The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted not only in COVID-related illness and deaths in Baltimore, but widespread quarantines, job loss, food insecurity, economic insecurity, the suspension of in-person public education, and many other challenges. OSI-Baltimore has been working with our national and international colleagues, our many local partners, and community-based leaders to identify areas where we can bring expertise and resources to address these challenges.
One top priority is direct financial and other emergency support for workers in Baltimore who have been hit hard by COVID-19 and are at greatest risk of falling into extreme hardship, including those who are unemployed and the formerly incarcerated. OSI is giving a total $1.25 million in emergency support to help some of the most vulnerable populations and has embarked on a public-private partnership with Baltimore City, which will provide an additional $6 million in direct cash assistance. OSI will work with community-based organizations to identify residents most in need. OSI’s funding includes $250,000 from Open Society Foundations’ International Migration Initiative to support undocumented immigrants excluded from many other relief efforts.
On June 4, OSI-Baltimore Director Danielle Torain joined Mayor Jack Young and other government and civic leaders at a socially distanced press conference to announce the launch of Baltimore Health Corps, a $12 million public-private partnership to hire hundreds of unemployed Baltimore residents to be contact tracers and care coordinators for residents of Baltimore neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19. Unemployed Baltimore City residents can apply now for the jobs, which will pay between $35,000 and $39,000 a year and contribute $11 million to the local economy. OSI-Baltimore is one of several funders for the project and will help coordinate implementation.
“Baltimore Health Corps is exactly the kind of innovative, impactful public-private partnership that OSI is looking to support in response to COVID-19,” Torain said at the press conference. “The initiative is particularly crucial because it looks at the mid- and long-term impacts of COVID by promoting job creation and job access for populations of workers disproportionately marginalized from the job market.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised alarming concerns for students—especially poor students in Baltimore. Due to the lack of Internet access, many students are unable to participate in the Baltimore City Schools’ live online programming. In response, OSI-Baltimore donated $200,000 to purchase technology and engaged in a public-private partnership, including a $3 million investment from Baltimore City, to create a “mesh network” that will extend Internet access from school buildings to their surrounding neighborhoods.
As soon as it became clear that the April 28 special election and June 2 Maryland primary would be conducted primarily by mail, OSI began working with grassroots partners, including Black Girls Vote, Baltimore Votes, and the No Boundaries Coalition, on a broad voter education and communications campaign to keep marginalized communities from being disenfranchised. Efforts, including radio and TV PSAs, weekly webinars for community leaders, advocates, and candidates, and a widespread media campaign, contributed to the biggest-ever turnout for a Baltimore City special election on April 28. In the lead-up to the June 2 primary, OSI worked with partners to create new PSAs featuring Erricka Bridgeford of Baltimore Ceasefire, Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and Dr. Thomas M. Scalea of Maryland Shock Trauma, among others; organized a “Car Caravan” to the mailbox; and sent free “Party at the Mailbox” packages to voters.
In the days after the quarantine began, it became clear that incarcerated populations and people who use drugs were among those most at risk. In April, OSI’s Addiction and Health Equity and Criminal and Juvenile Justice programs co-released a request for proposals designed to prevent and decrease incarceration and overdose among populations most at risk for COVID-19. The programs will fund selected proposals up to $50,000 each.
In addition, OSI’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice program has convened justice advocates from around the state in a series of calls about ways to address the urgent threat of COVID-19 to incarcerated populations in Maryland. These calls, facilitated by the ACLU, have helped advocates galvanize around a set of demands for Governor Hogan and have thus far, resulted in the expedited release of hundreds of at-risk incarcerated people.
One of OSI’s first responses to the COVID-19 pandemic was the creation of an Information and Resources Page on the OSI website (osibaltimore.org), including an extensive, curated list of federal, state, and local government resources, community resources, and educational and arts resources. It has grown to include a Social Justice Syllabus of suggested reading material and has been shared and visited by thousands of Baltimore residents.
Here are a few titles from the Social Justice Syllabus:
The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
Gender Outlaw, Kate Bornstein
Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
Refugee, Alan Gratz
Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde
The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson
The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, Edgar Villanueva