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Danielle Torain: ‘You’re talking about your own folks’

Danielle Torain grew up in Baltimore, and her career included work in the mayor’s office before taking over as the executive director of the Open Society Institute Baltimore early in 2020.

Having young people of color in positions leading organizations, she said, provides an important context for organizations like her own dedicated to such issues as educational disparities and justice reform.

“When you’re working on issues that impact black communities, many of the communities that we actually come from, that means that you’re talking about your own folks,” Torain said.

She spoke with The Daily Record as part of a series of interviews aimed at continuing the conversations started during the newspaper’s “Young, Black, Homegrown and Leading in Baltimore” webinar. The interview below has been edited for clarity and space.

The Daily Record: So how has being a Baltimore native as well as a black woman shaped your view of the city?

Danielle Torain: I think that being a black woman, from Baltimore and working in Baltimore, especially in philanthropy, it adds a very personal element to the work.

We always joke in the sector that very often, especially when you’re working in place-based philanthropy, you can be in the grocery store or somewhere in the community, and someone will approach you and say, “Hey, what happened with that grant? What happened with that initiative?” or “Hey I want to share A little bit of feedback.”

When you’re working on issues that impact black communities, many of the communities that we actually come from, that means that you’re talking about your own folks.

So when you’re in the boardroom and you’re analyzing data, and talking about policy and practice solutions, and talking about what’s actually happening, very often for me I’m thinking about my own family, my own friends, people that I would I was mentored by, young people who have been lost over time. These were really defining experiences for myself and really shaped my worldview and my perspective on the work.

So you really do bring that personal element to work, into the professional capacity, and I think it adds a deeper level, in terms of a sense of personal accountability …  and also how you think about the work as a black person working and in Baltimore.

TDR: How important is it for the programs that you’re thinking about in reviewing … to have someone like yourself steering the ship … in making sure those programs reach everyone as opposed to previous times when they may not have been successful because they’re implemented, or steered by, people who didn’t really understand a particular community?

Torain: As we see a trend in terms of level of diversification, in terms of the sector’s leadership, we’ve come pretty far, but we’ve not come far enough in terms of representation.

My hope, over time, is that we actually see an even more diverse array of black and brown leadership in the city that really represents the range of perspectives on solutions, the range of perspectives on how to analyze root causes and things like that.

Although I do think that more than anything, coming into the capacity at OSI when folks were kind of reaching out to share their perspectives, what I heard most often was that just the example alone, just knowing that it is possible for a young black person from Baltimore to be in a major leadership capacity, conveyed a message of almost encouragement for those who would never have thought to see us in these types of capacities.

My hope is that it continues to build in terms of momentum, and that we continue to think strategically about leadership pipelines, and how to not only get more leaders of color into these positions but also provide them the necessary support to sustain themselves, which is a necessary part of the conversation.

TDR: Tell me a little bit about some of the challenges in getting more black and brown (people)… into these (leadership) positions that people may not (consider), and if there’s any potential solutions to removing those barriers that you find interesting or exciting right now?

Torain: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think for every element of opportunity that comes with this type of capacity there’s definitely a burden that you carry, and very often it’s an unspoken barrier, but a burden because there aren’t many folks that you can talk to about it.

When I speak to the burden or the challenge, I mean like daily microaggressions, like the things that people will say right, or the curiosity about what it means for you to be in this type of position. I think those things kind of reflect the discomfort with seeing someone different in a leadership capacity, and the ways in which folks don’t even realize the kinds of ways that they show it.

So that is something that I experience, and see on a day-to-day (basis), and you just  almost have to be disciplined and not allow those experiences to hinder you from moving forward and being effective in your capacity.

Being from Baltimore, being a younger person in a leadership capacity, and what that means … what I often find for myself, and also my colleagues that are also in these leadership positions, is that … they work, they are always grinding, and I think it has something to do with the fact that this work is so personal. It’s something that you can’t just leave to your 9 to 5, leave the office and then go home and escape.

TDR: When we’re discussing the challenges facing Baltimore, the elephant in the room, which we often tiptoe around, is race. What role do you think race plays and how the city’s successes and challenges are viewed in other parts of the state, and in this country as a whole?

Torain: I think race has everything to do with many of the challenges that Baltimore is facing.

I mean when you think about root causes … you think about the history of Baltimore and a lot of our origins as a city we’re talking about the fact that Baltimore once was a national leader in racist and segregationist policy, and “structural reform.” It’s that legacy, that history, and that rooting in those racist policies that set the road map for Baltimore that we actually see playing out present day.

It’s really important to understand that when we look at issues of economics, like the lack of economic access … especially, black and brown residents and the level of poverty that we’re seeing. What is that rooted in? Our housing crisis right now. Educational issues. What is that rooted in?

They’re all rooted in a similar history, and it is important to understand that history if we’re really to get to effective solutions. Because what was once kind of a policy and a structure and a plan has also become culture, and a set of beliefs and values in a way of moving through the world and Baltimore.

One thing about Baltimore is that we are a city that still has some very sharp lines in terms of lived experience. Then also the ability to kind of come together and piece that history back together. There are some reasons for that as well, right, and that has to do with our history as a city.

So I would say you know part of it is about that kind of history in terms of race and racism and the impact that it’s had on Baltimore.