Violence is not going to solve the issues facing Baltimore. I do not want anyone in the city to suffer violence nor have their property destroyed. That said, I also do not advocate for those engaged in a struggle for change to lower their voices or release the pressure on public officials to act in the interests of everyone, rich and poor. Now is not the time to cease-and-desist until modest and comfortable reforms are made. Getting back on the same path simply does not work for thousands of people in Baltimore.
There are many in our midst who would rather ignore or pay lip service to the systemic issues that have been exposed and laid bare for the world to see. On a national level, our elected leaders and those seeking office rarely muster the courage to admit that there are people living in poverty, let alone that there are disenfranchised citizens all over the country. Perhaps the dialogue will change in the coming presidential election cycle.
For Baltimore, the national media spotlight will fade over the next several weeks and months. However, it is my hope is that the local landscape will have been altered for those seeking a real departure in the way people are treated, educated and policed.
To those protesting and who truly want to make a difference in the trajectory of the lives of thousands of children and adults living in Baltimore — Keep it up. There is a significant opportunity to turn the tragedy of Freddie Gray’s death into real transformation for the people of Baltimore. This will not happen overnight. Dig in for the long haul. Expand the scope and breadth of your network and embrace all who answer the call for real system change. Avoid the naysayers who will argue that there is no meaningful way to disrupt the status quo. In many respects, the status quo is tremendous adversary to those who advocate for civil and human rights.
To community organizers — If your heart and head are in the right place but you need some funding, now may be a good time to ask for support from organizations that have an interest in ending the school-to-prison pipeline, improving health and educational outcomes and the achievement of just society. I had the opportunity to hear Michelle Alexander, a law professor and author of “The New Jim Crow,” speak last week when she was in town. She was asked what she would do if she do if she could wave a magic wand and get philanthropic funds. She answered that she would invest in building the capacity of grassroots organizing. At the time, before the protests had begun, I thought her answer was thoughtful. Now, I think it might be spot-on brilliant. Yes, some short-term funding for the acute crises of displacement and renovation is needed. However, in the long term, the organization of people to demand justice is what will result in a better tomorrow.
What would that better tomorrow look like in Baltimore? I think Peter Beilenson, the former city health commissioner and someone whom I greatly admire, had in right in his 2013 TEDx talk in which he described the four pillars of successful communities. (H/T to Dr. Leana Wen, the current health commissioner, for reminding me of this talk). Beilenson used the metaphor of a four-legged stool (a twist on the three-legged stool used to describe the pillars of a stable retirement). The four legs on the stool are
(1) safe neighborhoods with housing that is safe to live in;
(2) solid public schools in the neighborhood;
(3) access to healthy food, physical activity and healthcare; and
(4) access to livable wage jobs for the adults in the community.
For those who have been doing tremendous work in these four areas, I salute you. It is difficult to implement those four legs of the stool. Yet there is now an energy that can be tapped and cultivated into the sustained, long-term effort in which an organized and invigorated citizenry demands access to these four basic human rights. It will not be easy and there will be setbacks, but there is good reason for hope for a better Baltimore.