Could Baltimore become 'best place in the world to change the world?'

Looking and listening for committed millennials to change Baltimore for good

A few ugly hours on a single spring day defined an entire year in the life of a city — April 27, the day of Freddie Gray's funeral, an afternoon of wilding that seared Baltimore into the national consciousness as a city of lawlessness and dysfunction. Journalists parachuted into the smoke-filled streets, set up their cameras and reported with breathless astonishment that this major league city had major social problems, as if that were some grand secret we had all conspired to keep from the world.

And then came a period of protracted gun violence that took us back two decades — to the 1990s and 300-plus homicides a year.

Never mind the cranes and new buildings, the tall ships and Blue Angels over the harbor, the new restaurants and retail centers. Never mind the end of population loss, the progress against violent crime, the growth in "eds and meds." Never mind the general feeling of a city moving forward again after a recession and a mess of foreclosures, and after an embarrassingly petty scandal that forced a mayor to resign.

Never mind all that. On April 27, the nation's image of Baltimore was a burning drugstore.

For the loss of human life, for the loss of property, for the loss of any national reputation for anything beyond gang violence and generational poverty, 2015 was one of the worst years in Baltimore's modern history. It's as if Our City of Perpetual Recovery relapsed, and now the recovery has to start anew.

Next year will mark my 40th in Baltimore. I arrived here in 1976 to take a reporting job at The Evening Sun. Over the years, from time to time, I've said (to myself, or to anyone within earshot, or to readers of this column) that what Baltimore needed was an army of social workers to help lead its most vulnerable and marginalized citizens to a better place. We needed an intensive, focused and strategic effort to help the poor and the children of the poor. That was the only way to take the city to a better place in a generation's time. I've had that thought just about every day since April 27.

There were always two Baltimores. There was the working, thriving and renovating-a-rowhouse Baltimore. And there was the poor, disabled and abandoned Baltimore. I would be out on a story in the latter province — sitting in a dumpy rowhouse with a drug addict, visiting a camp of homeless people under a highway, listening to a woman describe her efforts to feed and clothe her kids — and I would listen to stories and explanations, look around and see a problem of depressing scale in a sprawling city that had experienced huge population loss. You need an army of social workers here.

What gives me hope — and I think I'm pretty much obligated to express some hope as we look back and ahead in the final days of the year — is that something like that already has happened.

Baltimore has had a lot of nonprofits and faith-based organizations doing good work for a long time. But there's a new class of social entrepreneurs, mostly millennials, who have found sustainable solutions to poverty, to failure in educational achievement, to the cycle of incarceration. The challenge is bringing those solutions to some kind of scale, where we finally get past that magical tipping point I've heard so many civic-minded people talking about for years.

I look and listen for the voices from within this new class of Baltimoreans — young men and women who like this city, want to dig in and help — and, every once in a while, I actually feel the spark of optimism. I heard once such voice a few weeks ago when Fagan Harris spoke at a large fundraiser in a downtown hotel. Harris is the 28-year-old CEO of Baltimore Corps, a nonprofit he founded with Wes Moore to connect talented volunteers with the organizations that need help bringing their solutions to scale.

Harris, who grew up in Baltimore, expressed the grand ambition of making his city a destination for other smart, committed people: "the best place in the world to change the world." The city has lost a lot of population, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake spoke of growing the city by 10,000 families. Harris wants to increase Baltimore's socially conscious talent base.

"We are a tough, gritty and resilient city," he told about 400 mostly millennials. "By every historical standard, we have withstood hardship and difficulty to see brighter days. We are famously steeled. But this time must be different. It is past the time to measure our city by the toughness of its people and our ability to withstand suffering and pain. Now is the time to measure ourselves by our capacity to change and to become a city, led by a new class of diverse leaders, who refuse to see potential wasted within Baltimore's borders."

Let the people say amen to that.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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