'Solutions Summit' action plan represents will of Baltimore residents

Op-ed: Collaboration can fundamentally change Baltimore.

Every new year offers a chance for new beginnings. And we have even more reasons than usual to see 2017 as a new beginning for Baltimore.

We have a new mayor who has promised to work with communities to address our city's most pressing problems, including jobs, economic development, public health and safety, and criminal justice reform. We have a new City Council with eight new members — the biggest turnover in the council's history — who have already demonstrated a commitment to new ideas and reform.

Perhaps more importantly, 20 months after the turmoil of the Baltimore uprising, more residents than ever seem to acknowledge the need to make fundamental changes in the way our city operates and that each of us must have a role in that effort.

Hundreds of those residents came to OSI-Baltimore's Solutions Summit last month. This full-day event, with organizational and financial support from a broad range of business and community groups, came after a rigorous public process that produced three white papers and included half-day forums on jobs, justice and behavioral health. At the summit, more than 700 Baltimore residents debated potential solutions to some of our city's most entrenched problems and voted on a 16-point action plan for the mayor and City Council to follow over the next 12 to 18 months.

Among the action items are efforts to increase the transparency of the Baltimore Police Department and bring it under full city control; to remove legal and systemic barriers to employment for individuals with criminal records; to expand the availability of community-based and workplace-based adult education, GED, and ESL services; to reduce the stigma around substance use disorders; and to establish an Office of Racial Equity within the mayor's office. OSI-Baltimore has already begun to address one of the most foundational gaps identified during the Solution Summit by convening the Baltimore Health Department, local hospitals and IT vendors to discuss how to "create an online platform with live, continuously updated data on available treatment slots and program capacity," as described in the Solution Summit action plan (solutionssummitbaltimore.org).

This action plan is, of course, incomplete. Out of a need to focus on a limited number of issues that could be addressed on a city level, the Solutions Summit process did not specifically address key areas like housing and transportation. Just within jobs, justice and behavioral health, our planning groups came up with more than 50 potential solutions before community members narrowed them down to 31 at the forums, and further down to the 16-point action plan at the summit.

While this action plan doesn't touch on all of the city's issues and doesn't necessarily reflect the exact priorities that each of us might choose individually, it represents the will of hundreds of Baltimoreans who participated in a rigorous, thoughtful process. It is a concrete, community-driven list of actionable items that we believe would move Baltimore in the right direction. Indeed, the Solutions Summit was based on similar Open Society Foundations events during leadership transitions in New York City and Washington D.C., and those efforts led to real policy changes in areas like housing and health.

We are hopeful that a broad coalition of government officials, civic and business leaders, community members, activists, advocates and others can coalesce around this action plan and work to make progress where it is possible and offer alternatives where it proves not to be. OSI-Baltimore has committed to monitoring the progress on the action plan in public reports every six months.

As OSI-Baltimore director Diana Morris said in her opening address at the Solutions Summit, community involvement is crucial to this process. "We do not simply elect leaders and ask them to work alone," she said. "We work with them, alongside them, to collectively address our city's needs."

In her own address at the summit, Mayor Catherine Pugh agreed, welcoming community involvement in the policy-making process. "As your mayor, I will listen, I will hear you," she said. "Ideas are important, suggestions can be great — collaboration is even greater."

So now, it is up to us, all of us, to take action. Read the action plan and find ways to advocate for the solutions that speak to you. Organize within your communities, talk to your City Council member, speak out. Working together, we can make Baltimore better.

Kurt Schmoke, Eddie Brown and Mark Fetting served as co-chairs of OSI-Baltimore's Solutions Summit along with Mary Miller, who also contributed to this op-ed. They can be reached at solutionssummit@opensocietyfoundations.org

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