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A year after the unrest, seeds of hope

Youthful activists are reframing the context of the struggle for social justice in Baltimore.

This week, as the first anniversary of the rioting in Baltimore approached, residents of Sandtown-Winchester were clearing brush and planting flowers in the tiny sidewalk garden that frames the mural commemorating Freddie Gray's death. Laboring alongside them was a group of students from Loyola University who had shown up earlier that day. The young people weren't part of any organized group. They had come, they said, simply because they wanted to show their support for the community's effort. When asked what subjects they were studying in college, one of them responded: "Social justice."

Freddie Gray's death while in police custody and the unrest that followed cast a harsh light on the conditions that gave rise to last year's violence, race relations in Baltimore and the issue of police brutality across the country. Yet in many ways little has changed since then. Sandtown-Winchester and communities like it still struggle with high rates of poverty, unemployment, crime and addiction, and police-community relations here and nationwide remain fraught with mistrust. Neighborhood blight continues to be a problem, with dozens of vacant, boarded-up houses dotting the landscape, and it's still at least a 20-minute walk to the nearest grocery store for local residents who don't own cars. Far too many elementary and middle school children score below grade level in reading and math on standardized tests.

The one bright spot in this otherwise discouraging scenario is the sea change in Baltimore's collective understanding of the urgent need to address such endemic social ills, which are to be found not only in Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray grew up, but in distressed neighborhoods throughout the city. Baltimore's elected officials and its business, academic and philanthropic leaders must do everything possible to sustain that focus on solving the city's toughest problems and nurturing the awareness among all its citizens that the problems facing communities like Sandtown-Winchester ultimately affect everyone. Last year, residents throughout the city and region saw that we are all in this together. They still do, but that spirit won't last forever unless it's nurtured.

This year Baltimore will elect a new mayor and a new City Council, many of whose members will be of a younger generation than those they replace. They promise to bring new energy and fresh ideas to bear on the issues raised by Freddie Gray's death. City Police Commissioner Kevin Davis already has begun to make changes aimed at rebuilding trust between officers and local residents, such as equipping police with body cameras and updating the policy on Tasers. While the Loyola students were working in the garden, a police lieutenant colonel was pitching in to help local activists bag groceries for a food pantry and set up a light show near the Freddie Gray mural.

Meanwhile, a consortium of Baltimore businesses and institutions has pledged to increase their investments in communities like Sandtown-Winchester through more inclusive contracting and hiring policies aimed to help minority owned businesses and job seekers from the city's most distressed neighbohoods. The $69 million initiative won't solve all of Baltimore's problems, but it shows the city's most powerful corporate citizens recognize they have a important role to play in healing Baltimore's wounds. That's progress, and it will pay off if the institutions backing it can sustain their commitment over the long term.

Perhaps the most visible manifestations of the change in attitudes brought about by Freddie Gray's death can be seen in the legions of young people who have emerged to keep up the pressure for reform. Their loosely organized movement, largely mobilized and directed through social media, has recruited a new generation of social activists from outside such traditional institutions as schools and churches and allowed people who otherwise wouldn't know each other to come together and play a meaningful role as advocates for change. Groups like the Black Lives Matter movement and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle have redefined the potential of "people power" to achieve social justice.

The Loyola students at the Freddie Gray mural this week — themselves of mixed races and backgrounds — were animated by that adventurous spirit, and it was entirely appropriate that their collective act involved planting a garden. They and thousands of others who have pitched in since last April are the seeds from which change will spring, and the fruits of their labor will grow into something larger than just a garden of flowers and shrubs; it will be empowerment for a troubled neighborhood and hope for a city that's still hurting.

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