Baltimore mayor seeds grassroots network to aid violence reduction

A procession of neighborhood leaders files into Baltimore City Hall soon after sunrise. One by one they gather in a cavernous conference room for their first meeting of 2018. They start the discussion: What can be done to save the city from another year of record bloodshed?

At the center of the room, flanked by two long windows overlooking the Fayette Street corridor connecting East and West Baltimore, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh takes her seat among the nearly 50 community organizers. All answered the “call to action” she issued a year ago.

Over the past year, this gathering of disparate leaders has expanded into a new network representing 55 groups united behind the mayor’s mission to combat violence by expanding opportunities for jobs, education and treatment.

The grassroots cabinet aims to deliver on the “holistic” plank of Pugh’s crime-fighting plan.

The approach has been maligned by critics who say the city needs to focus more on aggressive policing than on social programs.

But Pugh has persisted.

“It isn’t just about policing. Our plan is holistic,” she has told the group. “This ain’t about me, it’s about your work.”

The network, with representatives from seasoned nonprofits such as the Living Classrooms Foundation and new organizations such as Baltimore Ceasefire, has grown steadily in the past year. Alexandra Smith, the mayor’s director of community engagement, maintains an email list of about 70 people whose organizations deliver services across the city from job training to violence reduction, from cleaning up blocks to developing black male leaders through yoga.

The twice-monthly meetings with the mayor gives members access to city agencies and to other organizations working on similar problems.

“There are these grassroots groups that are doing things in East Baltimore that I had never heard of because I’m over here in West Baltimore,” said Ray Kelly, director of the No Boundaries Coalition. “That’s the most beneficial part of the call-to-action group: It connects these grassroots groups across the city. It connects these silos.”

The effort dovetails with Pugh’s outreach to the philanthropic and business communities to direct money to neighborhood programs that government agencies may no longer fund. And it mirrors her decision to bring together 30 city agency heads with police commanders each morning for a standing meeting aimed at emphasizing that reducing crime is the collective responsibility of the police, housing, health and public works departments.

The most recent call-to-action meeting began with an update on how those efforts have helped police. Service requests from police for boarding up vacant drug stash houses, clearing obstructed lots and alleys and restoring street lights to darkened blocks used to take seven days to correct when the violence reduction initiative started on Nov. 1. Now: less than 48 hours.

“It’s direct access like I’ve never seen in any other city,” said Derrick Chase, founder of Stand Up Baltimore. “It gives everyone a seat at the table.”

For one meeting last year, Pugh offered a seat to Rachel Garbow Monroe, CEO of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. The invitation paid off.

The foundation provided a $25,000 grant for a two-day retreat to help call-to-action members devise long-term strategies and improve operations, and announced a $500,000 program to award grants to small nonprofits that provide services to low-income individuals and families in Baltimore.

“I was very impressed with the passion and commitment of the groups and individuals that are working every day to improve their communities and provide help, hope and opportunities,” Monroe said.

The group’s meetings have generated other funding opportunities that might otherwise have been missed, members say.

Kelly said his involvement led to a $5,000 grant from the mayor’s “One Day’s Work For One Day’s Pay” program. The money will allow the No Boundaries Coalition to double the number of lots its volunteers clean each year and to pay residents to keep them clear of trash.

“Now we can come back every couple of weeks, and pay people who live in the area to do that,” Kelly said. “That way the community is maintaining itself.”

Pugh’s violence-reduction plan emphasizes community engagement, both to restore trust in police and to provide social support such as free tuition at Baltimore City Community College. At one recent meeting, the groups devised ways to promote programs that help families and students complete college financial aid applications.

Critics of the mayor’s plan — most notably Republican Gov. Larry Hogan — said it did not contain enough crime-fighting specifics. Community efforts may have long-term benefits, Hogan said, but not an immediate impact on crime.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon said community outreach with social services is essential, but that she has not seen any impact from Pugh’s efforts.

“This [crime] situation is complicated but it’s resolvable,” said Dixon, who challenged Pugh in the 2016 mayor’s election. “But you have to get out there on the street to hear what people are going through. Every neighborhood is experiencing something.”

The consequences of delay are dire, she added.

“I’ve been running into people who are throwing up their hands and saying they are ready to leave the city,” Dixon said.

But the group’s members, including some who endorsed Dixon over Pugh in 2016, say Pugh’s efforts are producing results. Two of the mayor’s “community listening tours” took Pugh door-to-door in East and West Baltimore with surveys to identify needs for services.

The results: extended weekend hours at recreation centers and a deployment of city employees to help residents expunge criminal records and to steer them to employment training.

Rasheed Aziz, director of CityWide Youth Development, said the meetings have connected him to groups he had never met, such as K.E.Y.S. Development, which provides mental health services to young people. Aziz said K.E.Y.S. plans to refer several teenagers to his vocational skills training program.

“There are so many needs in the city,” Aziz said. “There is lots of duplication.”

The call-to-action group, he said, is “helping us to pool our resources together.”

Mujahid Muhammad, president of K.E.Y.S., agreed.

“This is the first time that so many agencies have come together and are doing the work in real time,” Muhammad said. “These are community members with direct access to the mayor.”

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