By Bishop Douglas Miles
As I look at Baltimore five years after the Freddie Gray uprising the saying “Three strikes you are out” keeps coming to mind. The nation once again in chaos because another Black man has been killed by the police or White men. The names change-Eric, Trayvon, Freddie and now George. The background changes, but the same kind of injustice manifests itself over and over and over.
But the underlying cause of these events- racism has not changed. Locally, Gilmore Homes in the process of demolition, no significant signs of improvement in communities ravaged by riots, police officers still viewed as occupation forces, lockdowns and lockups, drug addiction and massive unemployment all speak to the failure of efforts immediately following what had been the most disruptive event in Baltimore since the riots of the 20th century. Children still play on litter strewn lots peppered with syringes and used condoms. Parents are still afraid to allow children to play 20 feet from front steps. Seniors are still afraid to go out in the daytime even more so at night. Returning citizens struggle to find employment and housing. Young families leave the city in record numbers because there’s too little affordable housing in neighborhoods they have known as home and no section 8 vouchers issued in more desirable neighborhoods in a city still plagued by both racism and class discrimination.
Bishop Douglas Miles
Almost weekly we hear of another corporation packing up and leaving for better climate and lower taxes offered by surrounding counties as political leadership flounders like a fish suddenly cast upon the beach trying to patch together deals to keep the few remaining corporate entities. The police force continues to shrink and become more distant from the neighborhoods they are charged to protect and serve as more draconian tactics such as surveillance planes become the new magic potion to cure Baltimore’s crime and violence problem. Schools that should be safe havens lurch back and forth between the need for armed school securities and our children who for a long time have not felt safe on the way to school now feel even more vulnerable in school. And the litany of failures and problems could go on and on.
But I challenge us to see that it did not have to be this way five years later. But it usually does end this way when inadequately funded, knee jerk, well intentioned “programs” are used to address situations that require long term strategic planning. It usually ends this way when feel good compassion leads the way rather than empathetic visioning. It usually ends this way when compassion fatigue sets in because those victimized by generations of neglect do not respond with the “level of gratitude” expected. It is almost a certainty that neighborhoods long overlooked or used as pawns in political gamesmanship have hopes raised that are soon dashed when two years data has shown little improvement in lives traumatized by decades of violence, poverty, sub-standard housing and poor healthcare. It ends this way when we answer positively “Am I my brother’s keeper?” when God never answered it that way but reminded Cain that he is his brother’s brother. At best keeper implies what usually happens when the haves think about helping the have nots. Keeper implies at best a relationship of benevolent master over a person viewed not to be one’s equal. Keeper implies doing for rather than getting dirty by doing with. Keeper implies that I have only the responsibility to give you a handout rather than to offer my hand to you in genuine concern for your well-being.
But “brother’ implies a relationship that cannot be broken no matter how dire circumstances become. Brother implies that there is a connection between equals that makes me want to know your story, your journey, your hopes and dreams. Brother or Sister says that even though I may not like or approve the way you act I won’t give up on you but will do what’s necessary to help you become whole if that’s your desire. And in Baltimore after Freddie Gray we didn’t respond as brothers and sisters but as “keepers of those people.
How different would our city be today if we had responded differently? Could you imagine with me what could have been changed if the same kind of out of the box thinking had taken place in 1987 when BUILD ran as a mayoral candidate “BUILD Agenda”- an inclusive vision for Baltimore that if it had been implemented could have dramatically altered the city’s trajectory. BUILD’s call for a Social Compact that challenged corporate and philanthropic Baltimore to create a strategy that would have changed a high school diploma from a passport to failure into a visa to success. We proposed that any student earning a B average and maintaining 95 percent attendance upon graduation would be guaranteed either a four year scholarship to any in-state college or university or entry level employment that had a career ladder in the corporate world. Can you imagine how different Baltimore’s employment pool would look if College Bound had ever been fully funded and the commitment to employment had not disappeared with the first economic downturn never to return? Thousands of young people-two generations- may have been encouraged to stay in school and excel rather than many of those young people turning to the illegal drug trade to earn a living. How different Baltimore City Schools would be if the drive for equity funding had succeeded in the 1990s rather than the piecemeal funding and stagnant City contributions.
In 1998 BUILD proposed the P.I.E strategy to Baltimore’s leadership. We argued from our initial experience in Sandtown that neighborhood rehabilitation is the best crime fighting strategy. We argued that if people had place- a home; income- a living wage job- and equity- having a house with built in equity produced by subsidized home construction for low and middle class families, neighborhoods could be transformed, hope could be restored to many who had given up and a system of generational wealth building anchored by stable communities could be the result. Can you imagine a Baltimore of young families as homeowners rather than renters?
“Fixing” broken Baltimore is not rocket science. It is not a matter of wallet- $3 trillion suddenly found to save the American economy and millions found to prepare Baltimore for the storm now in progress-it is always a matter of will. If we had the will the “food deserts” in Baltimore could disappear in two years or less. If we had the will affordable housing with decent mortgages for thousands could be developed in five years or less. If we had the will drug treatment on demand would not be a dream but an on-going reality in a city with tens of thousands addicted or recovering.
The community will could produce job training for the un- and under employed for not only returning citizens but for young people for whom a high school diploma has become a passport to failure rather than a visa to success. If we really wanted to we could improve the quality of education offered from Pre-K to graduation by investing the money necessary to construct new schools, renovate those worth saving, investing in technology for better in class and on-line learning that would bring us into the 21st century and pay good teachers to stay in the classroom rather than finding it necessary to move into administration in order to improve their financial situation.
And please do not tell me I am dreaming impossible dreams in a city that overnight has produced thousands of additional hospital beds. Please do not tell me this is pie in the sky by and by when I die in a city that is now feeding thousands every day at no cost to those receiving it. Please do not put me off about reducing homelessness when in the blink of an eye hotel space can be produced to assist the homeless in social distancing so “they” do not make us sick.
All it takes is the strategic planning and visioning that has produced a massive call-in center that works for Covid-19. All it takes are strategic partnerships between corporate, civic and faith leadership that puts the needs of the city ahead of petty quarreling about who is to blame. All it takes is bringing the best minds to bear from some of the best schools of higher learning in the world located in this city to help us revision a better and more inclusive Baltimore. All it takes is the will and inclination to listen to the real experts-the residents of neighborhoods overrun by drugs, victimized by absentee landlords, forgotten in the grand scheme of social engineering that has guided the thinking and practices of universities, foundations and corporate leaders more attuned to profits than restoration of real communities
We can create a new Baltimore over the next five years if the collective will be present. It would not take rocket science to turn food deserts into oases of quality food for every family-we are doing it now through food pantries and special feeding programs offered by government, religious institutions, foundations, and corporate sponsorship. Philanthropic Baltimore could partner with neighborhood associations in areas designated as food deserts to create five to 10 non-profit supermarkets established in strategic locations and operated by well-trained and experienced management paid additional to make these facilities operative. A BUILD church in northwest Baltimore joined with others to bring a Save-A-Lot market to that community.
What is stopping the city from creating new communities out of abandoned homes and empty lots. BUILD churches working with federal, state and city government and bolstered by $10 million of philanthropic and corporate loans is re-creating the Oliver community and Johnston Square community. It is producing partnerships with Hopkins and government to buy down the cost of homeownership. What would a pool of $25 million do along with a redeveloped Lafayette Market and revitalized Pennsylvania Avenue?
If BUILD in partnership with Hopkins, University of Maryland and other corporate partners can produce almost 800 jobs for returning citizens what more could an expanded pool of corporate partners willing to imagine jobs programs that provide a guaranteed income for those in process, with wrap-around services that would take returning citizens from joblessness to living wage employment.
The current galvanized protest generated by the recent police and other generated deaths of Black people has given all of us a third chance to get it right. The clarion call must go forth to all segments of Baltimore. I suggest not a new round of programs but a bold strategic vision- “NO MORE EXCUSES”- a challenge of opportunity and responsibility that calls on all of us to do more. Such a vision must be inclusive of listening sessions throughout the city to get the best ideas of what different communities see as their needs. Those sessions should generate a 10-year strategy for economic development, an employment strategy tied to a new vision of Baltimore City Public Schools. It must take into account a re-visioning of policing that addresses constitutional policing and how it is done across the city. There must be a new strategy of community development that places home ownership for low and middle income families as priority. It will be necessary for all of us to address the persistent level of violence that is strangling Baltimore and crippling our ability to focus on other matters. This must be done with the African-American Faith community and political establishment taking the lead to hold accountable that segment of the population responsible and the cooperate community offering viable options for employment especially for returning citizens. Let us take this time to relate to one another as human beings, as citizens of the same city, as people who want the best for Baltimore. It is not as daunting as it sounds. It could be our last chance as I keep hearing “Three strikes, you’re out.”
Bishop Douglas I. Miles is Co-Chair Emeritus-BUILD.