing efforts.

We’ve been going into neighborhoods, door-knocking and speaking with residents, and finding out how vacant buildings have negatively impacted their neighborhoods. We’re bringing the results of those conversations to our city leaders in October. We’re planning to take action in the fall prior to elections so that those who are running for governor will hear from these people. We want to represent and say, ‘Hey! You cannot lead or succeed without hearing our voices.’ 

We’re not looking for the governor to be our savior. Whoever is the next governor needs to be willing to work with our community, because we have viable solutions and stand ready to do the necessary work of revitalizing our neighborhoods. We’re gathering everyone together to collectively be one voice.

We’ve been in a hard place for the last two years, some might say over an entire generation, and many of us have looked for the light at the end of the tunnel. Bishop Miles often reminded me– and continues to remind us–that although he is no longer here, he is the light we’re looking for within us. The times we’re living in are requiring BUILD [and] all of us to be the light. If we can stand up, speak, and shine together, then we are the ones who can determine the future of Baltimore.

Visit BUILD’s website at buildiaf.org for more information.

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