By Ashton Wingate
When we last saw Baltimore, it was on fire.
Civil unrest over the death of Freddie Carlos Gray Jr., a 25-year-old African-American man, had gripped the city and captivated the nation’s interest. Slipping into a coma and eventually expiring while in police custody, the young man’s demise was seen as yet another in a long line of racial- ly tinged, police-related deaths that had already proven to be too much to bear. Exasperated, members of the Balti- more community cried out for justice as their city fell into violence and chaos resulting in rioting, and stand-offs with law enforcement.
However, like similar incidents both before and after it, when the news cameras left and the nation’s spotlight shifted, the people of Baltimore were left to pick up the pieces. Roughly four months after Freddie Gray’s death, IS spoke with William J. McCarthy Jr., executive director of IS member, Catholic Charities of Baltimore; and Norris West, director of strategic communications for Baltimore based IS member, the Annie E. Casey Foundation. They, along with many others, are contributing to a tireless effort to begin the healing process in the Baltimore community.
A story of neglect
William (Bill) McCarthy, Jr. has spent almost his entire life in Baltimore. Raised in a neighborhood in west Baltimore, he’s been a banker, a lawyer, and now he works for the city’s largest human services organization serving as executive director for Catholic Charities of Baltimore. He marvels at what he sees as a vibrant and diverse community but can’t help but recognize Baltimore’s paradoxical side as well.
“I’ve seen this city from the corporate perspective and from the human services perspective. There is great wealth here, but also an overall poverty rate of 20 percent, and 25 percent of children in Baltimore living in poverty.”
Bill went on to say that the problems that Baltimore faces didn’t happen overnight… “The media has focused on just a small part of Baltimore. There is a need and an unrest that has been here for years. Aside from poverty rates which we know are at unacceptable levels, school absenteeism is almost at 50 percent, the recidivism rate is at 60 percent. There is a real frustration amongst the citizens here and more importantly a loss of hope. Relationships with law enforcement, government, service providers, institutions of faith, and employers have all been fractured for decades and these long-term, systematic issues add up to what we experienced with the death of Freddie Gray.”
Norris West, director of communications for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, echoed these sentiments when he spoke about what led the Baltimore community to its breaking point.
“Freddie Gray is a microcosm of what cities like Baltimore have been going through for generations. There are a number of systemic issues that affect communities like Freddie Gray’s and others across the city and country. In our community, we’re facing challenges with disinvestment, poverty, justice issues, education, and child welfare. Those of us working in these communities can point to policy decisions that have happened over decades and generations at the federal, state, and local levels that have created these conditions manifesting themselves in the unrest that we saw back in April.”
When tragedy strikes, be it to a friend or a stranger, close to home or miles away, there is an innate desire for immediacy. ISQ asked both Bill and Norris what their organization’s immediate reactions were when they saw their community in the throes of a national crisis.
“For us, it caused us to redouble our efforts,” Norris said. “The unrest in Baltimore sharpened our focus and we saw an immediate opportunity to bring community voices to the conversations around the problems and the solutions.”
The Casey Foundation also played an integral role in helping to provide rapid response to immediate issues resulting from the rioting that went on in the moments and days after Gray’s death. As businesses were destroyed, people were displaced out of their jobs and some weren’t even able to get the basic healthcare they needed due to many drugstores and grocery stores being closed. The Foundation stepped in to support educational, recreational, and employment opportunities for those affected. But in the hours and days after Freddie Gray’s death, says Norris, it was the immediate response from the community that was truly inspiring.
“It’s about the brooms, shovels, and trash bags,” Norris remarked. “It was encouraging to see the members of the community come forward and begin the restoration effort. These people are inspired and committed to this city.”
Catholic Charities of Baltimore took a slightly different approach. Explaining that for them, immediate action is not always best, Bill noted that in the aftermath of the events that took place it was a time for the organization to reflect on their presence in Baltimore and how they might need to engage differently in the community to make more of a difference. Advice that can be useful for everyone, he says, not just charitable organizations.
“Well-meaning people want to solve problems but solutions start with listening and engaging to develop a better understanding. Once we find common ground, then we can work towards solutions.”
The role of the charitable sector
It’s often said that the role of the charitable sector is to step in when the private sector or government can’t or won’t. Never has the role of the charitable sector been more crucial than in Baltimore. The nonprofit community in Baltimore serves as a bridge and a voice to help people achieve their full potential and move towards self-sufficiency.
Catholic Charities of Baltimore serves hundreds through its “Work 4 Success” program, job readiness training, and placement ser- vices that allow those in need to provide for themselves and their families. Along with their nonprofit partners, they’ve helped almost 100 people enter the job market since late April, and provided housing for nearly 150 families during that time. More than 700 people depend on the emergency services they provide. In addition, they’ve partnered with community pantries to expand service hours, supply them with more food, and increase their capacity from serving 60 families to serving over 500.
No one knows the value of the Catholic Charities of Baltimore and the many other nonprofits contributing to this effort more than The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Norris stressed the need for collaboration and that even though his Foundation and Catholic Charities of Baltimore were two of the larger players, it has been a real community effort on the part of the smaller organizations closer to the needs of the citizens that has made the difference.
“We know there are deep, systemic problems here, but we also know we can make changes to improve the lives of children and families here in Baltimore,” Norris said. “What is happening is deep collaboration within the nonprofit community but what is also needed is a multi-sector effort. Not just philanthropy, but government and the private sector as well. We often ignore that.”
Both Bill and Norris know the importance of the nonprofit sector being a proving ground for effective community solutions. “It is our role to be a learning and teaching sector, to work with our partners as one voice in a chorus to get results,” says Norris. And the chorus is strong. Aside from their own collaboration together on Head Start programming for early childhood development, Catholic Charities of Baltimore and The Annie E. Casey Foundation have worked with IS members, the Family League of Baltimore, the Open Society Institute of Baltimore, and YMCA of
the USA, as well as the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Baltimore, and many more to focus on poverty, unemployment, homelessness, child welfare, juvenile justice, and other issues that they believe, if addressed, will allow Baltimore to thrive.
Though the cameras have indeed left and the city of Baltimore is no longer front page news, there is the feeling that the nation and perhaps the world will still be watching what happens here. So what is next for Baltimore? How will those fighting for a better future continue to move forward in a positive direction and turn the sorrow over the tragic loss of one young man into hope for many in this community? Ongoing community dialogue is how Catholic Charities of Baltimore hopes to keep moving the needle.
“Our existing programs and services are an opportunity to begin discussions. We look to host meetings with current and potential service providers from inside and outside our community and work closer with other faith based providers to achieve collective impact,” Bill said.
He went on to say that they will always remember to focus on the people of Baltimore and in that effort they’ll bring their services to the homes and schools of the beneficiaries of those services. They seek to take ownership of the lack of progress that has been made across the board and help this become a community of fighters and participants in the rebuilding of Baltimore and not victims without a voice.
Norris is hopeful for the community that Annie E. Casey Foundation serves and looks forward to the work ahead. The foundation also hopes to be a convener of conversations about the work necessary to realize a bright future for Baltimore. They want to bring in the voice of families, which Norris said is currently missing from the dialogue. They also are working to focus more on data, especially in their work on juvenile justice reform which the Foundation views as essential to protecting the next generation that will lead Baltimore.
“Our role isn’t to be reactionary. Our role is to be thoughtful, strategic, and to ensure that we use the best research and data on hand to make the wisest decisions with the resources we have,” he said.
He noted that the Foundation strives to be an influential leader but their partners bring knowledge, resources, insight, and energy and that everyone benefits when the mission is bigger than just their organization.
“There is renewed energy around improving the lives in communities like those in Baltimore. We’ve seen communities come together. It’s a proud city. People believe in Baltimore’s future. There is a real commitment to working together to solve these deep problems.”