Editors’ note: This article is part of our ongoing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Project in collaboration between NPQ and the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network.
April 25, 2015, was a day that perfectly demonstrated that “normal” in Baltimore City was no longer a viable option. The reality is, there is no going back to normal for Baltimore. Normal is more than one hundred years of racial discrimination against Black people and Black neighborhoods, pioneered by our city back in the early 1900s with racially restrictive zoning.1 Normal is more than 16,000 vacant houses, with some neighborhoods having vacancy rates over 35 percent—communities that were devastated by urban renewal, by the Highway to Nowhere, by blockbusting, by white flight.2 Normal is high unemployment in our African American neighborhoods, and the cycle of mass incarceration that puts disenfranchised citizens into jail and then prevents them from gaining access to the very opportunities needed for a healthy life in the first place, because now they have a criminal record.3
Normal is continuing with the same practices that led to these problems in the first place. In the most recent housing crisis, subprime mortgages and foreclosures targeted African American neighborhoods, worsening the longstanding housing problems in many of these communities while taking away what little wealth residents had managed to accumulate in their home equity. Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and other financial institutions have paid billions of dollars to settle lawsuits that were brought against them for the disparate racial impact of targeting low-income—and predominantly low-income Black—communities.4
Normal is watching our city continue to struggle with the absence of a proper transit system. According to a recent Harvard study, average commute time is the best predictor of whether or not people in a community can get out of poverty.5 Here in the Baltimore region, our transit system recently received an “F” grade for inadequate access in disconnected communities.6 People cannot reliably get to jobs and other destinations like grocery stores, cutting off their earning potential and access to healthy food. After thirteen years of work done on the Red Line project, a light rail that would have connected some of our most challenged neighborhoods in West Baltimore to job centers inside and outside Baltimore City, the project was cancelled in order to fund new highways instead, mostly in white rural counties (a decision that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund challenged as a civil rights violation, only to see the complaint closed without explanation by the U.S. Department of Transportation six months later).7
On April 25, 2015, the city of Baltimore reached a tipping point of pain and frustration that had been building for years. Going back to normal wasn’t the solution, because normal was the problem.
The Baltimore Uprising—Disrupting the Normal
After news of the vicious treatment culminating in the death of young Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police—during what turned out to be an arrest with no probable cause—on April 12, 2015, a weeklong series of citywide protests and marches erupted. Protesters marched in the Western District, and gathered at police headquarters, City Hall, and even Camden Yards, where the Orioles were hosting a Major League Baseball game behind locked doors. On April 27th, the day of Mr. Gray’s funeral, local students in West Baltimore were dismissed from school as usual only to find that public transit had been shut down, streets had been cordoned off, and police were present in riot gear due to what the Baltimore Police Department alleged to be “credible information that members of various gangs…have entered into a partnership to ‘take-out’ law enforcement officers.”8 Police were unloading buses already loaded up with students, and the kids were, essentially, trapped. Some students threw rocks; adults joined in and violence spread. As described by a Baltimore teacher, “The riot police were already at the bus stop on the other side of the mall, turning buses that transport the students away, not allowing students to board. They were waiting for the kids…Those kids were set up, they were treated like criminals before the first brick was thrown.”9 By the next day, neighbors throughout the city were cleaning up.
Baltimoreans call the protests an uprising because the marches, protests, and property destruction were a reaction to the actions (and inaction) of local institutions to address the needs of Baltimore’s Black and neediest neighborhoods. We call it an uprising because it was citizens stating that normal was not enough—that there needs to be a new normal that addresses their most critical needs. Uprising speaks to a new consciousness about the systemic failure of Baltimore City government, police, and even state officials.10
The uprising and resulting disruption created an opportunity in Baltimore to start thinking about what a more equitable city might look like. Other cities have shown how much a city can transform in the aftermath of a social earthquake—like the one Los Angeles experienced in 1992—and in Baltimore, we had a chance to seize the moment and start to address the decades of disinvestment and segregation that led us to this point.11
Rebuilding the city started the day after the police-mandated transit shutdown turned into widespread property destruction. At Penn North, the site of so much media coverage of stores being looted, thousands of people came out to help clean the streets and talk to business owners who had been affected. Neighborhoods throughout the city saw the same thing happening. Along York Road, an historic red line that continues to divide white and Black neighborhoods to this day, residents from both sides came together to sweep up glass and show their support for pharmacies and other stores that had been hit and to stand at intersections holding up signs of their concern for Baltimore.
These efforts led to a lot more conversations—and, especially, to a lot more listening to people from the communities that were affected. Our churches hosted community conversations and town halls to get people together to talk not just about what was happening but also about how we got to that point.
From these conversations, two core principles emerged that form the foundation of any rebuilding work that will take place. The first is that Black lives matter. We have not valued Black lives in this nation in the way that we have valued white lives. From exposure at birth to lead poisoning and other toxins in their environment, to attending underresourced schools, to mass incarceration for so many of our teens and youths, to a lack of quality living-wage jobs, to housing discrimination—in every part of the life cycle, Black people are not afforded the same level of access as their white peers. The cumulative effect is that Black life expectancy is not as long as the life expectancy of whites—evident in the vastly different life expectancies across different neighborhoods; in Baltimore City, there can be nearly twenty years difference in lifespan based on whether one lives in a predominantly white neighborhood or in a predominantly Black neighborhood.12 It becomes most obvious in the form of the state-sanctioned murder of Black people, when Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many others can be shot and killed, and their murderers face no consequences for their actions—but that is only the ultimate expression of something that is communicated in many other ways every single day.
The second principle, which is related to, but not as well known as, the first, is that Black neighborhoods matter. The lack of concern for Black lives in this country has always led to a lack of concern for the places where Black residents live. In Baltimore, we see this most in tracking where the money goes—the city invests considerable resources in our primarily white waterfront neighborhoods, while majority-Black neighborhoods, of all income levels, do not receive the same level of attention and financing from our city’s power structures. This has been demonstrated by Baltimore’s corrupt use of tax increment financing (TIFs). In 2013, more than $107 million in future tax revenues, needed for our city schools, basic infrastructure, and other services, were committed for new luxury apartments to be built at Harbor Point—in the heart of Baltimore’s white waterfront.13 Even after the uprising, in March 2016, former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the city council pushed through a $535 million proposal for Port Covington to create a high-end, mixed-use development.14 The work of rebuilding Baltimore will require a new emphasis on ensuring that Black neighborhoods receive the level of investment that they need to have greater access to opportunity—in schools, housing, transportation, and other infrastructure.
While many have been working hard to address community needs, since 2015, every step forward has been met by at least another step backward. State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby took the needed step of prosecuting the six officers who were involved in the death of Freddie Gray, but after a hung jury and three acquittals, all charges against the officers were dropped.15 Baltimore’s new city council, with eight of its fifteen members taking office for the first time in December 2016, have started the process of addressing the deeper structural issues—issues like wage disparities and youth funding—but a $15 an hour minimum-wage proposal was vetoed by current Mayor Catherine Pugh in March 2017, after being passed by the city council. City council members have had to fight to protect youth programs; and now a mandatory minimum sentencing bill, which would automatically move people into the prison pipeline with no consideration for their individual cases, is being considered.16 At the federal level, the Department of Justice worked with city government to create a consent decree that would address systemic abuses throughout the Baltimore City Police Department, but new Attorney General Jeff Sessions has shown an unwillingness to enforce these agreements in Baltimore and in other cities, jeopardizing their effectiveness in creating reform.17 There are glimpses of progress, but there are also just as many reasons to be concerned about the situation continuing to worsen.
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We still have a long way to go, and there is so much that we can be learning—and doing—as young nonprofit professionals to keep us moving toward solutions. There are three questions we need to ask ourselves as we look at how we move forward, because it’s not just Baltimore where these conversations are happening. With everything that has happened in Ferguson, Charleston, and other places across the country, we are at an important moment in our nation’s history.
- What power do we have as young nonprofit professionals to create change in our cities?
- What power do our organizations have to address systemic causes?
- What are we learning from this moment, in order to make sure that we are sharing that power in a more inclusive way, so that everyone is part of creating a more equitable city?
1. What power do we have as young nonprofit professionals to create change in our cities?
We need to act as engaged residents in our neighborhoods and our cities; before we act in our official capacity as people who work in the nonprofit sector, we must learn to be good neighbors and concerned citizens. We must get to know the stories of the people who live around us and those who live in the parts of the city we may not know quite as well. We should participate in our own community association and neighborhood meetings—not because it’s our job, but because we care.
Thus, it is an absolute necessity to participate in local elections. This is the simplest way to show our satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction with the progress to make Baltimore a more equitable city. Push candidates and elected officials to make this a primary concern, and hold them accountable. Participation goes well beyond just voting, too. It means showing up for crucial hearings, knowing how the systems work, and understanding what residents think of the local government. In Baltimore, many of our nonprofit professionals have started to run for—and win—local seats, and others are out knocking on doors for candidates, because it is a great way to not only push for change but also hear directly from people who are affected by these policies.
How we use our economic power in this regard is important, too. As professionals in the social sector, we joke about salaries; yet, there is power in our dollar if we wield that power effectively. Are we buying homes and putting down roots in the city? Are we supporting social enterprises that are creating opportunities for all? Do the businesses we support engage and invest in community in a meaningful way? This kind of thought and action ensures that our economic power as nonprofit professionals is put to effective use.
When we are good neighbors, it affects the way that we do our work. If we are co-laborers in creating a better city, for ourselves and for everyone else, we will approach our work with a different attitude—not as outsiders trying to fix someone else’s problems but as people who genuinely care because they’re our problems, too. This should include finding time to step away from the things that we professionally work on in order to be a part of what is happening right now in our communities. That can help us to be more balanced and function less in silos that keep us focused on only one problem and unable to see the bigger picture. For me (Steve), trying to bring the neighborhood together around creative community uses for an abandoned school building has been an opportunity to work on something that I care about because I live in the neighborhood, not because it’s part of my job. Find something that matters to you and the people around you, and work together with them to create solutions.
2. What power do our organizations have to address systemic causes?
For a variety of reasons, many nonprofits try to avoid dealing with broader problems in their community. Controversial issues can turn off existing funders, and those issues may also make it more difficult for nonprofits to attract new funders. We may not have the right partnerships to truly understand what those problems are, and we may not want to acknowledge the fact that we have not built those partnerships. Our organizations may turn staff over too quickly for people to have the chance to invest in relationships and create long-term change.
Yet, as a sector, we have a tremendous amount of power to be difference makers. Nonprofits employ a significant number of people and control a large amount of resources. Many people come to better know and understand where they live through their local nonprofits—whether that’s someone whose first job in a new city is at a nonprofit or a long-term resident who starts to learn new things about his or her community because of a volunteer experience. We exist, as organizations, for the public good—and we should be thinking about our general missions in that much broader sense and our specific missions as extensions of that overarching goal. If we know that there is some way that we can be creating good for our cities and our communities, we should look at how we can do it—even if it simply means supporting someone else who’s doing good work on that front.
Young nonprofit professionals can be at the forefront of building these types of partnerships. While more established nonprofit leaders might be reluctant to spend time on relationships that might not seem significant vis-à-vis their organizational interests, young leaders are far more willing to embrace collaboration for the sake of advancing a broader, community-focused agenda. In fall 2015, our Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) chapter hosted an event to highlight grassroots work already being done around education, housing, and criminal justice reform here in Baltimore. Our hope is that those bridges between nonprofits and grassroots community members will help highlight the need for concerted, sustained action around equity issues in our city that goes far beyond what any one organization can accomplish.
3. What are we learning from this moment, in order to make sure that we are sharing that power in a more inclusive way, so that everyone is part of creating a more equitable city?
We believe that the uprising demonstrated a few important lessons. The uprising taught us that the problems we see are caused not just by failed past policies but also by currently failing policies. However, this presents us with an opportunity, because if we caused these problems, we can definitely fix them. Thus, while our organizations may not be engaged in policy (and all organizations should be engaging in work around policy affecting their issue areas)—as private citizens, it is an absolute necessity.
Next, the uprising taught us that Baltimore will hold its leaders accountable. The uprising was a physical manifestation of the zeitgeist, which can be characterized as “enough is enough.” And yes, much of the anger and calls for accountability have been aimed at elected officials. However, that in no way means that this will not also be directed at the nonprofit sector. Now, that sounds scary, but it is an opportunity for us as a social sector—and as young professionals in this sector—to forge new relationships with communities within Baltimore.
Baltimore is moving to a new, more equitable normal—and our young social sector workforce can be right in the thick of it, working with community members to make sure that Baltimore achieves the goal of a more just and equitable society.
- For more on the history of racial segregation in Baltimore housing, see Antero Pietila, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 2010).
- This number is from 2015, and is conservative given that the city defines vacancy as “uninhabitable” only. The U.S. Census Bureau gives the number at 46,800 vacant homes. See Terrence McCoy, “Baltimore has more than 16,000 vacant houses. Why can’t the homeless move in?,” May 12, 2015.
- For more on workforce discrimination in the Baltimore region, see RDA Global Inc., Barriers to Employment Opportunities in the Baltimore Region (Opportunity Collaborative, 2014).
- Luke Broadwater, “Wells Fargo agrees to pay $175m settlement in pricing discrimination suit,” Baltimore Sun, July 12, 2012.
- Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility: Childhood Exposure Effects and County-Level Estimates (Harvard University and NBER, May 2015).
- Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, “2015 Transportation Report Card.”
- Michael Dresser and Luke Broadwater, “Hogan says no to Red Line, yes to Purple,” Baltimore Sun, June 25, 2015; and Ovetta Wiggins and Bill Turque, “NAACP to challenge cancellation of Baltimore Red Line rail project,” Washington Post, December 21, 2015;
- “LDF Statement on U.S. Transportation Department’s Decision to Close Red Line Inquiry,” press release, The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) website, July 13, 2017.
- Jenna McLaughlin and Sam Brodey, “Eyewitnesses: The Baltimore Riots Didn’t Start the Way You Think,” Mother Jones, April 28, 2015.
- Evan Serpick, “Why we should call recent Baltimore events an ‘uprising,’” Baltimore Sun, September 24, 2015.
- See Manuel Pastor and Michele Prichard, with Jennifer Ito and Vanessa Carter, L.A. Rising: The 1992 Civil Unrest, the Arc of Social Justice Organizing, and the Lessons for Today’s Movement Building (Los Angeles: PERE, USC Dornsife, April 2012).
- Christopher Ingraham, “14 Baltimore neighborhoods have lower life expectancies than North Korea,” Washington Post, April 30, 2015.
- Luke Broadwater, “Harbor Point construction could begin next month,” Baltimore Sun, September 9, 2013.
- Natalie Sherman, “BDC moves forward $535 million Port Covington TIF,” Baltimore Sun, March 24, 2016.
- Kevin Rector, “Charges dropped, Freddie Gray case concludes with zero convictions against officers,” Baltimore Sun, July 27, 2016.
- “The mayor’s cruel cut,” Baltimore Sun, editorial, April 9, 2016; Yvonne Wenger, “Pugh vetoes bill that would raise Baltimore minimum wage,” Baltimore Sun, March 24, 2017; Ian Duncan, “City Council flexed muscles to secure Baltimore budget deal with Pugh,” Baltimore Sun, June 8, 2017; and Kevin Rector and Luke Broadwater, “Baltimore leaders propose mandatory sentence for illegal gun possession,” Baltimore Sun, July 14, 2017.
- Peter Hermann and Sari Horwitz, “Federal judge approves Baltimore police consent decree,” Washington Post, April 7, 2017.