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Back in Baltimore, Wes Moore has big plans for his hometown

When Wes Moore swings a sledgehammer, he does it with his whole body, with the easy confidence of someone who's used to manual labor.

It's early on a Saturday morning, and Wes is one of a couple dozen volunteers who have gathered in the Oliver neighborhood of East Baltimore to break up the concrete of old row house foundations in preparation for a park. The project is called Operation Oliver, and it's orchestrated and executed by the 6th Branch, a group of military veterans who are hoping to make change at home.

After a morning of smashing concrete and carting around wheelbarrows of mulch, Moore's next stop was Baltimore Startup Weekend for Education at Under Armor headquarters in Locust Point. He was one of the weekend's "coaches," giving advice to groups of Baltimore City public high school students who pitched ideas on how to utilize technology to improve their schools. For Moore, 34-year-old author of the bestselling book "The Other Wes Moore," there's no room for down time.

"Friends have asked me, 'Dude, do you ever sit down?'" he says. "Quite honestly? No. I feel like there's always something more to do."

That's never been more true than in the past two years. Since releasing his best-selling book "The Other Wes Moore" in 2010, Moore has appeared on "Oprah," "CBS Sunday Morning," "Meet the Press," "Charlie Rose," "Tavis Smiley" and "The View." He's worked as host of the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN)'s "Beyond Belief," in which he tells the stories of other inspirational people — like Jessica Cox, a woman with no arms who can fly a plane with her feet. He's a Johns Hopkins graduate, a Rhodes Scholar and a veteran Army officer, who once was special assistant to Condoleezza Rice.

After two years managing his production company, Omari Productions — which creates content for such networks as OWN, PBS, HBO and NBC — Moore moved back to Baltimore in October with his wife, Dawn, and their 17-month-old daughter, Mia.

"My new thing," says Moore, "is I want everything I do to be based in Baltimore — I'm moving employees and sites and facilities. All the people in New York working for me, I want to move them here."

It's not common that a successful producer and television host will move his entire operation from New York to Baltimore, but Moore isn't your typical show business man. Moore was born here, and after growing up with his grandmother in the Bronx and attending a high school military academy in Pennsylvania, he returned to attend Johns Hopkins University and be closer to his mother, Joy. To him, Baltimore is full of opportunity.

One area that Omari Productions is focusing on, says Moore, is the role of the 21st century city. What does that look like? What is that mix between business and education and policy? Where are people choosing to live now? How can we be more creative about where people live and how they move?

"Baltimore is just an amazing template for that," he says. "It's a very legitimate and important American big city, but it still has the charm of a small town."

Moore relishes this small-town feel, especially in boots-on-the-ground work like Operation Oliver. Moore has volunteered with the project three times, and he now sees the impact he and his fellow volunteers had made.

"You can remember when this yard was filled with trash," he says between wheelbarrows, "and now you can see the fruits of your labor. That kind of community connection — you can't find that in New York."

Not everyone understands the move.

"There have been some mixed reactions," Moore says of his employees who were asked to transfer from Manhattan to Baltimore. "Some of my buddies — in New York and Baltimore — when they heard I was coming back to Baltimore were, like, 'Why?' They assumed somebody in my family was sick. They couldn't understand why I would just want to come home."

No one in Moore's family is sick. On the contrary, his mother, Joy, who lives in Pasadena, is "ecstatic," says Moore, to have her son (and his wife and their daughter) closer.

"We moved to New York because of work, and work was going extremely well up in New York," Moore says. "But I just missed home. I missed my friends, my family. My mom still is down here, my sister is down here, my cousins and aunts and uncles.

"If I thought in any way that professionally things would take a hit, it wouldn't have happened," he adds. "If I thought that my family would take a hit, it wouldn't have happened."

Once he got the OK from the networks he works with, Moore and his wife, Dawn, who works for the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, an organization based in New York but with offices in Baltimore, decided to make the move.

"When it really sunk in," says Moore, "is when our daughter was born. ... She's my heart. She is absolutely my pride and joy in every single way."

Aside from his book-related speaking engagements and running his production company, in Baltimore, Moore is writing more — policy op-eds for the New York Times and other publications, a young-adult version of "The Other Wes Moore," some young adult novels and another book for adults, about "the search for purpose" in post-9/11, post-financial crisis America.

Despite the conveniences of Baltimore for the Moores ("That's one of the other beautiful things about Baltimore," he says. "If you need to be in D.C., you're 45 minutes. If you need to be in New York, it takes two hours."), the nature of Wes' work means he's often left missing the cause he places above all others — his family.

Moore, a veteran Army paratrooper and captain, served a combat tour in Afghanistan, and empathizes most for military families.

"The people who have it toughest," he says, "aren't the military personnel. The families have it toughest."

Moore credits his family for one of the reasons he eventually left the military.

"A military spouse is a very different and specialized lifestyle," he says. "I knew my wife wanted something where I could be home — my deployment year was very tough on her."

Moore's mother recognizes the work her son is doing to make Baltimore a better place.

"He and Dawn have been our huge cheerleaders of Baltimore," she says. "There are a lot of young people here in Baltimore like Wes, like Lionel Foster [a columnist for The Baltimore Sun], like Esther Benjamin of the Peace Corps, who are making huge differences in the city. I think those of us in the older generation have to really sit back and listen and follow their lead for their vision of the city. It can be a wonderful city, we just have to sort of help it along."

Moore is a commanding presence — tall and muscular, he is a practiced public speaker and knows how to engage with people, especially young people. He looks you in the eye, and his mouth seems to be perpetually pulled back in the beginnings of a smile. A positive comment from Moore is like a shot of liquid confidence.

"The tech world in Baltimore tends to be 20 to 40-year-old white males," says Andrew Coy, who runs the Digital Harbor Foundation. "I've taught classes where I'm the only white person in the room. Having someone [like Moore] who comes from a similar background as these students, they see that — 'Hey, here's somebody that I know gets what I've experienced.'"

Moore's production company is developing a documentary about veterans doing military-style service projects at home.

"We have close to 70,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan right now — we're about to have a surge of people coming back home," he says. "I don't want this to be a doom and gloom story of PTSD and suicide rates." These veterans, he says, are "social entrepreneurs — it would behoove us to be smart about how we're utilizing that."

"The Other Wes Moore" is currently being developed into a promising feature film, with Oprah Winfrey attached as executive producer, and a script penned by John Ridley (writer of "Three Kings" and "Red Tails").

The book was about the ways in which people's paths can diverge, despite beginning in the same spot. It told the story of two men named Wes Moore. One is the subject of this article. The "other" Wes Moore was convicted of murdering an off-duty security guard on Feb. 7, 2000, and has been serving a life sentence without parole. The two Moores were both born in the Baltimore area and raised in the urban inner city; their fathers both died when they were young; they both were raised by single mothers.

Although Moore won't be heavily involved in the film's production, he has one request — that the film be shot in Baltimore.

"They could easily do this in another country," he says, "in a place where film production is cheap, like Toronto." But filming it in Baltimore is more truthful, he says, and he wants the opportunity to bring business to his hometown.

When asked if he'd thought about which actor he'd like to play himself, Wes smiles, bearing his altruistic side once again.

"I'd love to get some unknown actor," he says. "Someone, maybe from Baltimore, who's looking for his big break."

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A call to action

Seven ways, hand-picked by Wes Moore, that you can help elevate Baltimore.

The Center for Urban Families

Founded in 1999, CFUF provides parenting and workforce development to low-income fathers. The organization helps fathers reconnect with their families, find employment, resolve child support issues, overcome addiction, and learn parenting skills

Get Involved: To volunteer, e-mail dtorain@cfuf.org, or call 410-367-5691 or go to cfuf.org

Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship

NFTE's mission is to provide programs that inspire young people from low-income communities to stay in school, to recognize business opportunities, and to plan for successful futures. NFTE Baltimore offers class visits from local businesswomen and businessmen, to allow students to connect their classroom learning to the real world.

Get Involved: To volunteer, e-mail Michael McPhatter, michaelm@nfte.com, or call 410-630-1305 or go to nfte.org

Maryland Hunger Solutions

MDHS was established to fight hunger and improve the nutrition, health, and well-being of children and families in Maryland. The program aims to eliminate obstacles to federal nutrition programs, educate the public about the reality of hunger in Maryland, and improve policy to end hunger, reduce poverty, and promote nutrition.

Get Involved: Visit mdhungersolutions.org

Living Classrooms

Living Classrooms promotes learning by doing, inspiring young people to achieve their full potential through hands-on education and job training, using urban, natural, and maritime resources as "living classrooms." The program has its own charter school.

Get Involved: For volunteer opportunities, visit livingclassrooms.org

Baltimore Community Foundation

BCF is a philanthropic foundation created by and for the people of Greater Baltimore. The organization's grants, initiatives, and advocacy are focused on education and neighborhoods, with an underlying focus on race, equity, and inclusion informing everything it does.

Get Involved: To give, go to bcf.org

Baltimore Station

Baltimore Station is an innovative therapeutic residential treatment program supporting veterans and others who are transition through the cycle of poverty, addiction, and homelessness to self sufficiency. Volunteers are needed with expertise in fundraising, marketing and communications, facilities management, and resident services, among other areas.

Get Involved: e-mail or call Al Phillips at aphillips@baltimorestation.org or 410-752-4454, ext. 101, or go to baltimorestation.org

Fund for Educational Excellence

The Fund for Educational Excellence works to improve student achievement in Baltimore City Public Schools by providing support and resources for many of the district's most important reform intiatives.

Get Involved: For more information, go to ffee.org

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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