Growing up in Baltimore’s Frankford neighborhood, Alicia Wilson knew two things about herself. She wanted to graduate from college. And she wanted to always serve the community that had well-served her.
The sticking point? She wasn’t sure how to do either.
But when she was a ninth-grader at a city trade school, a generous benefactor paid Wilson’s fee to take the SATs. Her high score, coupled with the esteem boost that came from having someone believe in her, “changed the trajectory of my life,” says Wilson, now 35 and the vice president of community affairs and legal advisor for Sagamore Development. “My story of growing up in Baltimore informs the person I am personally and professionally, as well as the work that I engage in on a daily basis,” the attorney says.
Today, Wilson makes it her life’s work to give back, specifically in the community of her childhood. “I bought a house on purpose three blocks from the house where I grew up,” she says.
She volunteers in what little free time she has, even sitting on a street corner in Belair-Edison during the city’s recent “Ceasefire,” providing free, walk-up expungement services to all who asked–until the wee hours of the morning. “People think you have to wait until they reach a certain level [financially] to do good. Or there are those who think you can’t do both at the same time,” Wilson says. “You can do well and you can do good. You don’t have to wait on either of them. I always liked having the proximity between the community and me to be as narrow as I could make it, as a desire never to forget myself as a young girl who had someone who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.”
We talked with Wilson, one of OSI-Baltimore’s newest board members, about her work, her service to the community and her dreams for Baltimore.
Why did you choose OSI-Baltimore as the place where you wanted to serve?
I used to be on a lot of different boards. Now I’m at the point where I have to be very selective about what I give my energy to. There are many organizations in Baltimore that do amazing work, but OSI-Baltimore is one of the most impactful because of its unconventional approach to trying to do good in our community. It does it in a non-elitist way that attempts to assign honor to those who are on the ground already doing the work. And OSI-Baltimore is honest about the complexity of the problems, and yet forges ahead anyway. OSI doesn’t come in as a savior, but as a partner, which is a different paradigm than the traditional. And that is wildly attractive to me.
Is there an aspect of OSI-Baltimore’s work that particularly resonates with you?
I especially enjoy the education advocacy work, because, even though there’s an ongoing debate about whether this is true, I honestly believe that education changes lives. The approaches and work that have to be done to move the needle for Black and Brown kids, particularly in urban centers, it’s hard and it’s complicated, but it’s worthwhile. Even if you don’t totally get it right, it makes a difference just to come at these problems with a novel approach and not have the inertia that a lack of hopefulness causes. Workforce development is a huge passion of mine, particularly as it pertains to criminal and social justice. People get dignity from working, from being able to access all the things that to others have access to. I was out there until 1 a.m. during the Ceasefire because everybody has a past, and I hope never to be judged by the worst things I’ve done in my life. Other people deserve that opportunity too. I also am interested in the addiction space.
What would you say are Baltimore’s biggest strengths? Greatest challenges?
Baltimore’s biggest strengths are its people. I think the fact that Baltimore has been able to do what I call “expansion-contraction” – earthquakes and storms and then sunshine and blue skies and back again – that proves it. The resilience of the people to be able to bounce back, the grit – that’s our greatest strength. Our greatest weakness is that people have to be in that “expansion contraction,” that storm and sunshine phenomenon all the time! We somehow have not been able to stabilize across the entire city. I think that’s a story of most urban cities. No one has the secret sauce; no one has figured it out yet. But I think we have to approach it through an equity lens or approach – an equitable investment that allows for good things to happen everywhere. We need to talk about the cost of redevelopment versus the cost of keeping people in poverty; the cost of incarcerating folks for nonviolent offenses versus the cost to provide them with supports to be productive. It’s a recalibration of what we want to invest in.
When you envision a better Baltimore, what does it look like?
The Baltimore of my dreams is where wonderful things are happening in every part of the city from a development standpoint, from a schooling standpoint, from a community standpoint. The Baltimore of my dreams would be where people know their neighbors, where we don’t have concentrations of poverty and where every child has access to everything that allows them to be wildly successful as adults. That’s what Baltimore should look like. One thing I’ve learned is that people really do want to do well in the world. People really do want to get their lives right. If I can help them do that – if I can help Baltimore get to that place – I really would like to.