Drug dealing, drug addiction, and drug-related crime. Neighborhood decay. A troubled public school system. A disappearing economic base. Endemic corruption. An appalling murder rate. Baltimore's habitual socioeconomic problems are familiar to anyone who has spent any time calling the city home, and they're the evergreen topics of conversation in the local media news cycle and blogosphere. So what are we going to do about them?
No, really—that's not a rhetorical question. "I'm just really over having the conversation about what we aren't," April Yvonne Garret says during a phone conversation on the afternoon of Nov. 1. Garrett founded the nonprofit organization
in 2002 as an interdisciplinary arts nexus through which community civic engagement could be catalyzed. Now Garrett and Civic Frame are launching
(formerly Envision Baltimore), a series of interactive conversations scheduled throughout 2011 designed to form solutions to Baltimore's many challenges. A fundraising kickoff for the event takes place Saturday, Nov. 6, at Silo Point Penthouse.
"I'm tired of people punking Baltimore," she continues. "I love this city. Everyday I see incredible potential. And when I'm talking to other folks, they're just as frustrated, and want and desire to have a more open conversation that is geared to our future and our solutions and how we get there."
Garrett's local love is beyond sincere. Ask her about herself and she will tell you she's a Baltimore native first and foremost. She grew up here, she graduated from Baltimore City College, and she got involved in the local political process very early. Sure, if you keep asking her about her background, you'll find out she earned a degree in Islamic studies from Kenyon College, a master's degree in adult and higher education from Columbia University's Teachers College, and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University Divinity School, but she's decided to focus her considerable intellect and organizing prowess for a reason. Baltimore is home.
"I do think that when I moved away in '88 and then came back in '99, there was a shift," she says of the city's overall self-image. "Because I think when I first moved back here, I wouldn't say that I was easily deterred, but I got tired. Before I came back people were like, 'You sure you want to go back there? Baltimore's rough.' And I'm like, 'You're talking about me now'—because that's who I am. That's how I choose to define myself."
Since 2002 Civic Frame has organized multimedia events that join audio and visual arts, social issues, and direct action with local communities. Amplify Baltimore is an organic outgrowth of that enterprise: It's designed to put the local people responsible for governmental oversight, direct action community organizing, and everyday citizens at the same table and have them discuss and brainstorm how the city and its neighborhoods can move forward.
The idea came to Garrett during a late summer lunch conversation she was having with Arius Melissaratos and people from the
, such as Susan Ganz from
, Mike Galiazzo from the
, and Newt Fowler from
. They were talking about the local manufacturing industry. "It was a fascinating conversation but one that I really felt that my mother and my aunt and my grandmother would be really great at this table, because they're blue-collar workers," Garrett says. "They've been blue-collar workers all of their lives, and they work for some of the largest manufacturers in the Baltimore area.
"It's just a different conversation when you have those folks at the table," she continues. "So from that [conversation] and knowing what I kind of experienced in the academic environment, where some of those conversations were well meaning but still not accessible to average everyday people, I wanted to see if we have a discussion that gets away from how we typically do these conversations, where they're griping sessions. Instead, let's talk about what is so, how we got to what is so, and then, from there, talk about our best and brightest possibility.
Since late summer Garrett has recruited a number of local businesspeople, politicians, academics, and citizens to function as ambassadors for the program—such as U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-7th District), Baltimore City Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld III, and MICA's irrepressible Leslie King-Hammond, the founding director of the art school's Center for Race and Culture. The Amplify Baltimore events are scheduled through 2011, and will touch on everything from Financial Literacy to access to food, local food, and urban farming.
The conversations aren't meant to take the place of pre-existing programs and organizations; they merely provide a forum for communities to gain access to direct action providers. "Civic Frame isn't starting anything that wasn't already there," Garrett says. "We're not the entity that does the direct action. We connect you with the people who are doing that. We're not at all interested in reinventing the wheel. We have so much respect, locally and nationally, for the folks that are actually doing the work in these various areas. And I think part of the strength of the model is to really say, if the discussion is around public education or if it's around public safety, let us provide an opportunity to tell you what they're up to, to tell you what they're doing, and to tell you what their vision is. And if it doesn't jive with your vision, hey, let's have this conversation where we figure something out."
For Garrett, imagining a different future is the first step to making it happen. "I know I'm talking to somebody in the press, but sometimes we're so used to, if it bleeds it leads," she says. "I would really like for us to get to different types of conversations where if we're reading the bleeding, we also see there's possibility for change and progression.
"I believe strongly, the [Civic Frame] board believes strongly, and the other people who have signed on as ambassadors believe strongly that we cannot have enough of these conversations," she continues. "We cannot. And I don't have enough time on my calendar to go to everything that I think is important. So anybody who's come up to me and said, 'Haven't we done this before?' Well, yeah—and we probably need to do it over and over and over again. We can't do this enough. There can never be enough conversation that leads us to connecting more powerfully as a community and to people who would never otherwise talk with one another, and to get people to say, 'Let's create a new language about who we are as a city. Let's refrain from always saying who we aren't and let's say who we are.'"