With Media Attention Gone, Baltimore Communities Vow to Work Together for Real Change

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On a warm May evening, residents of a Baltimore neighborhood have gathered in their local elementary school auditorium for a community forum. Some of the topics that emerge sound ordinary enough – a community “wish list” and the needs of young people – but this meeting is really anything but.

It’s happening in a section of the city that’s been affected for years by challenges like drug-dealing, gangs, and poverty. An outsize share of the homes and buildings are vacant. Relations between the mostly black residents and police are strained.

And for this meeting, happening in the wake of recent protests over the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained while in police custody, the stage is given to teens for a “youth and young adult speak-out.”

One 17-year-old speaks matter-of-factly about knowing more than half a dozen young people who have been lost to violent deaths. Later, when an audience member asks what the young speakers would like to see in a recreation center, the neighborhood association president interrupts:

“Most of these children in Baltimore City have never seen a real rec center,” Marvin Cheatham says. Referring to a structure up the street as aging and only three rooms large, he erupts: “How dare you call that a rec center!”

This is the world from which Mr. Gray – and the protests following his recent death – emerged. It’s a world replicated in poor neighborhoods across the United States. And from those protests, including a night of rioting that left some Baltimore storefronts aflame, an old question gained fresh urgency: Can the underlying challenges ever actually be fixed?

An urgent part of the problem involves police-community relations. On May 1, when the city prosecutor announced criminal charges against the six police officers who had arrested and transported Gray, relief and rejoicing swept through crowds congregated at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenues. To many here, it felt like justice.

But there’s clearly more at stake – a sense that whole communities in America are being largely left out of economic and social opportunities. President Obama, responding to the Baltimore news, called for national “soul-searching” to help young people in impoverished communities.

Although concentrated poverty encompasses people of all skin colors, African-Americans remain far more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods affected by it. And by some measures, the issue seems as intractable as ever. The official black poverty rate is still higher than the national average and has not gone down much since 1970. And African-Americans are far more likely than other Americans to grow up in a single-parent household, to live in a high-crime neighborhood or be in prison, to attend poorly performing schools, and to be unemployed.

To separate one problem from another, experts say, is to misunderstand the nature of the challenge. It’s not just about jobs, or drugs and gangs, or a breakdown of two-parent households. It’s all those things and more. And what’s needed are solutions that address those challenges as interconnected.

Doing that will take no small amount of time and government involvement, say analysts on the political left and right. But for those in West Baltimore, the first steps seem comparatively simple.

Change begins, many here say, with seeing the situation differently – with looking at the people of Gray’s West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown as assets to be developed, not social liabilities to be managed. When it comes to turning around this place, the words heard most often on street corners are “hope” and “love.”

“Start with love,” says Alexander Mitchell, a middle-aged black resident who is currently “between jobs” and who says he was recently subjected to a humiliating strip-search by police.

He says he sees a population with plenty of promise and talent, but who feel disenfranchised. “People don’t just wake up [being] drug addicts,” he says. “They just want you to give them a fair shake,” not handouts.

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SOURCE: Mark Trumbull
Christian Science Monitor

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