The demonstrations and violence that followed the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody took some by surprise. But to others who have lived in many of Baltimore’s neglected neighborhoods, the uprising felt inevitable. With relationships between police and the community broken, unemployment at 40%, and relentless poverty, they knew that it was just a matter of time for their communities to “blow.” Without recourse to legitimate opportunity over many, many years, optimism was long forgotten and converted to deeply felt frustration, anger and hopelessness. Segregated housing patterns across our city not only reflected decades of discrimination/privilege and disinvestment/investment but defined residents’ sense of agency, safety, and potential. More persuasively than any research paper, our reactions to the Freddie Gray killing brought into sharp relief the radically different life experiences of Baltimoreans. And even those of us sheltered from the daily assault of concentrated poverty and unjust treatment saw it—the two Americas, the conditions so lacking in comfort, respect and opportunity that they tear at the humanity of their residents.
Criminal justice reform advocate Bryan Stevenson, at our most recent Talking About Race event at the Pratt Library, strongly urged an approach to bridge this divide, a first step to developing understanding and the kind of empathy that propels action: be proximate. While this is legal language for which Stevenson—who has won multiple cases before the Supreme Court to restrict the use of the death penalty and the use of life sentences without parole for youth—can be excused, his meaning is clear. Get closer, get involved, recognize the boundaries created by historical and ongoing discrimination in our region and make a decision to transcend them.
The Open Society Institute-Baltimore is a foundation dedicated to improving justice, equality and democratic practice, and we must be “proximate” to do our work well. Our 160 Community Fellows, working with residents throughout the city, help us not only to understand the fears, hopes, ambitions and needs of some of our most marginalized families but also to see patterns—policies and practices—that block opportunity. The Community Fellows, working hand in hand with community members, are developing innovative approaches to break through the hold of concentrated poverty and bias. And our three program areas—focused on reducing the over-reach of the criminal and juvenile justice system, keeping young people engaged in school and learning, and improving the availability of high quality drug addiction treatment—deepen this effort. We know that we must be both strategic and persistent to change the policies and practices that have resulted in the islands of blocked talent and opportunity that define the contours of our city and compromise its prosperity and reputation.
We can’t do this alone. OSI-Baltimore, our grantees and our partners need your involvement to be successful. Without public will—public pressure—for change, the deep roots of existing policies and practices will keep us in a stranglehold. The awakening caused by Freddie Gray’s death is an opportunity for us all to deepen our engagement and our commitment to change. That is why we established the Baltimore Justice Fund—focused on improving police accountability and police-community relations, reducing the number of Baltimoreans caught up in the criminal justice system, and engaging Marylanders, especially young people, in advocacy for programs to increase opportunity and racial justice—to accelerate our efforts. By being proximate—informing and determining the success of our work by the experiences and perspectives of our most marginalized residents—we will keep our work focused on changes that truly create respect and opportunity for all Baltimoreans. Please join us.