By Sean Yoes, AFRO Baltimore Editor, syoes@afro.com

When I entered the gates of the massive Montgomery Park complex on Monroe Street a couple of weeks ago I didn’t know what to expect.

I hadn’t been there since a visit to what was then Montgomery Ward (or Monkey Wards as we called it) with my Grandmother in the 1970’s. The 21st century iteration of the white behemoth is an ironic symbol of Baltimore’s evolution over the last 40 years, but I digress.

I was at Montgomery Park on Nov. 29 at the invitation of Yvette Bourcicot, policy and communications manager at Facebook. After a conversation with Bourcicot the night before (and a gentle nudge from AFRO Publisher Frances “Toni” Draper), I agreed to participate in the six hour (!) “structured brainstorming session” or “the Baltimore safety jam.”

Sean Yoes (Courtesy Photo)

The ubiquitous social media conglomerate was in Baltimore to facilitate results oriented conversations about the violence that continues to ravage our city. So, I’ve been on Facebook for 10 years and what I know about the pioneering social media titan is pretty much what everybody knows; billions of users worldwide and because of that the founder Mark Zuckerberg is a rather wealthy man and in recent years his company has found itself in a bit of hot water politically because of Trump, Russian bots, yada, yada, yada.

But, what I also know about Facebook is the company is in the midst of giving away billions (with a B) of dollars and implementing strategies globally to do good. So, I suspect that’s why they decided to launch their national “public safety challenge” in Baltimore one of the most violent cities on earth.

Once I entered the space where we worked for most of the day and recognized some of the faces in the room much of my apprehension began to melt away.

I saw Shantay Jackson Guy of the Baltimore Police Department’s consent decree monitoring team and Ray Kelly of the No Boundaries Coalition sitting together. I also saw Dr. Andrey Bundley, perhaps the last warrior principal of Walbrook High School my beloved alma mater, who is currently Mayor Pugh’s director of African American Male Engagement. There were also several Baltimore City agency heads in the room and we were all charged to identify challenges for (imagined, but oh so real) individual prototypical city residents and come up with solutions to help make their lives better.

My group (which was probably the most raucous, not sure why) was made up of: Alli Smith (Pugh’s director of community engagement), Inez Robb (community leader in Sandtown-Winchester), Sarah Vieweg (Facebook), Tavon Claggett (Baltimore Fire Department), Freddie Allen (a colleague with the Black Press), Tlee Cooper (a young entrepreneur) Deidre Webb (Pugh’s Office of Employment Development) and Col. Rick Worley (Baltimore Police Department, chief of patrol).

Our job was to help a young man named “D’andre.”

D’andre is a 24-year old Black male who lives in Gilmor Homes in West Baltimore, the same community where Freddie Gray lived and ultimately was mortally injured. D’andre is unemployed. He is a high school graduate, but reads on a third grade level. He is responsible for two younger siblings (feeding them, getting them ready for school), he has two young children of his own, he hustles (drugs, illegal transportation), has a criminal record and is active on social media.

D’andre wants stable employment, he wants safety for him and his family, he’s fearful, he’s paranoid and he has a lack of role models. Yet, he perseveres the best way he can.

His story is a familiar one.

At the end of a long work day all the groups identified five top challenges facing Baltimore residents including D’andre. And a formal partnership between Facebook and the City of Baltimore will endeavor to come up with cogent, plausible solutions over the next several months.

  1. Baltimore residents feel unsafe sharing information about violent crime with law enforcement.
  2. City school students are being robbed at bus stops.
  3. Despite the most job openings in the state, Baltimore City has the highest unemployment rate.
  4. The pervasive peril of vacant and abandoned houses.
  5. Getting helpful information to residents about vacant buildings.

If the partnership between the City and Facebook helps eradicate just one of these challenges facing our communities, my trip to Montgomery Park (after a 40-plus year absence) will be one of the best days of 2018.

Sean Yoes is the AFRO’s Baltimore editor and author of Baltimore After Freddie Gray: One of America’s Great Imperiled Cities.

Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor