Why Is Baltimore Burning?

By Patricia Melton

Lara Law — who oversees Baltimore’s only drop-in center for homeless youth — was not at a loss for words when her building was set aflame on Monday evening.

While tactics of the uprising in the wake of unexplained death of Freddie Gray have been roundly condemned, Law told Kevin Rector of the Baltimore Sun that “the anger is legitimate and understandable.”

“I don’t condone the violence and the destruction, the tearing down of what we need in our community, but the young people out on the streets are some of the same young people we’re serving – filled with trauma and violence and a lack of opportunity their whole lives,” Law said. “It’s understandable. We have to fix our way of doing things so they feel included and that there are opportunities for them.”

The opportunity gap in Baltimore isn’t new. A decade ago the documentary The Boys of Baraka displayed the lengths that parents would go to provide their children with a chance, in this case sending them to a Kenyan boarding school to avoid the too-oft mean streets of Baltimore.

To its credit, there are organizations in Baltimore that are working to piece together Promise opportunities and — if anything positive can come from recent developments — may those efforts be fast-tracked with an expanse of the business and philanthropic communities jumping aboard.

Can Baltimore become a place of opportunity? That depends on the will of the community. Look no further than two cities who’ve appeared on lists of America’s most dangerous cities in recent times — New Haven, Conn., and Richmond, Calif.

It’s been a long, hard-fought road of transformation. These two mid-size cities with large problems are redefining themselves and changing the paradigm that too often grips many urban cities in an ever-widening divide between the have and have nots. While neither city is yet where it wants to be, each has engaged and pledged support to its young people and each has seen decreases in violent crime and increases in educational attainment and employment. They have leveraged what they have — Yale University in New Haven and Chevron Oil in Richmond — to provide college scholarship and economic development programs for their youth.

But the story of New Haven and Richmond can’t be told in the short term. There are anecdotes and early indicators that show progress, but true assessment may take a decade or, perhaps, a generation. The key lesson is that leaders in these locales put aside impossibilities and gridlock to push anchor institutions to seed and refashion their cities to engage the citizenry and the youth in the messy — but necessary — process of democratic and inclusive change. Cities of Promise take urgent steps every day to interrupt the entrenched hopelessness that can send a city up in flames, burning for all the world to see.

May those in Baltimore establishment see past the smoke to back all of its neighbors and come together for a new future with a different outcome, one that builds and strengthens the fabric of community.

UPDATE: Within minutes of publishing this story, the Chronicle of Higher Education posted a story about Baltimore’s many colleges pondering their role in fixing the broken city.

Patricia Melton is the Executive Director of New Haven Promise

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