To #SaveBmore, Embrace The Wire

By | #SaveBmore, ChangeEngine | 65 Comments

We’ve all heard it. Many of us have said it. It’s a plea, a prayer – uttered so often it’s damn near a mantra:

“We’re not just The Wire.”

Baltimore wants nothing more than to be seen as something other than a byword for crime and decay, for poverty and violence. We’re not just the wasteland made notorious by David Simon’s landmark series, occupied by drugslingers and sociopathic murderers and sicklied over with impenetrable despair. That’s just the image that’s been conjured up in the public imagination, we say. We’re sick of people’s eyes growing wide in horror when they hear what city we live in, the inevitable questions … “Is it like that? Is it just like The Wire?”

In the past few weeks here at ChangeEngine, we’ve been debating what might “save” Baltimore from a present and a future where so many are condemned to a shadow existence and forced to the margins by poverty and inequality. And yet it seems like what Baltimore wants to be saved from most of all is itself, to be delivered from the stain on our reputation, the shame of The Wire; to shunt those things that cast an ill light on our collective existence back into the shadows.

But that shame, left unchecked, will destroy us. If we truly want to save Baltimore, to save ourselves from the perpetual instability of illusory wealth and the criminal waste of lost promise; if we truly want to fulfill Dr. King’s vision of a “beloved community” rather than languish in the spiritual poverty of a divided society, we must not be ashamed. We must not shy away from what The Wire represents and the heavy burden it lays at our door … because we are The Wire and we need to own it.

What we’re saying when we deny The Wire is that we’re not just ‘those’ neighborhoods, not just a city of poor black people embroiled in the drug war. In trying to sweep those people and places from our consciousness, we not only caricature what The Wire actually depicted but fail to heed its prophetic call. As David Simon said:

“[T]hat’s what The Wire was about … people who were worth less and who were no longer necessary, as maybe 10 or 15% of my country is no longer necessary to the operation of the economy. It was about them trying to solve … an existential crisis. In their irrelevance, their economic irrelevance, they were nonetheless still on the ground occupying this place called Baltimore and they were going to have to endure somehow.”

When we say we’re not The Wire we’re saying we should be like one America, and forget the other. And that we can only succeed if these people, this other Baltimore, disappears. But that’s impossible, it’s unsustainable; it will undermine the very future we hope to create by ignoring the things that horrify and embarrass us. The ONLY way we can make Baltimore not just about The Wire is by embracing the story it tells about us.

“See, back in middle school and all, I used to love them myths,” says Omar, the predatory gunslinger who roams Baltimore’s streets like a swaggering pirate as he schools a sheriff’s deputy about the Greek god of war. So complete a work is The Wire, so vivid and eternally real are the likes of Omar, Stringer and Bubbles that these offending shadows have become our mythology, our epic.

Whether it’s Omar resplendent in a shimmering teal dressing gown, scowling at the terrified ‘puppies’ who fling their stashes his way on his early morning hunt for Honey Nut Cheerios; Clay Davis’s sheeeeeet! stretching on to the last syllable of recorded time; a forensic epiphany derived entirely from a dialogue of f-bombs; the death of Wallace, of Bodie and Sherrod, of Prop Joe; the fall of the Barksdales, Dukie’s descent or Cutty’s redemption – these moments confer an identity that’s deeply ours, as iconic and intrinsic as Poe’s mournful features and gutter requiem.

This is our story, an epic of the American post-industrial city struggling for existence and meaning where all sustaining truths and certainties have been annihilated. It has the power to unify our consciousness and to rouse us to collective action. The Wire didn’t focus on the “bad side” of Baltimore; it cast a glaring light on what was wrong with America. Its creators offered us a study of dysfunction and neglect – a diagnosis, a pessimistic prognosis, and no real hope of a cure. That part is up to us.

And yet the cures we’re presented with are largely exercises in denial – efforts to tell a different story rather than confronting and changing the one we have. We are told to ‘Believe’ in Baltimore, then beggar belief by proclaiming ourselves ‘The Greatest City in America.’ We swear up and down that we’re not The Wire, as though that wire is live and we dare not touch it.

In the standard gospel, salvation comes through expanding the ‘white corridor’ that runs along 83, pushing out the ‘bad Baltimore.’ The Grand Prix, the creative class, a shiny new development downtown – these are the pet miracles of urban renewal evangelism. But without justice, they can only be a mirage. Just as civil rights activists were willing to be beaten and bloodied because they knew that no-one is free unless all of us are free, not one of us can say he is truly wealthy as long as any of us is poor. As long as we’re erecting monuments to distraction, condo towers with a stunning view but no vision, we’ll be blind. No sustainable salvation can come of growing that privileged bubble. We’ll fool ourselves into complacency, into thinking we can ignore The Wire, and the bubble will burst.

Saving Baltimore requires a shift in thinking, a hard confrontation. It requires ambition and audacity – the kind that causes a person to get up every day and try to keep children from dying on the streets, to battle slumlords who profit from blight and misery, or fight to keep the prison industrial complex from throttling whole communities. We would do well to pay tribute and attention to those on the front lines of social change, who wrestle with the darkness, who suffer a thousand everyday defeats and win a thousand everyday victories in the struggle to make a better world.

Like them, we must grapple with the darkness. Most urgently, we must fight to end the drug war. As The Wire makes so vividly clear, the war on drugs has become a war on the urban underclass, a war on the most vulnerable and powerless. Each drug arrest in this city costs us at least $10,000. Statewide we spend hundreds of millions of dollars to incarcerate non-violent drug offenders, 90 percent of them African-American. This despite clear evidence that white and black people use and sell drugs at roughly the same rate.

In the starkest of terms, black (and poor) people are being arrested and incarcerated, their lives ruined, for something everyone does. And that is the greater cost. This war destroys families, robs children of their parents and leaves them destitute, cripples chances for employment and advancement, and causes young people to be murdered in the streets as they scuffle over turf in a society that gives them nowhere to call their own.

We can change that story. Think what all the resources squandered on this folly could do if devoted to social change, what dynamism could be unleashed. Think of what it would mean to reclaim all the talent and energy lost to the criminal justice system and to the miasma of distrust and despair that crushes and humiliates the spirit and leaves so many feeling that the game is rigged against them.

This is about more than just one policy. Just as we condemn an addict to the clawing, scraping chaos of the criminal underworld when we force him into the shadows, so too do we deny ourselves a brighter future and invite in all the ills we run from by denying what The Wire says about us. Baltimore could be the one city in America that truly confronts the issue of its underclass and the ravages of exclusion rather than pretending it’s not there and brutalizing it when it rears its head. We must resolve that we don’t want to run from The Wire, but rather change the system that generates those conditions.

The engine of salvation is not in our stars but in ourselves. We need a Manhattan Project for transformation, a space race for social change. Let’s work to provide the greatest rewards to those whose efforts most benefit the least well off. Let’s energize social change makers to move to Baltimore and cultivate those already here. And let’s start treating them like rock stars, not martyred idealists.

Baltimore doesn’t have a PR problem; we have a poverty problem. We don’t need a better image; we need a better way. We need to celebrate and attract those who want to make a difference, not engage in a desperate charade to prove we’re just the same. So Just Say Yes – we ARE the Wire. Only then can we change the story. Only then can we start building a city of which we’ll never be ashamed, a place where every one of us is truly cherished.


#SaveBmore — Listen first, Listen hard

By | #SaveBmore, Art & Social Change, Art That Counts | 7 Comments

For the past few weeks, ChangeEngine’s #SaveBmore campaign has been asking what solutions could transform Baltimore into a thriving place for ALL its citizens rather than the usual tech evangelism or luxury development gospel we usually hear. As much as I’ve enjoyed reading and considering all the posts, here and on Facebook and Twitter, that have been part of the campaign, I had a lot of pause about how to best contribute. Surprisingly, the stumbling block wasn’t the focus of my articles here—art and its measurable impact—but approaching the question at all. What am I attempting to save Baltimore from or for? How do we prioritize the city’s issues with crime, education, its budget? Also, in highlighting some potential solutions, which perspectives aren’t being heard, which problems aren’t being addressed?

Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Photo by George Kelly via Flickr

I thought then not about how art or creative placemaking can #SaveBmore, but what skills those practitioners have honed that could benefit everyone looking to improve this city and, along with it, the sense of community within Baltimore. One of the things I most respect about creative placemaking is that it’s not about dropping art on an unsuspecting neighborhood or community; it’s about engage groups and listening to them.

To say that a person feels listened to means a lot more than just their ideas get heard. It’s a sign of respect. It makes people feel valued.”
— DEBORAH TANNEN, author and Professor of Linguistics, Georgetown University

With all this in mind, I sent out a request to a group of Baltimore artists who often work collaboratively and whose work I’m familiar with and respect. Specifically, I introduced the idea of #SaveBmore and asked what their work had taught them about listening.

Community Engagement/Empowerment


I cannot do this job alone

In order to create exhibitions that are relevant to the communities I am working with, I need to listen. I cannot just listen, I need to collaborate with others in order to implement their ideas to create a meaningful exhibition. Impactful exhibitions allow for that dialogue to continue after the exhibition is over with in order to build stronger and more unified communities. As a curator, I cannot do this job alone.
MICHELLE GOMEZ, artist, curator

Share wealth resources space information etc

I am struck by the term save bmore. To save means to rescue or protect. It reminds me of colonization when Europeans came into indigenous countries save the savages from themselves. Not. It should be called sharebmore. Share wealth, resources, space, information etc.
There is a divide in bmore between haves and have nots and until we address the real issues of racism, classism, poverty gentrification we are just spinning our wheels with our head in the sand.

Idealism & vision alone cannot solve the problem

By being involved in the Baltimore theatre scene, I’ve come to realize the beautiful multiplicity of artistic voices this city has. Theatre is also such a wonderful example of collaboration. You need the designers, actors, director, crew and company to all work together, and though it’s a creative process, logistics are KEY (which is why We LOVE Stage Managers). Idealism and vision alone cannot solve the problem. Theatre cannot exist without its audience; so on a larger scale, what sort of Baltimore do we want to “stage” and produce for people to view?
SARAH WEISSMAN, Marketing Director at Glass Mind Theatre & theatre artist

I love the diversity of opinions and discourse in these responses and know there are more voices out there to be heard; I invite you to comment about your experiences with collaboration and problem solving and what lessons you’ve learned about listening along the way–as well as your overall response or solutions for #SaveBmore.

Additionally, the work of listening is actually hard work, and I don’t recommend it without acknowledging that. We live in a culture that says “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” and applauds action, speaking out and rarely the individual or group who pauses to take things in. It’s a common communication struggle—in collaboration, in the workplace and in our personal relationships—that people are either interrupting or busy thinking about what they want to say next and not actively listening. However, I think we do better when considering these larger issues—if not always—to pause more and persuade less. Listen to what is being said, but also what is unsaid, who is not speaking or present. Improving or even saving Charm City cannot be done alone, as so aptly expressed by Michelle Gomez, and, therefore, requires listening.

#SaveBmore – Why You’re Only Hearing About Income Inequality Now

By | #SaveBmore, Tinted Lens | 6 Comments

Income inequality is rattling around the collective consciousness of late on the backs of President Obama’s remarks and Pope Francis’ denunciation of trickle-down economics in the first lengthy writing of his papacy. The gap between the poor and the super-rich in the United States has been steadily widening for decades but only recently has it risen to the top of the agenda for the media, citizens and politicians.

Why? Why only now? Why has this issue been largely ignored for so long?

Because the effects of the wealth gap for the past several decades have mostly been felt by people of color.

Here is where I could trot out the numbers highlighting how the middle class has shrunk since the 1960’s, the map of the U.S. if land were distributed by wealth, the comparison of CEO pay ratios, or the number of hours of minimum wage earning it takes to afford an apartment. But I’ll leave that for others.

According to the 2008 census, in Baltimore City, half of all African-American households earned less than $35,000 per year, while only one-third of white households fell under this low-income threshold. The prevalence of poverty among black city residents is almost double that for whites. While the Black middle class makes up 40 percent of the African-American population, this has always lagged behind the number of middle-class whites. This smaller number of middle class citizens is attributable to the wealth gap between blacks and whites. In 1984 there was an $85,000 difference in the wealth of white households over their black counterparts determined by an Institute on Assets and Social Policy (IASP) study; over the following 25 years, it ballooned to $236,500. That’s a $151,500 increase!

IASP attributed the national wealth gap to home ownership, household income, unemployment, and financial support/inheritance while writings on Baltimore have highlighted education, pathways to careers and discriminatory hiring practices as our major obstacles. In a city that is 70 percent black, this level of poverty and inequality drags the entire city down.

How do we save our sinking city? Well, according to the Baltimore Ethical Society, we can overcome our apathy and get mad about it. Spread the YouTube video on inequality; if you’re in a position to hire, re-examine how you’re evaluating candidates of color; mentor disadvantaged youth, or better yet, give them apprenticeship opportunities if you work in a trade. Consider cooperatives as your next start-up business model and utilize Community Wealth by looking to and building on a neighborhood’s existing assets.

The shocking thing is, what will #SaveBmore is already here (as my fellow ChangeEngine blogger Robyn Stegman argues). We have the population, we have the innovators, and we have the entrepreneurial spirit. What we need is for the two Baltimores to talk to one another and we’ll set the world on fire.

#SaveBmore: The (mis)use of Power

By | #SaveBmore, The Good Plan | One Comment

I began thinking about the #SaveBmore idea in a really clichéd manner: “We need more love!” I wanted to write, before sensing all of your eyes roll collectively. Snoop Pearson’s Instagram account almost inspired me to compose a diatribe about respect, as 80 percent of her posted photographs raise middle fingers to the camera. That failed too, as did crime, homelessness, and taxes. These were failures because all my preliminary ideas blamed someone else. I found I was projecting blame, rather than taking ownership of it. Blaming guns or the economy or the actions of the police didn’t make me part of the solution, it simply made me point fingers at the perceived wrongdoings of others. In order to #SaveBmore, I would have to take on part of the responsibility.

My lightbulb moment came when I questioned not necessarily what I can do, but whether or not I actually do it — that’s when I realized the answer to saving Baltimore is all about power.

Power is a supremely complex concept. Fueled by our ability to relate to others, build our credibility, speak the right words, and play the right cards at the right time, it is the key to getting what we want, and to guiding others to act the way we feel will create a better future. Where I see the great problem in Baltimore is that power is often abused, misdirected, or left to rot — untouched and unused. As I find my professional self in rooms with influential individuals, I often think about the power they have and the power they’ve used. Some seem to use their power for good, whether that translates into public speaking, creating things that are beneficial to others, or hiring that kid who has never held a job before. Others have power through money, and donate graciously, using dollar bills and signed checks to guide their influence in what they believe are areas of promise.

And yet there are also many who hoard their power, perhaps believing that taking no action makes them more desirable, or makes them seem more powerful to onlookers. Abuse, misuse, and the refusal to use power is the reason we can’t get ahead in this town. At a recent meeting where several individuals pushed for increased public transit shelters around the harbor, the request was met with a resounding no — ‘case closed.’ What struck me was not the no itself so much as the refusal to even justify the denial, an attitude that’s far too common in our fair city. Somewhere, I thought, there’s an individual with the power to make lots of people happier and more comfortable, and they refuse to do so. That routine refusal by those in power — whether to create more bike lanes, question arrest policies, or approve a shelter — is what keeps Baltimore from reaching its greatest potential.

But I said I wasn’t here to blame others. The fact is that we all have power that we refuse to exercise — whether out of fear, ignorance or inertia. We can heal, create, speak up, and — where necessary — act out. A few of us even have the ability to exercise power through a signature or an endorsement. I believe Baltimore will be saved not simply through the recognition of our own power, but the courage to exercise that power. Every moment we don’t is another time we shirk our responsibility — to use the power to create change that we are all fortunate enough to hold.

IMAGE CREDIT. [Wikimedia Commons].

The Future of Baltimore is Already Here – 7 Ways We Can Harness It

By | #SaveBmore, Social Enterprise, The Thagomizer | 8 Comments

 “When friends in DC ask me what we talk about in Baltimore, I say ‘Baltimore.’”

A friend of mine made this offhand remark last week and it has been spinning in my head ever since. Baltimore’s navel gazing has been seen as a hindrance to some but I’m beginning to think it might be our greatest asset. As I have said before Baltimore was weird before it was cool. That weirdness, that creativity, can be our savior. To save Baltimore, we do not need to look at established models that have worked elsewhere. Let’s be shot of the days of “let’s start a Grand Prix,” “let’s get a Trader Joes,” “let’s attract the next Google.” Let’s stop looking at others and focus instead on pouring resources into creating innovation made for, made by, and made in Baltimore.

Why do I think we need to gaze inward?

  1. The solution we want doesn’t exist. I see no industry out there with the potential to employ or train the large population of “unskilled labor” that exists in post-industrial urban cities with living wage jobs.
  2. The solution isn’t out there because Baltimore hasn’t created it yet. If Baltimore devoted resources to fostering the talent and creativity in this city, I hold the radical belief that we might actually come up with a solution that not only saves Baltimore, but could change the economic landscape.

Baltimore led the shipping industry because the Baltimore clipper was faster than any other ship around. Baltimore became a center for the milling industry because Oliver Evan’s invented the automatic flour mill. We made leaps as a city because we did things better than other places and that innovation requires out-of-the-box thinking. It was innovation that gave Baltimore the competitive advantage to become the huge industrial center it once was, and it is innovation that could bring us back.

Here’s my idea: let’s assume that everything we want and everything we need is already here and let’s do something amazing with it. Let’s look straight into the navel and ask Baltimorians to get to work saving the city. Here’s my plan Baltimore: let’s scrap all established models and start encouraging the novel, weird and wacky to flourish.

How do we do that? I’m not entirely sure, but here’s my list of places we can start:

  1. Create Places Where Crazy Ideas Happen:  We need more places focused on finding funding (via crowdfunding campaigns, microloans, grants) and resources (market research, incubator programs, mentorship opportunities) to help people make their crazy ideas happen. Whether it’s a new way to rent musical instruments or a new model for getting local food to those who are food insecure, I want to see a one-stop shop that works to help people take full advantage of the resources we already have in Baltimore to make it happen. I see a string of neighborhood innovation centers to help people turn their crazy ideas into Baltimore’s latest craze.  
  2. Focus on Social Entrepreneurship: Baltimore already has a rich community of people creating socially focused businesses and initiatives. I’m not the only one who sees the potential of Baltimore to lead the way in this new field. Let’s invest in businesses and development models that radically change the social fabric of our city through economic development. Social change should be the focal point of our revitalization, not an afterthought, not a trickle down.  
  3. Provide Room for Collaborative Design: In order to form great ideas, you need for people to mix and mingle. We already have some spaces that allow for people to collaborate but they are often buried in silos. We need to create intentional bridges between the silos of innovation we know exist in our community. We need to find spaces that allow people to come together and bounce ideas off each other to form those a-ha! moments that will create our shared future. These could be co-working spaces, public spaces, or a traveling series of events that bring us together to create real solutions for the future.
  4. Educate for Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship: We need to involve the next generation in the evolution of our community. That means a radical transformation of our education system to encourage and inspire critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and other 21st century learning skills critical to making our students into tomorrow’s innovators. Whether within or in addition to the school system we need programs that teach students to constantly learn, constantly create, and constantly move our city forward with their entrepreneurial vision.
  5. Create Jobs Accessible to Everyone: Andrew Carnegie once boasted he could train anyone to work in a steel mill in a matter of months, a feat once thought impossible by most of the world. We not only need new industries, we need to create processes that make those industries accessible to anyone. Whether it is training programs to get people up to speed or machines that make it easy for everyone to learn and create something great, we need to constantly thinking about making the jobs we create available to more than a trained few.
  6. Provide Easy Access to Existing Resources: Baltimore actually has a lot of assets. From vacant homes, to universities, to open data we need to create programs that let the public find, access, and use these assets for their grand schemes.
  7. Consider Ourselves the Best, No Questions Asked: Sure Baltimore is always talking about itself, but most of the times we talk about our problems not our solutions. We need to see ourselves as the weird, wacky, center of creativity we are. We need to remember that our city has the potential to reinvent our future and lead the way in transforming the world. We don’t need to be the next Philly, the next D.C., the next New York City because someday people are going to want to be the next Baltimore. We’re just that cool.  

If we all invest in making Baltimore a little weirder, we might create the next ingenious idea that gives us the competitive advantage to once again rise to national (even worldwide) prominence. We could not only be known for the problems exposed in The Wire, but be known for being one of the few cities to take radical measure to address them. We could be known for our creativity, vision, and justice. If we start investing inward we might find that the idea that saves Baltimore was right under our noses all along.

#SaveBmore – Undoing Racism

By | #SaveBmore, ChangeEngine | 9 Comments

As a white person, I can only speak of undoing racism from that perspective. Therefore, in my opinion, in order to create real transformative change in Baltimore we have to educate ourselves and organize our institutions to help dismantle the structures in place that perpetuate racism. Racism is the cause of the inequity we see every day in Baltimore. In order to really begin to heal and change the city, we all need to understand the history and how racist practices still embedded in our institutions have created the disparities that exist today.

I’m not from here — I was born and raised in Detroit and also lived in Oakland, California. At least in those two cities, which are predominately black as well, race is talked about more widely, whether productive or not, and it is much more obvious. It feels unacknowledged here and very few people talk about the inequity we see every day described in those terms. We talk about lack of jobs or housing or treatment programs. For both blacks and people of color and for whites, it’s likely because of the deeply ingrained internalized oppression and superiority within ourselves that we choose to ignore. We need to look at how the systems we are all involved in work to uphold power and privilege for white people. Just take a look at the criminal justice system. Despite the fact that whites use and deal drugs more than people of color, there is overrepresentation of people of color for nonviolent drug offenses in the system. In fact Black, Latinos and Native American are overrepresented in every aspect of the criminal justice system – from arrests to the court system to incarceration. (Here’s a great resource to explore: Shinin’ the Light on White Privilege by Sharon Martinas.)

This is not a dynamic that can be shifted overnight but takes real effort and understanding of how the system works. Whites especially need to be engaged with other whites in this process. Racism is dehumanizing to all of us. We need a common definition of what racism is, an historical knowledge about what has happened since the founding of this country, and we need to look deeply within ourselves and our institutions on where we can organize and create impact.

For those of us who want to start but don’t know how, we can begin with conversations with others, and seek out knowledge from those with expertise. There are many resources that we can make use of right here in Baltimore – Baltimore Racial Justice Action, Equity Matters and the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond. But if we don’t even have the conversation, we will never be able to dismantle something that is truly destroying us all.

IMAGE CREDIT. [Wikimedia Commons].

Nothing New Under The Sun … Except A Ray of Hope

By | #SaveBmore, External Monologue | 5 Comments

This past week or so, the ChangeEngine crew has been debating how to “save” Baltimore. This city, like many others, faces severe challenges, from crippling poverty to crumbling public schools to gun violence and blight. Many of these issues go far beyond the city itself, echoing much larger social and economic trends. The debate rages on as to what can free us from our plight — more bike lanes, get rid of the Baltimore Development Corporation, overhaul the tax structure with a hand grenade. But the truth is that the larger trends are difficult for one individual and maybe even once city to overcome, and that none of them are new.

America’s cities have been afflicted with poverty since the start of the industrialized age. This country has gone through at least four cycles of extreme inequality in that time. Rockefeller and the robber barons, their wealth adjusted for inflation, are still to this day the richest individuals that ever lived. They had more money than the Pharaohs of Egypt, Britain’s Royal Family, and many other historical figures most would consider extraordinarily wealthy and powerful. To give an idea of the wealth these men had: in 1893 the economy crashed, and J.P. Morgan bailed out the government. That’s right — a private individual bailed out the U.S. government. For all the spectacular wealth amassed by private individuals before the most recent financial crisis, it was the government that came to the rescue of J.P. Morgan Chase — the banking leviathan founded by J.P. Morgan himself. The roaring twenties caused inequality to balloon up once again, and the stock market crash of 1929 created another great glut of despair. We are at a similar point now. Not to get all Battle­star Galactica up in here, but “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”

Or perhaps not. It’s true that we are approaching Gilded Age levels of inequality. Our social and economic system has created an enormous disparity in wealth not only between individuals, but also between local municipalities and cities. While “world cities” like San Francisco, Chicago, D.C., New York, and Boston have transformed themselves, rising out of seemingly irreversible chaos and decline in the 1970s and 1980s, others like Detroit, Cleveland, New Orleans, and of course Baltimore are struggling to attract new residents and find employment for those that remain, further perpetuating the crisis. But just because a cycle exists, doesn’t mean we can’t break it. In fact, that same dire history might show the very path to salvation. All hope is not lost. Our wretched circumstances may be just what we need to wake us from our slumber.

The economic crash of 1893 helped galvanize the first progressive movement. The 16th, 17th and 18th amendments were passed, allowing for the income tax, direct election of senators, and women’s right to vote. Democracy and equality rose from the excesses and collapse of the Gilded Age. Since we are now in an age quite similar — hell I will go as far to call it the Second Gilded Age — maybe we should take some cues from the past. We need to demand more accountability and transparency from our local governments, change our electoral laws so a person with only 25 percent of the vote cannot become the defacto winner of a council seat, and, most of all, pressure the federal government to live up to their end of the bargain and allow programs like Social Security to be extended or radically changed. We need to leverage the power of our online and offline social networks to rally around causes and create the transformative change that has so long eluded us.

True, some of these issues are bigger than Baltimore and need bigger solutions. But many of those larger solutions can start right here at home. More democracy, accountability and participation can save Baltimore, and might just save us all.

IMAGE CREDIT. [Wikimedia Commons].

If Not You, Who?

By | #SaveBmore, Health, The Global Is Local | No Comments

This week has been an uplifting one for social and political activists and media hounds. The death of Nelson Mandela has brought together world leaders, pundits, politicians, and us common folk to celebrate the passage of a transformational leader.

I imagine that no one ever expected to see a Castro and a Bush standing together, yet the respect that people hold around the world for the life and works of Nelson Mandela brought them into the same room (or in this case, arena).

The power that is demonstrated in the aftermath of Mandela’s life — the celebration, the near universal belief in his goodness — is testament to the effect that a leader can have in engaging and motivating his or her people to do their own great things.

This week has also been a rewarding one for those in the ChangeEngine community. There has been great response to the weeklong campaign to discover what will “save” Baltimore, whether it needs to be saved, what that saving will look like to us, our neighbors, and the world, and how we as Baltimoreans might go about doing some saving ourselves.

My column here deals with issues related to public health on a macro scale with a micro focus, and so I meander from vaccination to food, from food to transport, to poverty, to pollution, to economics, and now to leadership.

One of my most psychologically taxing classes in public health school was centered around leadership. The professor brought in health care leaders and drilled us on the proper layout of a corporate leadership structure, including the role of board members and executives. I can speak from the authority of at least the upper left hand quadrant of the room that ‘bored’ members were what he had in front of him, and that the lesson was not sinking in. However, he was there to teach it, and so I was convinced that there was a reason.

Each of us has experienced a piece, a whiff of transformational leadership, perhaps on the job, in the classroom, on the playing field: A leader who transcends the role they are inhabiting and creates in each member of the team a desire to excel, as if some grand musical score is accompanying your every movement. This may happen for only a moment, or it may infuse your entire work experience (lucky you!), but the feelings and actions brought to the surface by this type of leadership allow us to be better than we are alone.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons



It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.






How does this tie into public health, and more importantly this week, into saving Baltimore?

My sense is that Baltimore is a city that is reaching for success. The city government, neighborhood associations, the ChangeEngine bloggers, the urban gardeners, the foundations, the artists — everyone has a vision for a better Baltimore, and they each view it through their lens. Chris Merriam of Bikemore commented on the ChangeEngine Facebook page yesterday that what will save Baltimore is “Bike lanes. Lots and lots of bikelanes.” OK, so I agree with him, of course. See here, here, here, and here, oh, and here for evidence. But he (and I) are speaking from a cyclocentric point of view (although we would likely both agree that this has broad implications for health, wealth and society far beyond bikers). The Weinbergs, Stephanie Rollings Blake, Hasdai Westbrook (of ChangeEngine fame), and you all have different visions of a successful Baltimore.

Now despite the wealth inequalities, segregation, and disease burden here that I often write about, Baltimore is not South Africa. However, leadership that is empowering, vision-driven, and inclusive has the power to be transformative anywhere in the world, in any setting. I am not advocating for the ouster of the mayor; I think she’s probably doing fine. But is she a transformative leader? She has taken on a number of challenging projects that have great promise — more families in the city, a clean harbor, lower vacancy rates — but these efforts have not inspired a groundswell of concerted support and action. Perhaps that is not the role in this city for a transformational leader. “Bureaucrat” may sound like a dirty word, but bureaucracy is effective, reliable, and honest (when done correctly at least, Ms. Sheila Dixon, we’re looking at you…).

Perhaps instead the role needs to be taken up by others in that list I mentioned above, as Chris Merriam is doing in the biking community. His sheer force of will and passion drive others to work toward his cause, and to feel good about it.

Nominate a transformational leader, Baltimore (or wherever you are):

Who do you see bringing people together, challenging them to do their best and more by example? Who is using vision-driven empowerment to allow their colleagues to do more, do better, or with more grace? Who among your social or professional circles takes on that role? How can you emulate those techniques to generate even MORE positive growth in your particular arena?

Are you a champion of transformational change by leadership and example? If not you, who?

Trouble in Techtopia

By | #SaveBmore, Social Enterprise, The Thagomizer | 4 Comments

Every city wants to create the “next Google.” Go to any start up weekend, tech happy hour, or hackathon in any city you will hear the same gospel: the tech industry can save our city. Yet examples from already established tech communities paint a less than delightful picture of the darker impact of tech fueled economic growth.

Right after I had read Lindsey’s post on the the amazing way San Francisco had come together as a community to support a child’s wish, I came across a different view of the city. An article published this week in the New York times discussed the tension boiling between old time San Francisco residents and the new techie influx. Amid higher rent prices, a 98-year-old-woman being forced from her home to make room for new money, and entire districts turned into frat neighborhoods for “tech bros,” the effect of the tech industry that worried me most was what was described in the Mission District.

In a classic example of gentrification, working-class Hispanic residents who once defined the neighborhood were being forced out by the tech elite. The celebration of Day of the Dead, instead of being a cultural celebration, had been transformed by newcomers into a boozy extension of Halloween. Residents and shopkeepers who had been there for decades were being evicted or forced out, no longer able to afford rents in the neighborhood. The culture of the district is rapidly being lost. As one performance artist described it, “One day they will wake up to an extremely unbearable ocean of sameness.”

This wasn’t the first article I read about citizens being pushed out by the new demands from a tech boom. Earlier this month NPR reported on one of the last trailer parks in Silicon Valley. With real estate being at such a premium in the area, the owners of the land want to sell this park, one of the few affordable housing options in the area, to developers. Residents will be forced to move, not only losing their homes in the process, but missing out on the public schools and being forced to have a longer commute. While perhaps this isn’t something these new city dwellers realize, by losing diversity they are losing something too in this equation. One mother of a Palo Alto student explained, “My son has gone on play dates to homes where he found out his friend didn’t have a bedroom. His friend sleeps on a couch. He didn’t even know that that was how some kids grow up. You learn what they don’t have; you learn the richness of what they do have too — the strength of their community and culture and heritage.”

When they push the natives out, they also push the history out, the culture, the weirdness, the part that makes the city unique. In this way technology doesn’t save the city, it simply takes it over. City natives become refugees, forced to find a new home, and not receiving a whole lot of benefit from “the next Google.” This embrace of techies as the saviors of cities is another shining example of what I call Hipster Trickle Down theory. Basically it is the idea that importing bright new creative types whether they be artists, developers, or designers, will lift up the city for everyone. Yet what these Californian examples prove, it does a better job of pushing out people than it does uplifting them.

Can this change? Is there a way of using the technology industry to help everyone in the city? Can tech benefits reach those historically marginalized communities who sometimes sit on the other end of the digital divide? Certainly here in Baltimore we have some programs trying to train Baltimore youth for new opportunities in tech and design. Yet I think we need more than that. We need a city that prioritizes growing from within over looking for new economic saviors. We need policies that focus first on communities struggling the most with poverty and unemployment, and do not wait for the money of tech billionaires to trickle down.

Yes, Baltimore, and cities around the country need more profitable industries but we need these economic behemoths to combine forces with the city residents, not cast them aside. This doesn’t mean some donations to schools or a few hackathons, but a real intention to infuse the people and place of the city into their company, and to work together with the community to make the community better. It’s time for tech companies to ask not what cities can do for them, but what they can do for cities.