The Baltimore Food Enterprise Center is the first building to open at the Baltimore Food Hub. It will house Humanim's City Seeds and School of Food programs. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

Outside the dining tent at a forward operating base where I served in Afghanistan, we had a big pile of sand. Next to the sand sat a stack of empty sandbags and a bunch of shovels. We had one rule that applied to everyone: If you wanted to eat with us, you had to fill two sandbags before going inside. Those full sandbags became part of the base's perimeter walls. But more than that, they symbolized the idea that everyone was in the fight together. From the most senior general to the most junior private, everyone grabbed a shovel and filled two sandbags.

My time in Afghanistan sometimes seems so far away and so long ago that I can almost imagine it was experienced by a different person. But certain things pop back in my head from time to time, and I just can't shake the image of those sandbags as national headlines about "The Tragedy of Baltimore" and local headlines about corruption in our politics stack up.

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It is always easy to focus on the stories that understandably break our hearts here — the crime, inequality, poverty, corruption and racial division in a city built for 1 million people that now holds just over 600,000 are all real. But beneath the tragedy of Baltimore is something this city will not let you forget: Baltimoreans are constantly doing something about it ourselves, filling sandbags here at home in recognition that we are in the fight together.

Growth in Johnston Square is around the corner — and inside a shuttered favorite restaurant

Growth in Johnston Square is around the corner — and inside a shuttered favorite restaurant

I have the privilege of serving as executive director of The 6th Branch, a veteran-led nonprofit and neighborhood development organization that supports communities in East Baltimore. Our mission is to apply the leadership skills of military veterans to support Baltimore City communities, bringing together veterans, community leaders and citizen-volunteers to transform once-vacant and abandoned property into neighborhood green spaces. Our motto and approach to solving problems is to "grab a shovel" and just get to work with what we have as soon as we can.

The coalition of Baltimoreans we serve with is now stewarding the restoration and growth of more than 13 acres of green space. In Oliver, Meraki Community Uplift, the Oliver Beautification Alliance and many others have turned a series of once-vacant lots into a green corridor complete with urban farms, gardens, and playgrounds.

In Johnston Square, the ReBuild Johnston Square Neighborhood Organization and BUILD brought an abandoned city park back to life through determined advocacy and thousands of hours of work, cleaning it up and attracting more than $1 million of new investment to transform it.

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In Darley Park, neighborhood leaders are now celebrating the construction of a new "Gateway Park" where abandoned vehicles, mattresses and the debris of post-demolition housing lots stood for more than a decade.

And the New Broadway East Community Association and American Communities Trust work every day to make sure the innovation center at the Baltimore Food Hub rises from the abandonment of old city warehouses and a new network of green spaces grows around it.

The Baltimore Food Enterprise Center is the first building to open at the Baltimore Food Hub. It will house Humanim's City Seeds and School of Food programs. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

Long after government has given up, I've watched community leaders, nonprofit and corporate partners, and everyday citizens bring their force of will to reimagine what has been declared impossible or otherwise placed on some indefinite back-burner of bureaucratic planning. In the freezing cold and scorching heat, I have seen more than 2,500 volunteers each year reject the idea that Baltimore is tragic. Instead, thousands are filling figurative sandbags in the fight together, rebuilding this city with their bare hands and grant applications and visions of what could be next.

The saying goes that Baltimore is a "city of neighborhoods." I would add that we are a "city of citizens." From those whose Baltimore families go generations back, to those who came here from around the world themselves, Baltimoreans are why this city will succeed. Through all the things we have been through, our citizens give me hope. It would be easy not to care. Yet so many people do.

Whatever the dysfunction in our politics or corruption in our government, I keep seeing the citizens of this city digging and filling and adding to our collective good. It is easy to miss it in the news, but look between the headlines and there is no escaping that Baltimoreans are in this fight together and fighting hard. If you want to join us in the dining tent, all you have to do is grab a shovel.

Scott Goldman (scottgoldman@the6thbranch.org) is executive director of The 6th Branch.

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