The homicide rate in Baltimore is high, and everyone — from bloggers to elected officials to nonprofit leaders — is talking about it. Some are throwing up their hands in despair, while others are hoping that yet another crime-fighting innovation will somehow save the day.
What is getting ignored are the real factors that lead to high crime rates: kids without something constructive to do after school, adults without employment prospects, and neighborhoods plagued by vacant properties and inadequate social connections. What also gets overlooked is the fact that we already know how to fight crime. It's called community organizing, and some of us have been at it for a long time.
At Greater Homewood Community Corporation, we've been building and strengthening vibrant, urban communities for 45 years, and we've learned a lot about safe and secure neighborhoods along the way. We know that safety isn't just about policing; it's about creating opportunities for youth, generating jobs for the hardest to employ and, above all else, creating a strong sense of community and civic engagement.
Take, for example, local recreation centers. When the city all but abandoned the long underutilized Barclay Recreation Center in 2011, people came together and advocated to keep it open and fill it with engaging programs. Greater Homewood spearheaded the transformation of the building, and today the newly named 29th Street Community Center serves over 500 kids and adults weekly.
Another good example is our use of the Community Schools national education model. By integrating academics, health and social services, extracurricular enrichment and community engagement, we are able to improve student learning and strengthen families at four schools that we serve. With this model, families and local residents become stakeholders in their local public school.
Crime goes up when people don't have the opportunity to use their time in meaningful ways. Since last April, we've placed 55 people in jobs through our workforce development program, which focuses on preparing hard-to-employ adults to enter the workforce. Also, our Adult Learning Center offers free basic education, GED preparation and ESOL classes to more than 500 learners each year. When people know how to read, their odds of finding legitimate employment greatly improve.
Yes, we need a robust police presence in our city, but police alone can't make our communities safe. Safety comes through investment — investment in our communities as a whole. Not just funding the next new project or opening a new drop-off center, but long-term, sustained investment that includes funding community organizing.
In our experience, we've learned that the best defense against crime is an organized block. A good example of the power of community organizing happened last spring in the Harwood neighborhood. Near the end of 2012, a wave of violence swept up the Greenmount corridor, leaving one 16-year-old dead and five people shot. As a concerned community leapt into action, Greater Homewood trained people to become block captains. 16 community members attended, vowing to take action and be accountable for their neighborhood. After that training, a reinvigorated community association emerged and transformed the neighborhood, creating a local newsletter, raising money to physically improve their streets and sponsoring social events that brought residents closer together. Today, Harwood is rated by the real estate website Redfin as the second hottest neighborhood in Baltimore.
Despite what you may have heard, plenty of people want to stay in the city — people who see Baltimore's potential and believe in its future. When residents, leaders and funders invest in community organizing, we can reduce crime. And when crime does happen in an organized neighborhood, there is greater resilience among residents who have a history of working together.
There's nothing wrong with new ideas, but we should not overlook time-tested tactics that work. People may leave Baltimore. But people also move here, invest here and stay here, because in this city, they actually can follow a course of their own making. There's no quick fix for reducing crime. It takes a sustained commitment and a dedication to building strong communities as a whole. We at Greater Homewood should know — we've been doing it for 45 years.
Karen Stokes is executive director of the Greater Homewood Community Corporation. Her email is KStokes@greaterhomewood.org.
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