Many years ago, when you walked outside your home and looked at your neighbor, chances are they looked like you, had a job like yours, and likely had about as many children as you did. Today's world is very different. Things have changed drastically. We are now surrounded by all different cultures.
One year ago, Baltimore's Northern Park Heights community was affected by a product of this change. An incident between three individuals gave two communities, African-Americans and Jews, the opportunity to take a closer look at their relations and relationships. Two Jewish men, members of a neighborhood safety patrol, got into a scuffle with a black teenager. The men have pleaded not guilty to assault. While it is up to the justice system to determine what happened that day, it is up to all of us, as members of the community, to deal with the questions and issues raised by that incident.
Both communities have lived and worked together for more than 30 years, so community leaders and the majority of residents living in Northern Park Heights immediately viewed the incident as an issue between individuals — not two communities. Indeed, some of the loudest and angriest responses to the incident came from people who were not from our neighborhoods and may have been bringing their own agendas to the situation.
Nonetheless, in an effort to reduce tensions and prevent any similar, future incidents, we took quick action. To that end, the communities came together and decided to advocate for a more considered and inclusive approach that would ultimately benefit all the residents of our neighborhoods.
Through the leadership of the presidents of five local neighborhood associations and the assistance of Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc. (CHAI), the area's housing and community development organization, two community mediation consultants — Marvin Johnson, an African-American, and Jay Rothman, a Jew — met with members of the community in 13 focus group sessions. Approximately 125 people, including religious leaders, community leaders, educators, business owners and adult and teen residents, were asked to share their experiences, feelings, issues and desires.
From this, we learned that we residents of Northern Park Heights are a mosaic of people who genuinely desire to live in a community made strong by diversity and respect for differences, one where civility is a highly regarded value and safety is paramount. Across the board, participants expressed a sincere appreciation for the opportunity to share their views.
Overall, both African-Americans and Jews in the community had positive reflections of the community that we share. There were, however, some areas where we all felt we could do better. In response, a more concentrated group of community leaders was formed from these initial focus groups, and this Community Conversations Leadership Group was tasked with moving the initiatives forward. The leadership group is comprised of four Jewish leaders and four African-American leaders; all have participated in scheduled meetings and a retreat, and each took an in-depth look at the previous focus group's discussions.
The group decided to concentrate on youth, safety, civility, and communications for better understanding — topics important to everyone, not just here in Baltimore but across the country. For example, it was decided that a youth-led leadership development program would be crucial for improving community relations. Both communities' youngsters need to know each other better, and need to encounter each other in structured programs that will increase communications and understanding across the entire community.
Any community is only as strong as its ability to accept its members, including those who are different from oneself. Our unique community is both African-American and Jewish, religious and secular. While a certain insularity is natural within individual groups, it doesn't have to lead to negative or intolerant attitudes or actions. We need to draw our circle bigger by becoming more inclusive and optimistic. This is the way to turn seeming obstacles into the first steps toward mutual cooperation, mutual problem solving and mutual aid.
For more than a generation, the Northern Park Heights community has been successfully diverse. We have a proud history of working through our problems together. By addressing these current issues head-on, our community is once again taking the opportunity to deepen and strengthen our relationships, and to take them to the next level.
Avrahom Sauer is president of the Cross Country Improvement Association. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Phyllis Ajayi is vice president of the Cross Country Elementary and Middle School PTA and a member of the Community Conversations Leadership Group. Her email is email@example.com.