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 Gets Positively Presidential!

It’s February, during an election year, and the nation is completely caught up with who will become our next Chief Executive and Commander in Chief. While debates among presidential candidates rage, the run-up to and the outcome of state primaries and caucuses dominate the media, and the citizenry takes stock of each candidate’s political platform, elementary students at The New Century School have been involved in some pretty presidential activities of their own.

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Schoolhouse Rock, anyone? “I’m just a bill. Yes, I’m only a bill. And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill. Well, it’s a long, long journey To the capital city. It’s a long, long wait While I’m sitting in committee, But I know I’ll be a law someday At least I hope and pray that I will, But today I am still just a bill.”

Their school year began, in fact, with learning all about the U.S. political process, including replicating that process to campaign for Class President, a TNCS first! They have also studied how bills become laws, taken a trip to the White House, and researched and profiled a U.S. president of their choice. With Presidents’ Day just behind us, it’s an opportune time to take a closer look at what they’ve been doing.

In both elementary divisions (2nd/3rd and 4th/5th), each student presented a campaign speech, which were narrowed down to what the class voted on as the top five. To do so, explains Language Arts/Global Studies teacher Kiley Stasch, each student asked each campaigner five “quality questions,” to rate the potential candidate’s platform (a process they would repeat later in the year when Baltimore City mayoral candidate Elizabeth Embry came to TNCS to talk about campaigning for political office. TNCS students asked some very hard-hitting questions, being political experts themselves by that point.) From there, the final two—president and vice-president— were elected into office after presenting longer, more in-depth speeches and another round of voting. “What can you ask of candidates to determine whether you have shared opinions and values,” Ms. Stasch asked the class. “Don’t just vote for your friends; vote for someone who will bring good to your class—who really listens to you and helps address your needs.” In the 2nd-/3rd-grade group, President J.B. and Vice-President P.H. made the cut; in the 4th-/5th-grade group, G.C. became President with C.G. and E.B. tying for Vice-President.

The Class President exercise will be a year-long endeavor. The individual platform tenets that each candidate brought into office have become actual initiatives that the class, with Ms. Stasch’s help, has enacted. These include everything from stocking the class shelves with certain hand-picked titles to community outreach in the form of an upcoming bake sale. “Each [campaign platform] was completely self-led,” said Ms. Stasch, ” and I’m going to do my best to help make them happen. The students have taken this very seriously, and some great things are coming out of it.”

The trip to the White House was the highlight of the fall. “They were all really hoping to visit the Oval Office and see President Obama, but that didn’t happen,” said Ms. Stasch. Nevertheless, TNCS elementary students enjoyed this very special field trip immensely. At that time, she explained, the students were actively conducting researching for their presidential profiles, so they were excited to see the official portrait of their particular president. They had also been studying various White House “nooks and crannies” in class and had a ball applying their knowledge to the real thing. “I was glad to see them having so much fun as they made those connections,” said Ms. Stasch.

For actual Presidents’ Day, they recapped what they learned during their unit on presidents. They did some reflective writing in the president they had profiled earlier in the year. Their presidential subjects included the historical heavy weights—George Washington, John Quincy Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, James Madison, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson—to those who have held office in their (or, more likely, their parents’ or grandparents’ lifetimes)—Jimmy Carter,  Barack Obama, both George Bushes, Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight D. Eisenhower—to even some of the more obscure names among the pantheon of 43 (note that although we have had 44 presidencies, Glover Cleveland held two nonconsecutive seats)—such as  Benjamin Harrison, Chester Arthur, and William Howard Taft. Students chose their own subjects, based on no set criteria, except that duplicating subjects was vetoed.

Ms. Stasch’s multi-semester unit merged historical and present-day politics, in a particularly relevant year, and even provided multiple opportunities for the students to actively apply their knowledge to activities happening both within and outside the classroom—and the great timing was no accident. “I wanted the students to gain insight into what their parents would be experiencing this year, to see and participate in the voting process, and to understand the role of the president including helping communities,” she said. She’ll no doubt be elected to a second term for the 2016–2017 school year by a landslide!