Commentary: Investing in the `Black Butterfly’

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Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby. (Courtesy Photo/Facebook)

By Nick J. Mosby

Challenges in Baltimore are limitless — unlike the consequential $670 million in federal aid we are scheduled to receive through the American Rescue Plan. 

And we have options.

We could take a less strategic approach and spread the money around with a broad imprint but limited impact, or we could target a specific challenge and make this once-in-generation investment a true game-changer.

In big city government with big city challenges, spreading finite resources around to address a multitude of issues is the typical mode of operation. But I am here pleading for us to radically bet on our future with a specific, data-driven solution that takes advantage of this New Deal-like opportunity for Baltimore.

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With this level of investment over such a short period of time, we can truly undo some of the deliberate economic apartheid in our city created by longstanding structural inequity. We can pour this capital into our hypersegregated and underserved neighborhoods guided by the framework for prosperity the inspired Lawrence Brown outlined in his book “The Black Butterfly” and subsequent movement on “the harmful politics of race and space in America.” The disinvestment in the Black Butterfly over generations is what has led to the pandemic’s disparate impact on our communities of color. And so, it is fitting this relief package be used to create equity and close the racial wealth gap.

To do that we can aggressively position our city as a tech hub and develop new pipelines for our residents to land the jobs of the future. This money could also give us a chance to produce the best possible outcomes for our young folks by picking whether we want to triple down on our investments in education, job readiness, recreation or social and emotional development. These ideas and many others are all worthwhile; however, we must choose one.

First, we need to tap into the ingenuity and wisdom of our residents. They know best. By engaging with our residents in earnest, we can come up with the response Baltimore needs to what they determine is the most pressing need.

Using data to drive the discussion and analyzing possible outcomes, we can present residents with a menu of policy prescriptions that meet the criteria ultimately set by Washington.

By funding quality preschool we could transcend the limitations of the under-funded state child care voucher program. This would give our struggling working parents the chance to earn a living while knowing their children are in safe and nurturing environments.

The patchwork of programs for low-income families, from the child care subsidy and Judy Centers to Head Start and 4-year-old kindergarten, does not come close to stretching far enough to meet the need. This lack of support means many parents choose between sending their children to unregulated providers or quitting their jobs to stay home. Creating a local voucher program would ease that pressure and add to our city’s economic recovery.

We could look to offer students computer coding, web development and software engineering as a pathway to the middle class in a society where aptitude and intellect are equally divided but opportunity is not. Mayor Kurt Schmoke envisioned “the city that reads.” We could put a modern-day twist on it and become, as some have said, “the city that codes.”

We also know a staggering number of Baltimore’s students are chronically absent from their virtual classrooms. If we don’t act swiftly, we are in danger of losing our connection to them for good.

This isn’t hyperbole: Without the protective walls of our classrooms, children are being shot in our streets. Some of our young people are giving up on school for the allure of a paycheck, or quicker money on the block, putting themselves and their futures in harm’s way. Others are enduring trauma at home.

This money could be used to add a 13th grade to make sure all of our children have a chance to get back the year of school they lost. We could add more social workers in schools, offer daily therapy sessions and connect our young folks with government jobs or ones with local companies.

We have so many possibilities: Customized educational tracks catered to our children’s innate talents and learning challenges, high-speed municipal broadband so residents can see their doctor or therapist regularly, strengthening families and improving bonds between co-parents through programs like those at the Center for Urban Families.

Alongside directing the investment to a single cause, we must develop a strategy that involves public-private partnerships. The effect of this spending must also be amplified by legislation. This can happen if the City Council, mayoral administration, the business community and philanthropies all work in harmony. Ultimately, Mayor Brandon Scott will have the final say in how this money is spent. He is my partner in progress, and I urge him to take this approach for the betterment of our beloved Baltimore.

It is in a crisis when our values are tested the most. And in this crisis we get to choose whether we will be guided by the data, driven by equity and propelled to put aside conventional solutions. On the other side of the American Rescue Plan, our residents should be able to permanently expect more.

Nick Mosby is the President of the Baltimore City Council