How to do Real Good in Baltimore…

The road to West Baltimore is paved with good intentions.

As we wrestle with next steps for #OneBaltimore there will be many junctures in the road where we must choose and commit to a direction. Individuals seek to find their path and question how to invest their time, money, and energies.

I present one fellow ramblers humble guide as we wind our way through the crossroads ahead.

Join Up vs. Start Up

Perhaps you have a great idea you’re certain will help our city…just make sure it doesn’t exist yet.

Baltimore is FULL of amazing (and sporadically funded) grassroots organizations, community centers, churches, and schools already rooted in the communities we seeks to help. By joining something, you lend your human capitol to a hard working organization that has laid the foundations already. Your contributions (in whatever form they take) may allow them to scale and raise the visibility of the work they have been doing. What’s more, they will have undoubtedly made a lot of mistakes along the way that you will not have to replicate. Just learn from theirs!

On the other hand, if you have the expertise, network, time, and inspiration to start-up a brand new solution…you probably DON’T need this blog post telling you what to do. On the other hand, there are lots of model programs that have had remarkable community impact in other places. Maybe this is an ideal time for you to use your influence and expertise to bring those models here!

With vs. For

Prepositions are powerful. Mind them.

They tell us about the relationship between one noun and another. One person or place and another. They also tell us about social hierarchies. The best work we can do right now in the city is WITH not FOR. “For” implies a patron client relationship. A giver and a receiver. The active and the passive.

Look for programs where the people in the immediate community are taking leadership roles. Look for organizations who are not “speaking for” but “giving voice.” Look for structures where people are marching hand in hand, not single file. It is so tempting to use our position, our title, to create a distance between ourselves and others. We insulate ourselves through our inaccessibility. We remain unaffected.

There are no strangers here...just unmet friends.
There are no strangers here…just unmet friends.

There is no “us” and “them”. There is only us.

Baltimore tolls for thee.

Transactional vs. Transformational

Should we give of our money or give of our time?


Both are needed. Both are impactful…but their effects on the inner landscape are markedly different.

Psychologically when we give from our monetary resources, it can create the illusion that our debt to our fellow human beings is paid. They need. I pay. I’m done. Consider how many times we’ve heard (or said) “I pay my taxes so…” Usually what comes next is either about someone else who needs to do something we shouldn’t have to. Shovel our street. Police our community. Educate our children. This phrase is used to absolve us of calls to obligation.

We love our bill of rights…we’re not so keen on our bill of obligations.

Giving money can actually be easier and safer than giving of ourselves. We don’t necessarily feel anymore connected or compelled by the cause than before the donation. And if it is purely functioning to alleviate the cognitive dissonance raised by our conscience…then perhaps we need to question whether we’re giving the right thing.

The Creative Alliance holds a free family night where folks can make peace art and #BeMore together
The Creative Alliance holds a free family night where folks can make peace art and #BeMore together

Remember, too, that money is but one kind of wealth. Communities that lack monetary capital are often abundant in untapped social resources and unnoticed sources of resilience. Ask what insights they can offer you.

Sustainable vs. Suitcase Projects

I worked with a phenomenal community organizer in Nairobi. Ken is from Kibera (one of the largest slums in Africa) and one room home served as a community hub where he hosted civic clubs, meetings, even political campaigns. When the US Embassy had visitors they wanted to see Kibera, they called Ken. He had landed good job working with youth at the YMCA and made enough money to move out of Kibera, but he chose to remain living where he worked. He was committed. He was present. He was dependable. You could always find and call on Ken.

Contrast this with the church groups, tour groups, development groups who would come into his home for…a day, a week, a month…run a camp, complete a project, build a school, and then be gone forever. Ken called these “Suitcase Projects.” No one in place to manage them. No mechanism to sustain or maintain them over time.

Many of us in the next few weeks will take a collection, make a drop-off, paint a clever picketing sign, attend an event…but what will we be doing a month from now? A year? I would challenge all of us that after an initial survey of the options, we pick and stick to one particular initiative.

Outreach vs. In-reach

If we can shape the landscape within, we will see it reflected in the landscape without.

Ask yourself: “Why am I doing this?” Whatever the “this” of which you speak, if you hope to change others without changing yourself…turn back now. If you hope to get others to understand their own frailties and blind spots but refuse to face your own…

You will fail. You will be disappointed. You will become cynical.

You will throw up your hands and say, “I tried.” “They didn’t want my help.” “They don’t know what’s good for them.”

You do not need to rescue.

You are not here to save.

Work like “this” reveals the dark and treacherous valleys of our own hearts. Change doesn’t always feel good. Prepare yourself for uncomfortable moments. Awkward conversations. Conflicts and misunderstandings. Name your fears with others. Talk about them with people you trust. Confess them to people you’re learning to trust.

Expect to see the greatest changes within. Not without.

Understanding vs. Confusion

“I understand.”

This phrase seems harmless enough. But do we? Can we? Don’t confuse sympathy with empathy. Be wary of faulty comparisons that you share to show how you have struggled, too. Your intentions, though good, can come off as trivializing the deep wounds and history of the community you seek to work with.

For many of us, our desire to volunteer is motivated by a desire to understand the puzzle of people and places in our city. I would suggest an alternative goal:

Seek to be confused.

Margaret Wheatley writes a beautiful essay on the topic, warning us from rushing to quickly to overly simplistic answer and solutions simply to get rid of the discomfort of confusion. “We cannot be creative if we refuse to be confused.”

Do not run from uncomfortable emotions that may arise when you face stark injustice and blatant inequality. “Compassion” literally means, “to suffer with.” NOT “to solve for.”


Whatever you do, try to make your work visible and accessible. Let it inspire others. Invite people along for the journey both literally and virtually. If you lack courage, bring a buddy. Find good (but different) folks and follow them into new spaces. Ask how you can connect these new spaces with those you’ve come from.

#BeMore Peaceful
#BeMore Peaceful

Be the synapses you wish to see in the world!

Think of this as HUMAN infrastructure and yourself as a CIVIC engineer. The work you do will support the physical developments and renovations to come. The work YOU do is more cost effective, though, and is less likely to rile the neighbors and cause traffic delays.

Leadership Structures are changing. Social Hierarchies leveling. Systems becoming more adaptive and overlapping. Whether you are leading or joining in the work ahead, we must be open to the emergence of new leaders. We must expect that reform and renewal will come from unexpected directions. We must give ourselves permission to be surprised…

…by gang members and board members,

…by students and retirees,

…by others. By ourselves.

I have found myself on either side of these dichotomies. I have failed. I have fucked up…


A wise nun once told me, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” This is gonna be messy. It won’t be anywhere near perfect.

But bring your good. It’s good enough.


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