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Let’s get our citizenship back

renita-l-seabrook-in-storyPeople all over country like to talk about Baltimore. They think they know what this city is all about: crime, drugs, poverty, racial animus, corruption, a meaningless existence wasted by gunfire.

But they don’t live here. We do. And we know that their dismissal of Baltimore is not right. We know what they leave out when they deliver these insults: We’re people. We have dignity. We have jobs. We have dreams and inspiration. We’re people, same as anyone.

But not just “people,” like a numberless group of folks walking down a street. We are the citizens of Baltimore.

Somewhere, somehow, in the wake of the city’s seemingly relentless violence, the unrest of 2015 and the political turmoil of the past decade, we have been left out. We’ve gone from seeing ourselves – and thus, having the agency to be seen by others – as citizens, to just people, to just … what? The cliché of a mob on CNN or Fox?

It’s time we got our citizenship back. It could be the first step toward re-enfranchising those of us who choose to live here, who raise families, work, and keep this town humming with life.

I teach at one of Baltimore’s leading urban colleges. Our students come from everywhere, but the majority of them have roots in the metropolitan area. They’re part of an even larger group that has more than a passing familiarity with Baltimore and its ongoing problems. They’re experienced. And they’re here because they want to build a good life for themselves and their families. Many want to be part of an improving, growing city. Here’s what I tell them about living and working here, and how they can help reclaim their place as “civic owners” of their communities:

  • Find a way to become – and remain – an activist. Whether it’s volunteering at a nonprofit or joining an issues-based organization, strive to be an expert in the study, development and enhancement of city neighborhoods. Carry a sign because you have something to say. But go deeper than that.
  • Understand the complex challenges that face Baltimore – the same challenges that confront hundreds of cities around the world. Recognize that the key to addressing these challenges is at the policy level. Become engaged in the reform of those policies. Once you find your way in, stay determined. Arriving is one thing – making a difference once you’re there is another.
  • To that end: Always, always seek legitimacy. A true activist, a genuine reformer, is willing to put in the hours of hard work to achieve a goal. It’s easy to tear down something. But it’s much more effective (and more difficult, I admit) to build it up.

‘Community scholars’

In my program, called Nonprofit Management and Community Leadership, we inspire each other to become “community scholars,” by engaging in service-learning projects that fuse together classroom lessons with the work of real community organizations. Our scholars fan out to locations where the need is genuine and where they can contribute as they learn.

I can’t speak for everyone who’s ever taken up a civic cause, but I believe that nonprofits are our best answer to urban problems. Why? Because by their very nature, they are in it for the long haul. But that’s only true if the nonprofit is well-managed – and again, that’s where a college-level education is essential. Our students are embracing all of the tenets of effective city governance through the nonprofit perspective, from social work and public health, to entrepreneurship and legal support.

The goal is simple: Keep the front door to those nonprofits open, keep the citizens involved and empowered. Work the problem. Achieve the goal. Move on to the next thing.

Like any other field, nonprofit studies encourages leaders to come forward and take their place. It’s satisfying to watch a student go from humble to striving to achieving to leading, all in the span of a few short years. It’s beautiful to recognize that someone who was involved in a single neighborhood project eventually went on to an important position in government or the private sector and still holds those same core values.

Day by day, a city can change for the better. For decades, North Avenue was a strange kind of boundary marker between haves and have-nots, between success and failure. Today, that street is teeming with possibilities. And now we can have a healthy debate about gentrification, missed opportunities, and so on. As citizens, we should be proud and happy to have that debate – it means that we have a say.

That’s all that Baltimore is seeking, really: As voters, contributors, consumers – as ordinary women, men and children tending the flowerbed that is our Baltimore, all we want is to be in charge of our own future. We cannot, must not, allow anyone to pass judgment on the communities that make up our lives.

We’re not waiting around for permission to change this city. And we’re not going to stand by while the life of Baltimore is leached away, street after street, section by section.

You say Baltimore is a bad place to live? Say that to any one of my students. And be prepared to receive a civics lesson that will reveal, for all to see, your lack of knowledge and understanding about how cities work, how people act, and what we are capable of, having earned the right of citizenship. Yes, we have rights. Yes, we are engaged. And yes, together we will raise up our city.

Renita L. Seabrook is an associate professor and program director for Nonprofit Management and Community Leadership in the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs. Her email is [email protected].