Blogging our way to a better Baltimore?

The Baltimore Sun

Blogs, it's been shown, can do many things: shame celebrities, hound politicians, break news, challenge the mainstream media. But can a blog help save a city?

George Soros' Open Society Institute in Baltimore hopes so.

The institute, a private grant-making foundation founded by the billionaire financier and philanthropist Soros to promote economic and social reforms, this month launched a blog called to further debate about what ails Baltimore.

Jane Sundius, the group's director of education and youth development, drew about a dozen comments to her post last week calling on community members to watch their kids as they pass to and from school each day, to both encourage them and ensure their safety.

A week earlier, Andres Alonso, the city's schools chief, suggested on the blog that more apprenticeship programs that might twin students with employers could be a very effective reform that shouldn't be ignored in the debate over charter versus traditional schools. Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner, is due to offer his own "audacious idea" this week.

Debra Rubino, the institute's director of strategic communications in the city, said it seemed only natural to tap the group's e-mail directory of 5,500 people and bring new technology to its goal of addressing social problems in urban America, in this case Baltimore.

"We're neophytes in this area. ... What we were thinking is we'll start this way and see what happens," Rubino said.

"How do you engage people is always a question, and how do you let people engage in the subject," she said. "They are not always the prettiest subjects. They're some of the most difficult ones that Baltimore is dealing with."

The blog is an inspired idea itself, although it might have some built-in challenges to achieving the free-flowing debate it hopes to induce.

Sundrius drew a dozen quick responses last week to her post that suggested, "What if the city's adults went to their porches, stoops, front doors and windows to support children on their way to school every morning and to their homes every afternoon? Think how much safer and more nurtured our children and youth would be if there were just a few adults on each block who smiled at them, said good morning, told them to hurry up, and wished them a good day." But the reactions were almost uniformly and effusively supportive - "great idea," "great idea," "singularly brilliant." Skepticism was conspicuous by its utter absence. The blog, at least at this early juncture, appears to be "preaching to the choir."

Truly audacious ideas would probably prompt at least a few sharp elbows and jaundiced eyes. Maybe if the blog begins to gain traction beyond the society's mailing list, the interaction won't seem so insular.

Perhaps the bigger challenge for the blog's ultimate success is the one that confronts any blog from a major organization: Can a blog from The Establishment be irreverent and free-wheeling enough to be taken seriously as a "blog," as opposed to, say, an electronic newsletter? Would a teacher be reticent about criticizing the school CEO or a resident criticizing, say, a police official on the blog for all to see?

But as Rubino herself freely acknowledges, is a work in progress, and an admirable one. A forum that can stimulate dialogue and ideas toward a better Baltimore is a blog well spent.

Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.

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