Don't wait for the election to make change

The election is important, but Baltimoreans need to learn to organize and advocate for themselves.

On April 26, Baltimoreans will go to the polls to choose among candidates for mayor, City Council, U.S. Senate, and president. Voting is an important right and duty, but we know that turnout is likely to be low. People in this city do not have great faith in their elected leaders — we need them, but history teaches that we cannot rely on them to improve our lives. Often, it is up to us to do that.

At the nonprofit I lead, Strong City Baltimore, we know that people have the power to transform their neighborhoods and strengthen this city. A single individual can only do so much. But a well-organized block, an empowered neighborhood, a coalition of committed citizens — these things translate into real power and real change. We've seen it time and again in the 47 years since our organization was founded.

The primary election is certainly significant to our future, but something else that's important will also be happening this month, on April 16. That's when Strong City is holding our annual Neighborhood Institute, a gathering of more than 300 activists, advocates, nonprofit leaders, businesspeople and ordinary citizens. It's the main annual event in which Baltimoreans from all backgrounds and walks of life join forces to tackle the city's problems and celebrate its strengths through training, educating, networking and relationship building.

Last year, Greater Homewood Community Corporation changed its name to Strong City Baltimore, reflecting our growth over the past decade from a North Baltimore-based nonprofit into a major citywide organization. We are the state's top sponsor of VISTA volunteers, we run the city's second-largest adult literacy program, and our nonprofit business services support the work of nearly 100 change-making organizations. Our signature community-building initiatives — including ground-level organizing and strengthening community schools — have helped to turn around neighborhoods from Medfield to Remington to Harwood. Strong City's programs touch people in all 280 of Baltimore's neighborhoods, and although this work is very diverse, it is unified by our singular goal of strengthening Baltimore's people and neighborhoods.

The Neighborhood Institute is the place where the core issues that Strong City works on — education, housing, community organizing, economic development, fighting inequality and racism — come together in one place, at one time. Participants will learn how to use the city building code to fight vacant housing, to form coalitions across neighborhoods divided by race and class, to empower youth to advocate for themselves on issues they care about. They will hear about strategies for economic development that put people first, emphasizing sustainability and inclusion. We will acknowledge those who work tirelessly as community organizers, for little recognition, at the grass-roots level. There will even be a workshop on "The Power of Voting."

So yes, by all means, do your part this month to choose the best possible leaders for our city and nation. Our work as citizens doesn't end at the ballot box, though. We must hold our elected leaders accountable for their promises to deliver effective and equitable city services, and jobs and opportunities to our neighborhoods. But don't rely on them to organize your block, re-energize your neighborhood association, or improve your local school. In the end, those things will still be up to you and me.

Karen Stokes is the CEO of Strong City Baltimore. Her email is kstokes@strongcitybaltimore.org. Strong City's annual Neighborhood Institute is Saturday, April 16 at the Baltimore Design School. Information and registration are available at www.strongcitybaltimore.org.

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