On April 27th, people across the world witnessed our city on fire. But as a Baltimore native I can personally attest that the city has been on fire for decades, though not to the visible eye.
Many Baltimore communities — too many to list here — have suffered from decades of neglect, disinvestment and regressive public policies. Unrest and frustration has grown in these communities for years, though largely unnoticed. And yet against odds, these communities remained resilient.
Before us is a great opportunity not only to "rebuild" Baltimore, but to reimagine it as a better, stronger and more equitable city for all of its residents. All of us — political leaders, activists, philanthropists, corporate citizens and everyday residents — have an enormous responsibility to seize this opportunity. Already, there's been an outpouring of interest to mentor Baltimore City youth in the wake of peaceful protest overshadowed by painful riot. But mentoring is not enough.
In fact, mentoring and additional youth programming might be the easiest thing we can do. But for Baltimore to achieve its immense potential, we must all acknowledge, examine and confront Baltimore's history of institutional racism and economic disempowerment; destructive forces that have assaulted our communities and citizens for years, particularly young black men and boys. Discussion and action subverting these forces has eluded Baltimore for decades, but if not now, when?
One week before the world put its focus on Baltimore, the New York Times published an analysis illustrating the "disappearance" of 1.5 million Black men across the country because of early death and incarceration. Unsurprisingly, there are 19,000 such "missing" men between the ages of 25 and 54 in Baltimore. And according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education, the high school graduation rate for black males in Baltimore City is a woeful 38 percent, compared to 69 and 67 percent in Montgomery and Baltimore counties, respectively.
Shockingly, the white male graduation rate is merely 41 percent, though this doesn't always bear out in the local job market: Young adult black men fare worse than white males in the job market with similar levels of education according to a 25-year study of nearly 800 Baltimore children conducted by Johns Hopkins researchers. Nearly half of the now adult white males who had not attended college were employed in the industrial and construction trades compared to only 15 percent of Black men. There also persists an extreme disparity in annual wages: $21,500 versus $43,000.
To truly move Baltimore forward we must do more than acknowledge the specter of institutional racism in our city: We must change some of the ways we do business.
As noted in a recent Washington Post article, $130-million invested in renovating and building new homes and providing an array of social services was unable to "transform" Sandtown-Winchester, a community with a national spotlight in the wake of Freddie Gray's death. Instead, the absence of new businesses and jobs plague the community. Baltimore, like many post-industrial cities, has suffered from declining wages and the "disappearance of work," a phrase coined by sociologist William Julius Wilson in his seminal book, "When Work Disappears."
But there's hope. Cities across the country have recognized that traditional economic development models and practices are often exclusionary and inequitable. Cleveland's business and civic leadership recognized this years ago when they created the Evergreen Cooperatives, a consortium of worker-owned businesses including an industrial laundry service, a solar energy installation company and a large-scale urban farm. Leading foundations partnered with anchor institutions like The Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals to launch Evergreen as a catalyst for economic empowerment and wealth building in the Greater University Circle neighborhood, which has a median household income below $18,500.
Today, numerous cities have invested in new ways to build strong and equitable local economies. New York has committed $1.2-million to support worker-owned businesses and Madison, Wisconsin is contributing $5-million to their growth. Several groups in Baltimore have advocated for and implemented similar economic models: Humanim, an innovative nonprofit that relocated to East Baltimore several years ago, is a national leader in social enterprise, a business approach to creating living wage career opportunities for individuals facing significant barriers to employment.
While there is no singular response to the economic disempowerment experienced by thousands of Baltimoreans, we can and must be bolder and more creative than we have in the past. After all, how can Baltimore claim to be a great city when so many of its residents are excluded from the local economy?