Wes Moore: I understand Baltimore, and it understands me
By Wes Moore
Sep 20, 2019 | 6:00 AM
Several years ago, my wife Dawn and I decided to move back to Baltimore to raise our family. Leaving my investment banking job in New York, I did not expect my friends there to understand the decision.
What I also did not expect is that many of my friends in Baltimore would not understand it either.
I can’t tell you how many people immediately jumped to assumptions that I had been fired from my job or that my mother must be in poor health. In reality, I wanted to raise my family in a community that I knew and understood — a community that I felt understood me.
I had spent my entire life in dramatically different communities. I remember struggling to fit in with kids in my neighborhood in the Bronx because my mom sacrificed to put me into an independent school, where she thought I would do better. And truthfully, I did not fit in with those kids either. When that did not work for me, she eventually sent me to military school.
From academia to the military to the world of finance — I have spent my entire life moving between different spaces. I have come to understand (and often tell young people) that you belong in every space that you are in, and that space would be incomplete without you there.
But being able to navigate communities is not a substitute for having one. Coming home to Baltimore was in pursuit of a community that I felt was my own.
Today, my son gets his hair cut by the barber who used to cut my hair. He and his sister get to come up with my mom and my grandmother close by. This is community.
It is what I love about Baltimore, and it is also the answer to the very real hardships and challenges that plague the city. In Baltimore, the need is unavoidable. You can’t understand or engage with the beauty of our community without also engaging with the hardships.
That reality underscores the need for all of us to be involved in finding answers and creating solutions, in our own way. To me, there was no better place to become a social entrepreneur. When I came back home, I founded an organization called BridgeEdU that helped students navigate the first and second year of college, when many students (especially from low-income and first-generation backgrounds) struggle.
We can see the factors that hold people back in college — two of the biggest being lack of readiness for the coursework and prohibitive costs. But we found that factors you might not expect played as big of a role; things like child care or transportation. The need for low-dollar emergency financing and trusted mentorship. It was about community.
It was about community for Bianca, who in 2014 was 17 years old and a high school junior in West Baltimore, when she gave birth to her son. She graduated a year later with a cumulative GPA of 1.8 and no plans. Her parents didn’t attend college and didn’t have money for college, and even though Bianca had completed the paperwork and qualified for federal financial aid, she didn’t follow through. College wasn’t on her radar.
In 2015, I visited Bianca’s school to talk about our program at BridgeEdU that puts underserved students on a path to college success by removing barriers and providing supports. Bianca enrolled in the two-year program. She spent her first year in community college to improve her academic standing, and she transferred to Coppin State University in her second year, where she received academic and financial supports, success coaching, and mentoring.
With the right mix of information and support, Bianca is well on her way. She is balancing a cashier job at a hospital with a full college course load and the primary responsibility of raising her son — who, like my own son, started kindergarten this fall. She is a student leader at Coppin and on track to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in nonprofit management in 2020.
“It’s pretty overwhelming,” she told me, “but nothing I can’t handle because I don’t feel like I’m alone.”
Community. She has her sights set on graduate school and a career working with young people like herself to ensure a strong high school-to-college transition.
Baltimore is as much her accomplishments as it is the conditions that threatened to hold her back.
Baltimore is as much the community she fosters as it is the challenges she is facing. Baltimore is her promise as much as it is her pain. Baltimore is the community that emerges from the devoted and beautiful souls that come together to move her forward.
Wes Moore (email@example.com) is the CEO of Robin Hood, one of the largest anti-poverty nonprofits in the nation, and author of the New York Times bestseller “The Other Wes Moore.”