Robert Stokes says that he has “already been in it for the long haul” when discussing District 12. He is already at work on what will be one of his toughest challenges – creating unity across the racially and economically diverse 12th district, according to supporters.
Stokes, an East Baltimore native and graduate of Paul Laurence Dunbar High, defeated six other competitors in the April 27th primary election to become the Democratic candidate for November’s 12th District City Council election. He has been involved in City government for much of the past 20 years, as Community Representative to former Mayor Kurt Schmoke from 1988-1994 and assistant to former City Council City Council President Lawrence A. Bell from 1998 to 2000.
Stokes served on the Baltimore City Democratic State Central Committee from 2010-2014 and if elected in Nov. will transition from city council staffer to city council member. Stokes has worked for current District 12 city council member Carl Stokes (no relation) since 2010.
Stokes is the poster child for persistence and openly shares his “try it again” attitude with youth. He ran for the Maryland House of Delegates in 2014 after previous failed candidacies in 2006 and 2002. Stokes originally ran for City Council in 1999 before the city’s current redistricting. Baltimore’s District 12 was originally District two. He picked up support after each attempt and continued to increase his visibility and influence in the community. “When it’s your time and God is looking out for you, it will happen,” Stokes told the AFRO.
Stokes says he will use City Council as a platform to leverage opportunities for youth in District 12 neighborhoods. He wants apprenticeship programs in the city’s schools. “The kid that’s not going to college when he leaves out of high schools, he should have the opportunity for an apprenticeship,” Stokes said.
Stokes looks forward to collaborating with incoming Baltimore Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises about providing a role for local unions to connect with students. “When the Unions go to the schools, they get push back. There should be some balance. I think the school system has an old model,” Stokes said. “College can get expensive. We need opportunities for students who can’t foot that bill,” he said.
Kathy Christian, Board member of the Greater Greenmont Community Association (GGCA) was convinced that Stokes’ connection with residents was critical for helping District 12 advance. GGCA represents Greenmont Avenue, Barclay and Midway in East Baltimore; neighborhoods with blocks of stable homeowners and newcomers interspersed with blight and abandoned properties.
“He is really focused on the community. He lives, breathes and sleeps this community. When he said he was running, I knew we had the right advocate because Robert’s empowerment is about making a difference on behalf of the citizens of the district,” Christian said.
Stokes’ economically diverse district includes both neighborhoods bordering Johns Hopkins Homewood campus and Stokes’ own Oliver community, once a thriving middle-class community with residents who are determined to seek economic transformation without displacement of long-term residents. Stokes hopes to transform economic vehicles like the TIF (tax increment financing) to strengthen distressed neighborhoods. “Let’s take that same concept and put it back into the community where there’s low housing, no housing and vacant housing; where’s there’s no commercial business and create community impact,” said Stokes. “I think it’s important to work with developers and require that they demonstrate community impact,” Stokes said.
Strengthening the capacity of community organizations is another key to strong neighborhoods according to Stokes. One of his proudest achievements has been supporting the development of Unified Neighborhoods Coalition (UNC), a collaboration between 13 community organizations across the 12th District that started with a combined Holiday party last December.
“Our community presidents didn’t talk to each other, they talked around each other,” Stokes said. “We started UNC so the community presidents can start talking to each other and helping each other out,” Stokes said. Unified Neighborhoods Coalition facilitates communication across the District’s diverse community associations. “It’s a matter of learning how to write a mission statement, conduct a focus group, write grants and beautify their neighborhoods,” he enthused.
Stokes grew up in Baltimore with lessons from his mother about taking pride in the community. “My mother had eight children and two sets of twins. (Stokes has a twin sister.) My mother taught us how to be respectful, and we had Afro-clean block. She made us respect other people in the block and that taught us who our neighbors were. We had to get up at 6:00 a.m. and scrub those steps,” Stokes said.
Stokes explained the secret of the Afro-clean block campaigns he experienced from his youth. “If you get young people out of those houses to clean up their one block, you’ll be surprised,” Stokes said. “When you start cleaning up in the community and there is illegal activity going on, it’s going to leave” Stokes said.
The key to getting Baltimore on track is to enhance communication between layers of city government just as he has done with the neighborhood organizations in District 12, Stokes said. “I already know Cathy Pugh so I look forward to a good working relationship with the new Mayor and the new City Council,” he said. I already know the current council members and the President of the Council. People want change and they want people to work together. We really don’t have a choice but to work together,” Stokes said.