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C. Fraser Smith: A partnership that is real

The Southwest Partnership promises to illustrate what city neighborhoods might do for themselves if they have powerful, progressive allies.

A remarkable aspect of this alliance? The institution came to the communities.

This is not the way these things have worked often.

My way or the highway would be closer to the usual response of government entities when confronted by neighborhoods or interest groups looking for help to stop or start something.

Not in this case.

Unhappy about the growth of a methadone clinic, some southwest groups said, in effect: What about us? You’re big-footing your way into our lives as if we don’t matter.

University of Maryland, Baltimore, President Dr. Jay Perman, thought they had a point. Why shouldn’t they know what was going on with the clinic? Why shouldn’t they have their say at least about in its size and location.

He invited leaders and spokespersons up to his office for a bit of wine and cheese. They got to know each other. They recognized common interests. They started to work things out. The process continues as a subject for the new partnership.

“Out of controversy,” Dr. Perman says now, “was born a partnership and friendship that ideally should happen when people are not sure of each other’s motives.”

Since then, other institutions have illustrated the partnership’s potential. The Goldseker Foundation gave $100,000 to help the partnership get up and running. Another $115,000 came from various university budgets and from one of the developers at work on one of the new research centers.

This fall, Dr. Perman says, the university will embark on a long-term effort to find talented sixth graders in the partnership neighborhoods. They would be given special attention in science and other subjects. They might then be ready for good jobs available within walking distance – or in some other city if they choose to leave Baltimore.

The point, though, would be to serve the community by improving the usual no-skills work that neighborhoods are typically offered. It’s one thing to say the skills are not there – and another to do something about it.

The education initiative would be a substantive long-term effort to make the universities partners in economic development. Here is one place where the university sees its own interests in the community. It needs talent – so why not find it nearby?

When possible, under the plan, local businesses would find willing customers at the campus.

Already, a team of social, legal and business students are working on the possibility of worker-owned cooperative businesses. The idea has worked well in Cleveland. The model involves considerable training since it requires workers and managers to work together democratically. But its neighborhood-strengthening possibilities are clear.

These ventures go to the heart of Perman’s conviction that education is the key to everything a neighborhood wants and needs for its young people – those still in school and those who are looking for work. Without training, neighborhoods face almost inevitable unrest. Baltimore has seen that in neighborhoods like Sandtown Winchester, where Freddie Gray lived

I asked Perman if he thought the Southwest Partnership idea could be duplicated in other neighborhoods some of which do not have the institutional backing Southwest is getting now.

Academics, he observed, are inveterate record keepers. Everything they do is saved and assessed with an eye to use elsewhere.

Neighborhoods can turn themselves around. Universities, Dr. Perman said, must be part of the process.

“We should not sit here, and think that if we don’t have a better and better community that we will sustain our greatness,” he said.

He dislikes any suggestion that the seven neighborhoods are places on the “other side of MLK” the Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard. He sees it as distancing way to put things. What he wants, he says, is real partnership.

“It is our community,” he says.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email is fsmith@wypr.org.