We are living in an extraordinary time. The country has elected its first ever African-American President who is also our first community-organizer-in-chief. The country is experiencing an economic meltdown as serious as any since the Great Depression. States and cities are experiencing budget shortfalls, while families, workers and communities are hurting.
We know that the problems of Baltimore and cities like it can’t be solved without national action – and we may, for the first time in a very long time, have a real chance to get real help from the federal government. We have a President who has articulated a bold agenda for change, but has also indicated that he can’t achieve it alone – that he needs the power of organized citizens on a grand scale to surmount the entrenched interests that typically block change in the beltway. What if, in the finest tradition of community organizing, the citizens of Baltimore and citizens of cities around the country took the President up on his challenge?
Imagine if community leaders, elected officials, members of the faith community and others raised their voice for a new economic and urban agenda for the country? Such an agenda would include major public investment to create jobs, relief for distressed homeowners at risk of foreclosure, universal health care, aid to the unemployed and rebuilding a shredded safety net, and aid to cities and states to prevent them from making the recession worse by laying off workers and cutting back services.
Periods of major, transformative change are very rare in American history. They have come about because of three critical ingredients: major crises that force fundamental changes in how we approach problems; visionary leadership that is capable of change and growth, and can speak to the spirit of the times; and social movements that create pressure from below. Lincoln changed his position on abolition, largely in response to agitation by abolitionists like Frederick Douglas. FDR couldn’t have accomplished the New Deal without organizing by unions, the unemployed and the rural poor. LBJ was compelled to push through the Voting Rights Act only after the Selma march.
There is incredible energy at the grassroots today, and it needs to be harnessed to win major policy changes that put our economy back on track and lift up poor people, people of color and cities – all of which were suffering before this latest downturn and are most vulnerable now.
Baltimore has a fine civic infrastructure, including groups with great track records in community organizing such as Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD). What if all of Baltimore worked together with elected officials to develop and push for a national economic recovery package that would really deliver for cities? Our communities, our families, and our future depend on whether such efforts succeed or fail.
The time is now. History is in our hands.