Bringing Baltimore together

Op-ed: 100 dinners bring together 1,000 Baltimoreans from all walks of life.

Today's generation of people in their 20s, 30s and 40s are working together to build bonds across lines of neighborhoods, race and class. And in doing so, they are both building a stronger city and making Baltimore the social change capital of America.

This could be seen as people from all over the city brought food, water and cleaning supplies to areas hit hardest by the unrest following Freddie Gray's death and worked alongside residents to help sweep up shattered glass and bolster broken spirits. A young man from the area remarked that it would have been great if everyone who came to help had also exchanged contact information with those in the neighborhood to keep the conversation going.

Building on that idea of bringing people of different backgrounds together, Thread, a local non-profit that supports academically underperforming high school students, organized dozens of dinners to be held on the same evening several weeks ago. In all, 1,000 people from different neighborhoods, races and walks of life sat down to eat at 100 locations all over the city. They got to know each other and reflect on our city's challenges and future. The suppers were a microcosm of our city's diverse population. Guests represented a rainbow of color and ethnicity: They were teens, college students, professionals, owners and employees of every type of business, community leaders and retirees.

In what other scenario would a Douglass high school student, a president of a local foundation, a bank teller, a stay-at-home mom, a college student, a pastor, and a corporate vice-president dine together? Who could have imagined a teenager from West Baltimore telling an 80-year Roland Park resident that she made him feel seen? Who could have imagined a night ending with someone hugging another dinner guest who they met hours earlier and telling them "I love you"? Who could have imagined that this would spark connections that have led to job opportunities, organizational collaborations, local investment and sharing of networks — connections that have led to simply showing up in each other's lives, whether it be to support someone's bike race or awards dinner. Separate suppers are planned for August to reunite diners and introduce them to others.

These relationships empower us to build community in ways that confront our historical divisions. As such, our community can speak with one voice about what we will not stand for: policies and patterns of behavior that segregate, isolate and disenfranchise our neighbors. From our schools to our system of transportation to our administration of criminal justice, Baltimore's history of institutional racism has profoundly hurt the men, women and children who call this city home. Building bonds that cut across race, gender and generations starts to break down the walls that have divided our city for decades and activate a community capable of building a stronger Baltimore that truly includes everyone.

Thread is a small part of a broader movement in Baltimore to increase the connectedness of the city's political, economic and civic sectors and the diversity found in those cross-connections. Many in this new generation of diverse leaders have found sustainable solutions to crime, poverty and ineffectual education, but they often struggle to bring these solutions to scale. In recent years, more and more people are working together in new ways to clear these hurdles.

Baltimore Corps, for example, is a new-generation organization that connects professionals to high-impact roles in nonprofits, social enterprises and government agencies across Baltimore City. By deploying cohorts of coordinated change makers across social sectors, the leaders that best serve our city's children and families are better able to expand their efforts.

A city where everyone thrives will be defined, in part, by what we build together: the relationships, communities and institutions that break from our history to tap everyone's potential. It will also be defined by what we change, repair or even tear down: systems that hurt and divide by perpetuating generations of injustice.

During times of division and strife, we must continue to find new ways to come together. Fortunately, Baltimore's next mayor will have the help of this new generation that is so dedicated to rediscovering what is most important: one another.

Fagan Harris (fagan@baltimorecorps.org) is CEO of Baltimore Corps; Sarah Hemminger (sarah.hemminger@thread.org) is co-founder and CEO of Thread; and Mark Joseph (mark.joseph@sheltergrp.com) is president of The Shelter Foundation and a former president of the Baltimore Board of School Commissioners.

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