Baltimore needs a town meeting, and it's getting one this Saturday from noon until 5 p.m. at the Baltimore Convention Center. You might want to stop by and bring your sense of future with you. What comes out of this town meeting will go a long way toward making Baltimore a better city, particularly for its children.
The event is called the Opportunity Summit, and it presents a chance for the citizens of all social classes to have a say in where this city goes in the next 10 years.
Baltimoreans will pick a new mayor in September, but Saturday's summit might be just as important because it will set priorities that the next mayor won't be able to ignore.
Last time they had one of these, in September 1997, more than 7,000 Baltimoreans attended.
There should be twice that number this weekend. Three times would be even better.
It's our chance to get politicians' attention and have some say in how money is spent to improve the quality of life here for everyone.
I'm sure you've noticed: We're not the greatest city in America. We're probably the greatest half-city in America. One half thrives and grows and looks great in the spring sunshine. The other half is still trapped in all those problems you can rattle off in a sentence or two -- a culture of hopelessness, failure, criminality and violence fed by poverty, ignorance, family dysfunction and drug addiction.
Some of us have learned to abide this condition -- the two Baltimores.
But a lot of us are sick of it.
I've said it before: Breaking the cycle of poverty, cracking the culture of failure, stabilizing and improving the public education system and creating a new and healthy generation of children -- these are fundamental to our claim as a city with a future.
It's the great unfinished business of Baltimore.
"Let's turn this town around!" is the battle cry of the Opportunity Summit, which is being put on by the Safe and Sound Campaign. The campaign acts as a clearinghouse of ideas and strategies for a wide array of community organizations.
Poll the citizens, take a vote on priorities, set goals and build a strategy to meet them -- that's what Safe and Sound is about.
They want the rest of us to join in the shout for a sharply focused agenda that brings about the following: healthier children, children who enter school ready to learn, children growing up in safer neighborhoods, families that are self-sufficient.
Put together an action plan and smart spending scheme, get some success in these areas, and you're going to see progress in the general quality of life of Baltimore down the road -- and maybe not way down the road, maybe in the next decade.
In 1997, at the first big town meeting -- they called it the Promise Summit -- thousands of Baltimoreans turned out to vote to set an agenda with these priorities:
Stop children from killing each other.
Ensure that children can read by third grade.
Give children something to do after school.
They put together an action plan and lobbied for the necessary funding, and here's what Safe and Sound says has happened since then:
The city's infant mortality rate fell 21 percent and reached its lowest level ever in 2002.
Incidents of child abuse and neglect dropped 43 percent.
Reading and math scores of elementary school pupils and the graduation of high school students improved.
The number of teenagers having babies dropped 30 percent.
So it's time for another big push to build on this rising wave of social change because even with these improvements, the big picture still shows spending priorities based on the expectation of continued failure rather than a plan for success.
For instance, the campaign reports, between 1995 and 2005, the state spent about $100 million on prenatal care, early literacy, after-school activities and job training, and $7 billion on foster care, juvenile detention and prison.
"In other words," Safe and Sound says, "in just one year, the state spends approximately $700 million to punish or remediate people, compared to $10 million invested in opportunities for our citizens to be successful."
What makes more sense: spending $5,000 per mother for a healthy baby or $52,000 on a hospital stay for a baby born prematurely or at low weight?
Do we continue to spend $24,000 a year to keep a drug-addicted adult in prison or invest $6,500 per person for treatment?
Do we spend between $50,000 and $60,000 per child in a juvenile detention center, group home or out-of-state program, or between $500 and $3,000 for an enriching after-school activity?
It's one thing to say we want to turn all this around, another to do it.
But we can't do it unless we say we want to do it.
"And it's not enough to allow people in power to fall back on all the old assumptions and say it can't be done," says Hathaway Ferebee, executive director of Safe and Sound. "You can't say the city doesn't have the money because we do. You can't say we don't know what to do because we do."
So that's why the big town meeting.
Time to build a movement to build a better city, time to finish unfinished business.
Admission to Opportunity Summit 2007 is free, and the public is invited. For more information, contact the Safe and Sound Campaign at 410-625-7976, or on the Web at www.safesandsound.org