These are things that here, in Baltimore, you’re probably beginning to take for granted. But you need to understand that in the 49 states outside and beyond Maryland, this is not common practice. You are leading the way.
—Patrick Gaspard, president, The Open Society Foundations
It’s not often that Open Society Institute-Baltimore shines a light on the positive impact we have made in Baltimore. We tend to be more comfortable pointing that spotlight at our Fellows, grantees, and community partners. But last year was a little different: In 2018, OSI-Baltimore marked 20 years helping to make our city stronger and more equitable with a series of three events.
As Patrick Gaspard, the president of The Open Society Foundations and the former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, spoke at OSI-Baltimore’s final 20th anniversary event, he detailed a list of accomplishments that made it clear how often OSI-Baltimore has helped break new ground on social problems by working in community with others and making sure that every voice is heard – a theme that united all three anniversary events.
Gaspard talked of our work supporting addiction treatment, mental health care, and job training for people returning from incarceration; helping combat drug addiction by shifting attitudes away from punishment and toward health; advocating for harm-reduction policies and the use of naloxone to prevent opioid deaths; and implementing restorative practices in public schools to improve school climate and address bullying.
“These are things that here, in Baltimore, you’re probably beginning to take for granted,” said Gaspard. “But you need to understand that in the 49 states outside and beyond Maryland, this is not common practice. You are leading the way.”
Indeed, when OSI-Baltimore opened its doors in 1998, it led the way for The Open Society Foundations as its first (and still only) field office in the United States. The Baltimore organization was created as a social justice laboratory to better understand and solve the most intractable problems facing urban America. But more than that, OSI-Baltimore was founded on the idea that partnering with and supporting people and organizations already working in their communities is the best way to tackle difficult issues.
It’s an idea that was echoed by Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in OSI’s first 20th anniversary event. During her keynote conversation, “Bold Thinking on Racial Justice in America,” with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and OSI Advisory Board member Taylor Branch, Gupta discussed the larger social issues facing the United States–not just Baltimore–and how this has pushed people to work together.
“Right now we are facing a frontal attack on who we are, our values, on what the founding ideals were of this country,” she said. “And that is bringing people together in a way, recognizing that the fight for civil rights and the fight for human rights is not going to be won by one group alone. It has to be waged in coalition.”
Right now we are facing a frontal attack on who we are, our values, on what the founding ideals were of this country. And that is bringing people together in a way, recognizing that the fight for civil rights and the fight for human rights is not going to be won by one group alone. It has to be waged in coalition.
—Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
In our second 20th anniversary event, “Making Sure Every Person Counts: The Census, Advocacy, and Civic Participation,” Barbara Mikulski, former U.S. Senator for Maryland, and Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, discussed the political and social implications of making sure every voice is heard and counted in the 2020 census. An accurate count ensures proper political representation as well as funding. As Senator Mikulski pointed out, 85 percent of all federal funds come to Baltimore because of a formula based on the Census.
“Democracy only works when every voice is heard – that’s why the census matters,” Robinson said. In our final 20th anniversary event, Gaspard talked about “Challenges to Open Societies Around the World,” noting that many countries – including the United States – face a “politics of grievance and misplaced nostalgia” that decreases empathy and makes true community and true solidarity difficult.
“The great challenge to open society in the United States and around the globe,” Gaspard said, “centers around the narrative of belonging and the toxic
political tool of othering, which defines community as an exclusive enclave.”
At each of the three event, OSI presented awards to Baltimoreans who exemplified the principles of our tagline, “Bold Thinking, Strategic Action, and Justice for All.” At the first event, we presented “Bold Thinker” awards to 2012 OSI Fellow and Morgan State University professor Dr. Lawrence Brown and former Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen. At the second event, we presented “Strategic Action” awards to Job Opportunities Task Force Executive Director Caryn York and former Communities United Executive Director Ray Kelly. And at the last event, we presented “Justice for All” awards to University of Baltimore president and former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and therapist, activist, and philanthropist Lois Feinblatt.
OSI-Baltimore has accomplished much in 20 years but there’s more work to do. As social and political forces outside of Baltimore continue to threaten democracy itself, OSI is committed to being a force for positive change.