Anne Perkins, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates, has been on countless boards and received several awards for her work from local, state and national entities. She is presently the Special Master overseeing the implementation of the Thompson v. HUD Partial Consent Decree, the result of a class action law suit brought by the ACLU on behalf of African American public housing tenants in Baltimore. The case alleged long-term discrimination by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. Perkins has been on the board of OSI-Baltimore for four years.
You were elected to the General Assembly in the late 1970s. What made you want to go into public office?
In the mid-1960s, I would volunteer twice a week with a tutoring program near Johns Hopkins where I interacted with several students. There was one in particular who made an indelible impression on my life. He was 11 years old, in the fourth grade. I was helping him with his reading skills and I noticed that he didn’t even know his consonant sounds. He had been passed along through the system, but he could not read. As an unskilled volunteer, there was nothing I could do but be his friend. He ended up skipping school, involved in drugs, and in the criminal justice system.
This experience introduced me to the systems the government has in place to get people through life. These systems had failed this boy. It made an imprint on me that one-to-one intervention wasn’t enough to help kids. I really bought into the idea that, if I wanted to try to make things better, I had to work to improve the systems.
What are the biggest challenges facing Baltimore now? What were they when you were a state legislator?
I think many of the challenges, particularly those with respect to race, are pretty much the same. Baltimore County is 70 percent white, while the city is 70 percent black. In order for the city and the region to do well, we need everyone to work together. The feelings about race have definitely improved throughout my life, but they’re still not good enough. Politically, I think race prevents us from doing better when it comes to things such as transportation and housing. Public transportation is essential to create a region that is vibrant and forward-moving; there are so many people who need it—but don’t have access to it.
When I was growing up, housing segregation was an obvious problem. And though it has changed over several generations, it is still a remnant of racial segregation. I think all the ingredients are there to make Baltimore a wonderful place to live; we just need to figure out how to harness the energy and abilities of everybody working together.
How did you become involved with OSI-Baltimore?
About four years ago, a friend of mine asked me to come hear Diana Morris talk about corrections over dinner. Afterward, I thought about what OSI was doing in that area and how it aligned with my own point of view. I’ve always felt that, when people who are incarcerated come out of prison, it’s in everybody’s best interest that they come out a more whole person, able to work, survive and care for themselves. The recidivism rate is expensive for taxpayers. For a long time, these kinds of thoughts have been subservient to public safety and punishment. I felt good about what OSI was doing and it really resonated with me.
I was very humbled to be asked some time later to be on the board, which is composed of so many amazing city leaders.
Something I learned working in the legislature is that change is incremental and accomplished by doing small things, one by one. It seems to me that OSI understood that too. Of course, we want to accomplish great things but, as frustrating as it is, small, incremental changes are the way things get done. I had decided years before that maybe I could be most effective if I could do things working through systemic change—making government do what it’s supposed to do—better. And that’s a lot of what OSI does.
As a member of the advisory board, what do you see as your role?
You have to get a lot of people to buy into the change. It could be people in government or community groups or just people you know as friends. I think one of my roles is to get people thinking about these issues. If we can inform people about the issues, then perhaps we can change systems and change lives.
What do you bring to the board?
Passion, enthusiasm, curiosity. I believe I bring a different perspective, a grass-roots perspective, seeing firsthand the power of education and community strength. I want to improve the world for my kids and my community, so I will ask questions and share the feedback, stories, and experiences of my life in hopes of driving change and improvement.
Talk about the importance of partnerships between the public and private sectors when it comes to bringing about change.
Business leaders are powerful and, if there is something you want to change or improve, you need to get them involved. They really have the ears of the people who can effect this change and there is plenty of room for partnerships.
What major changes have you seen in Baltimore since your time in public office?
Baltimore is a poor city without enough jobs. It is hard to dig ourselves out of the issues that have been with us for a long time.
It’s wonderful to look at some of the development around the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Canton. And I can say that we now have some of the best music and theater scenes in the country, as well as some of the best medicine. We need to enhance the things that make Baltimore a great place to live.
You’ve talked a lot about fairness issues over the years, particularly when it comes to racial matters. Why do we still need to talk about race?
Race still underlies a lot of the structures that we live in. Being aware of the implicit biases we may have is healthy and worth talking about. The more we can talk about it, and understand why saying or doing something a certain way is hurtful, the more we will understand and the better basis we will have for moving forward.
What can OSI-Baltimore do to help solve some of the issues/challenges facing Baltimore?
The fact that we have some of the most wonderful and most powerful business and civic leaders on the OSI board, that brings a lot with it. They use their Rolodexes to invite friends to come find out about the issues that OSI is working on. That is its own kind of grassroots advocacy. We are educating the people of Baltimore and pulling together community leaders on issues that are touching the people who are the heart and soul of the city.
Are you optimistic about the future of this city?
I’m an optimistic person. You have to be. You have to look for the things that are working well. I think we have so many strengths in the city, magnets and focal points for good things happening. I think we have enough of them for the city to get better and better.