Only 43 miles separate Zion Baptist Church in Baltimore from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in our nation's capital, but it would be hard to imagine two more different — and culturally distant — places.
For two hours on a recent Tuesday morning, I sat in on what is called Turnaround Tuesday — a creation of a citizens organization, Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development and an affiliate of the group I co-direct, the Industrial Areas Foundation. Seventy five residents were in their chairs at 9:00 a.m. sharp to participate in a program that was one part AA meeting, one part religious service, one part boot camp, one part job-preparedness training and all parts remarkable. Turnaround Tuesday had been operating for two years, based on BUILD's effective local organizing and the commitment of Baltimore's premier anchor institution, the Johns Hopkins University and Hospital, to hire hundreds of residents returning from prison or jail. To date, 274 people have already been hired to living wage jobs, and scores more are in the pipeline.
A tall and powerfully built former police officer called the session to order. He welcomed guests, described the agenda for the morning, and then called for an opening prayer.
The rounds question for the morning was: What is the most difficult story to tell about yourself? Then every single person present stood and answered that question, in 60 seconds or less. Story after story included gun violence, drug addiction, the loss of a child or parent or sibling, homelessness, domestic violence, jail time and more. Some people, particularly the younger men, spoke barely above a whisper, perhaps speaking in a setting like this about the difficulty in their lives for the first time.
I was reminded of a similar room, a world away, in an Anglican fellowship center between Johannesburg and Soweto, in the summer of 1990. At the invitation of Bishop Desmond Tutu, my colleague Arnie Graf and I were conducting training for 50 survivors of the apartheid era, which had just ended. Nelson Mandela was touring the U.S., in triumph, as we worked with these clergy and civic leaders. Story after story, as people did the rounds on that hillside, was of horrific state violence, kidnapping by police, exile, loss of family, loss of health, and despair.
But hope wasn't entirely lost — not in the townships of South Africa then, not in the blasted but rebuilding blocks of Baltimore now.
A staff member delivered what was called the weekly "spiritual vitamin" — an account of the troubled and courageous life of Baltimore native Billie Holiday. Another taught a lesson on how to tell a story, so that people were better equipped for their job interviews. One of the participants proudly announced that she had just received a letter saying that she had been hired by Johns Hopkins and would be starting in early March.
And then BUILD leaders led smaller break-out sessions so that each individual could practice his or her story — sessions rich with tough love, high standards and useful critique. The goal was to prepare people for the moment when they would be face to face with a human resource person in a major institution who would decide whether or not to hire them.
The last 15 minutes was a fitness session, with the fit and gifted 60-year-old pastor of the host congregation leading all participants, even those in suits and oxfords, in a vigorous workout routine and sweaty closing prayer.
For two hours, there was no mention or anxiety about what was happening down the road, in the White House and Congress; no debate driven by ideology; no rock stars or celebrities anywhere; no whining. Instead, there was simply the creative energy of voluntary organizations — Zion Baptist, BUILD and others — in partnership with anchor institutions like Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland and local businesses.
It was what Alexis de Tocqueville noticed when he first visited America in 1831 — a people that habitually generated new and vibrant associations, a place where "labor is held in honor; the prejudice is not against it but in its favor."
That spirit has been driven out of our nation's capital by poseurs, by entitled dynastic heads, by ideologues from both ends of the political spectrum. But it is alive and well, every Tuesday morning from 9 to 11 in a basement in Baltimore and in hundreds of other basements and community centers all across the country.
Michael Gecan is co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.