Baltimore Communities Unite and Engage in the Face of Change

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Disclaimer: This post is first and foremost about social, not political, issues and is not intended to offend any group of any kind. 

It’s Friday, January 13, 2017 on a mild winter evening in southeast Baltimore. On this date frequently associated with superstition and bad luck, city residents are convening at Highlandtown Elementary/Middle School to reverse the trend. “Organizing at the Local Level” was an auspicious, not an unlucky, occasion, and, whether deliberate or not, this community meeting also closely coincided with another important date: what would have been Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 88th birthday.

This year, MLK Day resonates with particular significance. As the nation comes to terms with an incoming federal administration and the sweeping policy changes it will bring, many people are facing profound uncertainty about the course their lives will take in the near future. For some, 2017 feels like a reversal of progress, something unprecedented in the last century of United States history. We have tried to continually move forward, not backward, and to tighten our embrace of many of Dr. King’s social principles. One pillar of his ideology is community, or agape, the Greek word for love of humanity.

For Dr. King,

Agape is disinterested love. It is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is an entirely ‘neighbor-regarding’ concern for others.

In Baltimore City, residents strive to mend communities and neighborhoods, and progress has been seen and felt throughout the city, temporary setbacks notwithstanding and certainly not extinguishing our collective hope. But, as newly elected Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen described it, many city residents are currently experiencing “fear, anxiety, and disempowerment,” and our city once again faces a critical juncture. Baltimore’s identity is rooted in diversity, a big part of which is its open-armed welcome of immigrants, many of whom are becoming increasingly vulnerable. Other disenfranchised populations are also feeling this vulnerability, such as the poor and the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning) community.

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Councilman Zeke Cohen

Taking up President Obama’s call that in times like this, “If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing,” Councilman Cohen and colleagues Councilwoman Shannon Sneed, Councilman Brandon Scott, Delegate Brooke Lierman, Delegate Robbyn Lewis, Casa de Maryland Regional Director Elizabeth Alex, Kenneth Morrison Wernsdorfer, Taylor McKinney Stewart, Sarita Evjen, Joel Rivera, Vernon Horton, Susie Cramer, Katie Long, Leanna Wetmore, Adriana Roja, and other community activists did just that with Friday’s community meeting.

About 250 city residents attended to find out how to resist looming program cuts and worse and, as Councilman Cohen put it, “[to] show D.C. that we are entitled to a decent standard of living.” To rebuild our democracy, in effect.

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Returning to Dr. King’s notion of agape, he wrote that, “Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action . . . Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community . . .” Thus, this gathering was about to what to do after next week’s marches and protests are over. There’s plenty to be done, as the panel let the audience know. From the very practical advice for families facing potential deportation to broader community-wide appeals, the audience was called to action. “Take a step toward unity and away from division,” said Councilwoman Lewis. “Get outside your personal bubble,” urged Councilman Scott.

Quoting from Councilman Cohen’s Facebook page:

. . . I stared out onto a sea of my fellow citizens, united in opposition to bigotry. The diversity of the crowd was beautiful. All of the different colors, creeds, and communities gathered in one space reminded me of why I love our city. Although we spoke in different languages, our message was clear:

When they send the deportation squads, we will say, “Not here, not today.”

When they harass or shame our LGBTQ brothers and sisters we will say, “Not here, not today.”

When they attempt to strip away the last vestiges of our social safety net and endanger our most vulnerable citizens we will say, “Not here, not today.”

This is the Baltimore the national media won’t tell you about. This is our city.

Being our “Education Councilman,” Cohen particularly wants to galvanize schools in this effort. “Community schools,” he says, “recognize assets within a community—what are the good things that are already happening—and they look at the challenges and how they can bring people together. The community school is a beautiful model of how we can all work better to lift up our children and this city.”

And that’s where The New Century School community might join in, by strengthening connections with other groups in the city; by volunteering with organizations like CASA de Maryland who help, among others, our undocumented neighbors; and by supporting our elected officials’ attempts to sustain Baltimore city and its residents with such important legislation as a repeal of the farebox recovery mandate to keep public transportation public, the consent decree for Baltimore City police reform, and changing the S pass policy to keep buses available for students to get to school.

img_0468The panel discussion was followed by break-out circles of smaller groups to discuss specific problems and explore solutions. Councilman Cohen said that afterward, the organizers were told by many that the event was “the first time they felt validated in a public space.”

As Delegate Lewis said, “America is already great.” And so is Baltimore.

See Friday night’s full recorded panel presentation here. We’d like to think it would have made Dr. King proud.

January 20, 2017 Update:

Here is a list compiled by the meeting organizers of ways to get involved locally either by volunteering with an elected official or serving with an advocacy group.

Volunteer with an Elected Official’s Office:

  • Councilman Zeke Cohen (District 1): zeke.cohen@baltimorecity.gov
  • Councilman Brandon Scott (District 2): brandon.scott@baltimorecity.gov
  • Councilwoman Shannon Sneed (District 13): shannon.sneed@baltimorecity.gov
  • Delegate Brooke Lierman (District 46): brooke.lierman@house.state.md.us

Serve with an Advocacy Group:

TNCS Elementary Attends Healthy Harbor 2015 Report Card Release!

tncs-elementary-healthy-harborLast month, The New Century School‘s lower elementary class took a walking trip to Columbus Park to visit the pumping station for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where the annual “Healthy Harbor Report Card” was being released. This is the second year that STEM teacher Dan McGonigal has incorporated this special event into his curriculum. Taking care of our local waterways—how to keep them clean, why they are so critically important, and what responsibility Baltimore citizens individually should assume regarding these bodies of water—is something that is near and dear to his heart:

I really embrace problems in the environment and how we can find new solutions to old problems. I think this comes from a high-school teacher who I really connected with. He was really passionate about the some of the issues going on concerning the environment, and I liked being outside, so I sort of went along with it. But then when much of what he said was going to happen has come true, I realized we really are headed in the wrong direction with the choices we make and what’s going on in the world. As a teacher, I have the opportunity to instill the value in being stewards of our environment. We should appreciate the natural world and study how to take care of it by making better choices to lessen our impact as much as possible.

Cutting right to the chase, our waterways received another overall failing grade for 2015; however, the purpose of the Healthy Harbor Report Card Release event is really about highlighting signs of improvement, explained Mr. McGonigal. Gwynns Falls, which got the first-ever passing grade in 2014 with a D– has improved to a D, for example.

You can learn more about the Healthy Harbor initiative by reading last year’s Immersed post on the subject, including all about the truly innovative Mr. Trash Wheel. Invented by Baltimore resident John Kellett and his company Clearwater Mills, this revolutionary water wheel intercepts hundreds of tons of trash before it reaches the Inner Harbor. (Good news on that score, too, by the way—as hoped, Canton is getting its own Trash Wheel!)

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The water wheel in all its glory—Fun fact: trash picked up by Mr. Trash Wheel generates power for Maryland homes!

Basically, though, the Report Card is a tool that helps track progress toward the goal of making the Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020, a goal established by the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore together with Blue Water Baltimore. You can read the 2015 Report Card here. Said Mr. McGonigal:

There were generally very poor scores along the way. As you get further away from our waters and closer to the Chesapeake Bay, scores improve. It’s really our local waterways that show major problems. The amount of fecal matter and other contaminates show us that it’s not yet a swimmable area. Yet, there is good news, and the Report Card is better than last year’s. There are a lot of people here from all over the city and state and different parts of the government that are really trying and really have some buy-in into the future of the Patapsco River, the Inner Harbor, and the Chesapeake Bay. There are people working to make things better. There is a lot of passion there.

What did the 2nd/3rd-grade class take-away from this experience? “They were able to reiterate that even though things are bad, people are working to make it better. That was my main goal. I didn’t expect them to understand every word of the speeches being delivered. The overall message is that there are a lot of people watching this, and it does matter. It’s not just me telling them—this is coming from some very important people,” said Mr. McGonigal. Such stakeholders include Blue Water Baltimore Executive Director Halle Van der Gaag, Waterfront Partnership Board Chair Michael Hankin, Director of Baltimore City Public Works Rudy Chow, Maryland State Delegate Brooke Lierman, Congressman John Sarbanes, and Baltimore Councilman James Kraft, all of whom were also in attendance for the Report Card Release.

The best part for the class was touring the inside of the works, during which they began to realize how much is involved in keeping our water clean, regarding how to maintain the structures that are in place now and keep things going in the right direction. Said Mr. McGonigal, “They were enthralled by that and even got to turn on the pumping machine.”

As with last year, the field trip was a tie-in with other class themes. “Earlier in the year we studied the ecosystem and some of the major problems in the area, which led to our rain-barrel painting project—our primary ‘action project’,” said Mr. McGonigal. Other mini action projects grew out of their task of picking an environmental problem and determining how they would solve it. These ranged from measuring water usage in the home and encouraging their families to use less to examining leftover food at grocery stores and its ultimate fate to organizing pollution pick-ups at church and educating parishioners. They were also asked to incorporate math to calculate, for example, how much water was saved in a day, then a week, then a year, and on. “They learned that small changes really can add up and began to think about what we could accomplish if we all did these things,” said Mr. McGonigal. Some students even took an engineering approach to solving their problem. The culmination of these projects was in the form of Glogster digital presentations of their problems and individual solutions.

BALTIMORE_FLOATILLA-MAPAs for ongoing Healthy Harbor initiatives, don’t miss the inaugural Baltimore Floatilla, which is a 5-mile kayak paddle from Canton Waterfront Park to the harbor to rally for clean water, followed by an afterparty with food and live music back at the park in Canton. It’s happening Saturday, June 11th!

TNCS Elementary Attends Healthy Harbor Report Card Release!

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TNCS upper elementary enjoyed their last field trip of the year that was fun and educational. (Photo courtesy of The Daily Record.)

On June 4th, The New Century School‘s upper elementary class took a walking trip to Harbor East to attend Baltimore’s annual “Healthy Harbor Report Card 2014 Release”. This field trip was the culminating event of STEM teacher Dan McGonigal’s yearlong in-class exploration of our local waterways—how to keep them clean, why they are so critically important, and what responsibility Baltimore citizens individually should assume regarding these bodies of water. It was an ideal theme, inviting exploration from many STEM angles, and it also set the tone for Mr. McGonigal’s extremely successful first year at TNCS. From the STEM Fair, to Earth Day community outreach in the form of storm drain stenciling, to attending the Health of the Harbor announcement, TNCS elementary students have made a deep connection with Baltimore’s very special natural environments this year.

Mr. McGonigal said that in addition to closing out the water theme of the 2014–2015 school year, he also wanted “to make the end of the year productive, but also fun for the students.” Achieved in spades if these photos are any indication!
And it’s no wonder—Baltimore has achieved something unique with its concerted efforts to make the Inner Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020. Swimmable?! Fishable?! You read correctly: Healthy Harbor is an initiative of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, and the Report Card, which is ultimately a tool that helps communicate the swimmable/fishable goal and track progress, is the result of the Waterfront’s partnership with Blue Water Baltimore (whom you may recall donated TNCS’s storm drain stenciling materials).
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The water wheel in all its glory—Fun fact: trash picked up by Mr. Trash Wheel generates power for Maryland homes!

To meet this lofty aim, which many once deemed utterly impossible, Baltimore installed the Inner Harbor Water Wheel at the end of the Jones Falls in May 2014 to intercept trash (which everyone who has ever laid eyes on the Inner Harbor recognizes as its biggest current plague). Invented by Baltimore resident John Kellett and his company Clearwater Mills, the water wheel has gained worldwide fame and provided the inspiration for similar water clean-up initiatives to be proposed globally, from Rio De Janeiro to Rotterdam. 

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The ingenious design of this water wheel is a “game-changer for trash in urban water bodies!”

“Mr. Trash Wheel,” as the water wheel is now known, has accomplished some pretty extraordinary feats, as his Facebook page and frequent tweets attest (#MrTrashWheel). As of this week, in fact, Mr. Trash Wheel has intercepted 205 tons of trash before it reaches the Inner Harbor in its first year, and a whopping 45 tons from this past Monday’s storm alone! This more than doubles Mr. Trash Wheel’s former single-day record of 19 tons! Read more about the water wheel.

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Mr. Trash Wheel’s first year of very hard work was commemorated with the world’s most disgusting-looking cake!

Healthy Harbor showed its appreciation for Mr. Trash Wheel’s hard work at the Report Card Release by celebrating his first birthday with a cake made of refuse—Mr. Wheel’s preferred intake, of course. And there was certainly cause to celebrate, because the Report Card—for the first time ever—showed a passing grade for Gwynns Falls! That the grade, a D–, is only barely passing is not the point. As one TNCS student remarked, “even though things seem bad, they are getting better.” That’s exactly right! Baltimore waterways are moving in the right direction. The plan is working, as presentations by representatives from the various stakeholders, including District 46 Delegate Brooke Lierman, clearly demonstrate.

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Featured on the Report Card’s cover, these John Eager Howard elementary students are part of their school’s Green Team and gave a lovely speech on cleaning up the harbor.

Delegate Lierman (and TNCS parent) said of TNCS’s attendance at the event: “Involvement by students, like those at TNCS and John Eager Howard, is instrumental in helping us to ensure that Baltimore residents of all ages are invested in and working together to create a cleaner harbor! I’m so glad that students from both of these schools were able to attend the Report Card Release to learn firsthand about the need for advocacy and involvement to bring about positive change in our City.”

Afterward, Mr. McGonigal voted the walking field trip, “an awesome experience” and was very proud of his homeroom students who were respectful and focused during the speeches and presentations. “We learned a lot about the efforts in place to improve the health of the Baltimore Harbor and other area waterways. We also learned that there is a great effort by many people who are trying to help improve the situation. I hope we as a school can get further involved in projects related to the health of the harbor,” said Mr. McGonigal. He invites your suggestion and ideas for continued work by TNCS students.

In the meantime, you can read the 2014 Report Card here. Need still more good news? It’s here—officially announced just yesterday, Canton may be getting its very own water wheel! Also visit cantonwaterwheel.com for more information and to donate in support of Baltimore’s second water-powered trash interceptor.