Imagine children coming home from school and finding their mother or father gone — detained in a jail in Frederick, about to be deported.
November’s election brought sweeping changes both nationally and locally. For the 24.2 percent of Baltimore’s residents who live below the federal poverty line—almost half of whom live on less than $6,000 per year—the prospect of less federal funding for benefits, housing, transit, and workforce training has dire implications. And for the 16,000 city residents who do not have a green card or citizenship—but may very well have US citizen children—changes to federal policy can produce the kind of fear that clutches at your throat. Imagine children coming home from school and finding their mother or father gone—detained in a jail in Frederick, about to be deported.
These are frightening, heartless times, with empathy in short supply. But, even as we voice our opposition to federal policies that we believe are short-sighted, harmful, or unfair, our attention is redirected to the here and now—to Baltimore. Despite budgetary constraints and assets that have eroded over time, this is the time for Baltimore to step forward and, through our collective efforts, become a shining example of a city based on democratic principles. The public and private sectors can work together to create opportunities and resources and provide protections so all residents can thrive. We can do this if we really care, if we really try.
Benjamin Barber of Fordham University, an acclaimed social scientist and author of If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, thinks cities like Baltimore can be a powerful antidote to potentially harmful federal policies.
“Cities are going to become the most important, constructive alternative to a Trump agenda,” he said in a recent interview. “Can cities do everything in every area? Obviously not. But in many of the areas where Trump may take America in a regressive direction, cities will be a powerful antidote, a powerful riposte, a powerful counterpoint, which will preserve the rights and dignity and jobs and a lot of other things for the majority of Americans.”
We believe that Baltimore can be such a force.
We have city leadership that is energetic, including a mayor with strong connections to the state legislature and a newly invigorated City Council. We have city agencies with extraordinary leadership and state representatives dedicated to maintaining a safety net. We have broad recognition that years of discriminatory housing policies have led to our hyper-segregation and that living conditions that are unsafe, unhealthy, and characterized by scarcity limit social and economic mobility, particularly for many African American residents. We have lived experience showing that high levels of incarceration not only damage families and communities but the entire city. We have growing consensus that, if we are to change course, we must use public monies differently—and support early, constructive interventions such as engaging schools, accessible addiction treatment, plentiful after-school programs and rec centers, police training and monitoring, and workforce development programs geared to growth sectors.
Most importantly, we have a new level of local civic engagement. Craving a break from the negativity and divisiveness of national debates, residents are channeling their energy into local advocacy and collaboration, deeply committed to changing conditions for the better. And it’s working! The Department of Justice characterizes its consent decree with the city as having the most community input and monitoring requirements of any decree to date.
The sense of community and purpose was also strong at the Solutions Summit OSI-Baltimore convened on December 10th (see coverage here), where new Mayor Catherine Pugh, most of the new City Council, and many of our city’s most committed officials and advocates joined more than 700 Baltimore residents to create a blueprint for our new local leaders. The end result, after hours of discussion and deliberation, is a community-driven 16-point Action Plan. We are collectively asking the new mayor and City Council to partner with advocates, business leaders, and members of the public to develop and act on these recommendations. We will release public reports six, twelve and eighteen months after the Summit to evaluate progress.
Sadly, we will have to move forward in this work without one of Baltimore’s greatest champions of open society values, equitable opportunities and justice. Clinton Bamberger, a founding member of OSI-Baltimore’s advisory board who died in February, was a fierce advocate for the poor and for individuals who were treated unfairly (see here). While we will miss him dearly, we will continue to follow his enduring advice—“take risks and never back away from the pursuit of justice”—as we work to create a more just and equitable city for all residents.
Like a lot of people around the country, we are still evaluating how we can most effectively defend and advance the values of an open society. But we have no doubt that the place to start is here in Baltimore, where there is tremendous demand—and capacity—for inclusive approaches, accountable government, and greater opportunity for all residents. One way we’re responding is with the Safe City Baltimore Immigrant Education and Defense Fund (see here for more information) Please join us as we work to make Baltimore a shining example of democracy.