Five years ago, I thought I might have to leave Baltimore. Not because I wanted to but because I thought I needed to.

It was 2008. Like many employers, Urbanite magazine, where I worked, was feeling the effects of the Great Recession, so I would soon have only half a job.


The cut gave me a chance to rethink a few things. Just a few years earlier, I was at the London School of Economics sharing hallways with one of then-Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi's sons and the crown prince of Norway. I loved getting paid to write about my hometown, but with three master's degrees and little job security, I wondered if I was living beneath my potential. I had to think seriously about moving to a bigger market like D.C. A lot of people here face that kind of choice; if you are young and ambitious, there are places within driving distance of Baltimore that offer more money and prestige.

I knew people in Washington. Before I was forced to think about life after Urbanite, I attended an event at the Annie E. Casey Foundation where I met Zarina Durrani, who was head of human resources at the Brookings Institution. Ms. Durrani said my interests and background brought to mind her boss, the think tank's president, and she offered to set up a meeting.

It was an absurdly generous comparison. Like me, Strobe Talbott had been a journalist — with Time magazine. He also studied in the UK — but as a Rhodes Scholar, and with Bill Clinton — before becoming deputy secretary of state. Mr. Talbott made time for me not once but twice, and when I looked for work, he offered some of his senior staff as sounding boards.

One of those people was foreign policy expert Bill Antholis, Brookings' managing director. I went to D.C. the day I met him ready to be told that I should grow up, that it didn't matter that my heart wanted me to scrape out a career in Baltimore. I might need to prove myself elsewhere.

But Bill said I was wrong. The friendships he made while he was still a student volunteering for a political campaign, he told me, were invaluable and helped him throughout his career. His advice: do good work where I was, dig in, build a network, and let everything else develop from there.

He was right. The things that bind me and many others to Baltimore aren't holding us back. They're what will move us forward. This city is accessible in ways that many others are not. I was impressed that here, eminent domain didn't stop residents in a battered neighborhood from fighting for and winning a fairer resettlement package, as happened with East Baltimore Development Inc. I marvel at the way activists recently prevented the state from building a youth jail, and I learned a great deal when I helped a friend run for mayor. He lost badly, but his campaign was one example of a belief many people hold: that here you can be part of a conversation, that you can and should be heard, that you can leave a mark that won't instantly be wiped away. That's why I stayed.

Last week, that decision was rewarded. It had been a while since we'd been in touch, but a few months ago, Ms. Durrani asked if I would like to present at Brookings. Now head of the Institution's diversity initiatives, she was familiar with some of my work and gave me the chance to speak to her fellow staff members about the diversity-related topic of my choice. I said yes and asked New York Times bestselling author Wes Moore and Rodney Foxworth, a writer and social enterprise consultant, to join me for an event we called Race and Social Mobility: Three Lessons from Baltimore. Rodney, Wes and I talked about the trajectories each of us were helped to trace from underserved communities to privileged educational and professional circles, how we now translate between those two worlds, and some of the policies that might narrow the divide. We were very well received.

Afterward, a crowd waited patiently at the foot of the small stage to speak with us. Actually, almost all of them were waiting for Wes. But I was proud of what we did together and my role as co-producer. Five years after I went to D.C. looking for a job, I came back with a few friends. This time, we were the experts.

It was a good day. After Brookings, I went to the zoo and lingered for a while on Dupont Circle, but by the time rush hour subsided I still had no regrets about going home.

Lionel Foster's column appears every other Friday. Email: lionel@lionelfoster.com. Twitter: @LionelBMD.