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.


Rebuilding the road to Baltimore Love

We have confused our love of a landscape with a love of the community. But can we claim to love Baltimore without loving the people within it? Can we claim to understand the city without seeking to understand its citizens?

The strange story of my deep love of Baltimore begins with an unlikely matchmaker.

“Good Morning Sisters and Brothers!”

Whenever Ralph Moore speaks to a group of people (large or small) he begins with this heartfelt greeting.I always waited in anticipation for Mr. Moore’s “address” during the morning faculty meeting at St. Frances Academy because I knew he would tell me something I didn’t know or help me love someone I didn’t…yet.

A fixture in Baltimore’s civil society, Mr. Moore has long been a champion for various marginalized residents of the city. When I knew him he ran the community center next to St. Frances Academy. He hosted career fairs, neighborhood Halloween nights, peace camps in the summer, clothes drives in the winter. He was also tasked with giving the newly arrived Jesuit Volunteers a tour of this city where we would work for the span of a year.

A love affair between a 23 year-old Midwestern white girl and “Charm City” was no sure thing.

Fresh out of college in Minnesota, I had no context to understand the vast cultural and regional divides between growing up in southern Missouri and growing up in the inner city. It would have been so easy for my fledgling relationship with this complicated landscape to go awry, mired in mistrust and misunderstanding.

Instead, I first saw the city reflected in the eyes of Ralph, one of its devoted children. When somebody gazes at a space with such committed love in their eyes…well, the courage of that devotion can be contagious. Mural 2 Ralph didn’t begin our guided tour of Baltimore with the Inner Harbor. Didn’t take us to Camden Yards. He didn’t wax poetic about Natty Boh or Domino Sugar. Never once mentioned Edgar Allen Poe.

Instead, he began with the busses. Ralph, has never gotten a driver’s license. This was one way, he said, to always remain in solidarity with the working class and low-income communities he wished to serve. He said there was no better way to get to know a city than to hop on the nearest public transportation line. The physical infrastructure of a place reflects the human infrastructure of the society.

Ralph noted that most of the contiguous transit lines in Baltimore (including the light rail) run north to south, not east to west. This makes it easier for the higher income Baltimore County residents to patronize the inner harbor, Camden yards, Ravens’ stadium and for Southern residents to shop at the malls and eat at the restaurants in northern Towson. It makes it harder, however, for the low-income population located east and west (and those most likely to use public transportation) to get to work, to the super market, to school.

“Why would that be? That doesn’t make any sense!”

The same reason, he said, there are no metro stops in the richer areas of DC such as around Georgetown. Yes, those stops would benefit young people, but they would also make it easier for “them” to get “here.” He noted that MLK Boulevard, just like in so many other cities, serves as the dividing line between those in Baltimore who have and those who have not.

Before this moment, I had always seen roads as something that got you places…not something that kept you FROM places.

Ralph didn’t stop there. He pointed out that while northern cities have “good sides” and “bad sides” of town, southern cities like Baltimore have pockets of poverty bumping up against enclaves of wealth. This, he said was due to the necessity of having slave quarters in close proximity to the masters homes in which the slaves served. Though slavery was abolished, the structures that supported it remained, the juxtaposition of poverty made more visible, more present, more discomforting to those, in more well-off areas.

He went on not to praise but to critique the Inner Harbor. He spoke of promises made and broken by politicians, about over investment in the commercial waterfront to the neglect of the nearby West Side communities.

Perhaps it seems strange that romance with an urban landscape would begin with such stark realities, but what Ralph helped me realize is that to understand people, you must understand the places that have shaped them. As Winston Churchill once observed, “We shape our buildings; thereafter our buildings shape us.” Mural 1 Many of us have been selective in our love of the city. We have allowed ourselves to be shaped by parts of it, but few of us have given ourselves over to the whole.

There are those of us in the city who have never ventured west of MLK. Never renewed our license at the MVA at Mondawmin Mall. Never realized that the gothic castle we pass on 83 as we enter downtown is not a fairyland but a federal prison. We have confused our love of a landscape with a love of the community.

But can we claim to love Baltimore without loving the people within it? Can we claim to understand the city without seeking to understand its citizens? All its citizens? We become uncomfortable when the city view we love is obstructed by the people we don’t know how to love… …yet.

As we clean-up and start re-building in our city, our eyes are rightly turning towards each other, but they must also turn to spaces. We must ask if our spaces are equally inviting and accessible not just to various races, but various age groups. Is there a place for the “whiteheads” to enlighten the “young bucks.” Is there a place for the children to enliven their elders?

How do we grow spaces we can fall in love with as we fall (back) in love with each other? This is not a Utopian dream. Ralph Moore, his wife Dana, and people like them have been forging accessible spaces at boundaries and border crossings for decades. His community center with its peace camps in the summer and career fairs in the winter is a multi-generational space where the needs of all community members might be revealed and addressed.

One thing I Believe (Hon) about #OneBaltimore is that it is about to undergo a dramatic reshaping. The lines that have divided us are eroding and we must choose whether we will invest in walls or build bridges instead…because on the other side of the valley, the love of our life may be waiting.

#BeMoreCircles – Baltimore’s Summer of Peace

I often wake in the morning with ideas and insights my subconscious labored over in the night. This morning I came to consciousness with my son’s little body curled against me…and the  image of dialogue groups scattered throughout the city throughout the summer in public spaces around public events.

Intentional, accessible conversations and reflections on the fringes of First Thursdays, or during Concerts in the Park, or after the public pools let out. All summer we will be gathering together. As we do, we will be wondering how to reconcile the beauty of humans together (which we see daily in our city) with the chaos of humans together (which we saw on Monday).

Why not wander towards each other so we can wonder out loud together?


Building bridges between communities, between generations, between races. Just. Between. …seems to be at least ONE solution towards the #OneBaltimore we are beginning to see emblazoned on poster board and message boards around our city and throughout social Media. To some, this may seem idealistic or unattainable, but there is a long standing method that facilitates this process…

…Speaking with each other.

Not speaking to or at or even for but WITH.

Too often when we gather with crowds, we go with our friends, and we stay with our friends. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that there is not a mechanism or space to make or invite new meaningful connections with others, even if we wanted to. Open spaces for dialogue surrounding public events could change that.

Summer of Peace
At my high school, we created community in the public space of our courtyards through sidewalk chalk and the question: “What does a blended school mean to you?”

So how might this look?

I can imagine myself trekking up to the Pagoda on a Sunday afternoon, finding some shade a decent distance from the concert stage, laying down a few more blankets than I need, and propping up a poster that simply says “#BeMoreCircles :Speak and Listen here”. People wander over. Share some snacks. And get to wondering.

Perhaps we have weekly “Points to Ponder” suggested on a #BeMoreCircles Facebook page. Perhaps we’ve established weekly themes, so there is some continuity between these organic conversations that might pop up around the city. And perhaps afterwards people can take their insights from that physical meeting and share them in that virtual space. Continue the connections there. Build upon these new relationships.

For some this may feel like TOO much. For some, not enough.

Think of all that might go wrong!

What if someone just takes my snacks?

What if someone sits down and never leaves?

What if folks start arguing?

What if..

These are fair concerns. Something else to consider is the simple fact that even if we are gathering in public spaces, we are gathering in “our” public spaces. We are venturing to the events in “our” park, but we are likely unaware or uncomfortable venturing into “other people’s” parks. Are they safe? Am I welcome?

Something like this takes courage…and perhaps at least a little training.

I might mention, here, that I have a degree in conflict resolution, training as a multi-cultural educator, and have spent hours in and beyond the classroom locally and internationally sitting with groups of people and asking questions around culture, creativity, and conflict.

I only say this to acknowledge that the commitment to peacemaking is indeed a long journey and we are all at different places as we seek to understand the roots of conflict in ourselves and our fellow human beings.

But on a picnic blanket adjacent to a concert seems like a safe place to start.

If you are intrigued by this possibility, reach out. I’ve tagged a number of my peacemaking sisters and brother in this post hoping to get a conversation started. Asking what we need. Who we might partner with. How we might train folks quickly for a Baltimore Summer of Peace.

#BeMore in the Classroom

If we can solve it in the classroom, we can solve it in the world.

This is what I have come to believe after 12 years in the American classroom. It was reaffirmed Monday as I watched children in backpacks hurling rocks at the “rule of law.” People (young and old) don’t attack communities of which they feel a part. They attack communities from which they feel estranged.

I started teaching in Baltimore city when I was 23. Over a decade later I remain certain that though schools didn’t cause the VAST majority of problems our students bring with them to the classroom, there is no better place to begin solving these issues not FOR the students…but WITH the students. Mind your pronouns. They matter.

Over the last few days I have been inundated with love and questions from present and former students about this event. Today I received the following email from a former student that illustrates the tremendous roll civic classrooms can play in the lives of our young citizens:

Yesterday on my way to school I had a lot of thoughts and emotions about what is happening in Baltimore and I wondered which class I would be able to express my feelings. I walked through my day in my head and I got really sad when I realized I’m not taking any classes at UMBC where I can have that close connection with the students and faculty like I did in Signature. I kept thinking back to the day we had in class after the Boston bombing and I remember everyone expressing their feelings and Gaby crying and everyone understanding where she was coming from. I think when a traumatic event happens, it’s good to have a community around you that you feel comfortable enough to express your feelings with and I think that’s a big part of what Signature is; a caring and understanding community.

I feel really grateful that I got to experience this community. The people that I met along the way helped me grow as a person and taught me numerous lessons, but most importantly to always listen to what someone has to say even if you don’t agree with it because you might be able to learn from them. I’ve been thinking about the people rioting a lot and there’s no way I can fully understand the pain and suffering they’ve been experiencing for years but I do sympathize with them. I also don’t blame the people who are rioting. I realize it is not the most productive way to handle a situation, but then I remember that when I’m stressed and angry and bottle it in for a long time, I do end up exploding after awhile (aka, my meltdown in the Signature office senior year). These people have been oppressed for decades, I can’t even begin to imagine the kind of pain and anger they have in them. But I’ve been wondering if there was a place for these people to be heard and properly express their feelings without judgement, like we had in Signature, what kind of a difference that would make in their lives.

Public schools are public space. They are where America meets itself. They are the first society where our young citizens learn how to become active or disengaged. Empowered or helpless. Every teacher (whether they realize it or not) is the community organizer of their classroom reinforcing or renovating the social infrastructures of that their students will go on to replicate in the world beyond.

Arlington Declaration

It is time we understand the classroom as a direct reflection of the community it serves. It is time we recognize both teachers AND students as CIVIC engineers. It is time we start pursuing COMMUNITY core, not just the Common Core. It is not about propaganda or politicizing the classroom. It’s about understanding the classroom as the microcosm of the society we will live in 20 years from now.

Rebuild the classroom, rebuild Baltimore.

Here are just a few glimpses of students seizing their citizenship in the classroom…

Declaration of Sig-Dependence 

“The People” vs “Some People” – Transitional Democracy in the Classroom

People like you can learn to Listen, too

The Fabric of Society is Woven in the Classroom

Muslim Amercian (sp?) Idenity (sp?) and the power of imperfectly wonderful youth

The Youth shall set you free

Many people have a so called “bucket list” of places they’d like to travel before they die. I am no different. But for me, I’ve come to realize I’m drawn to places I want to “meet.” Places that can be my teachers. Places that will confuse as much as enlighten me.

From the time I was young, I always remember being drawn to the continent of Africa. Who can explain these seemingly random affinities? I can’t, but I have come to trust them.

My second day in Nairobi, Kenya as an Advocacy Peace Fellow, I sat in a bar drinking Tusker beer with my colleague from the Undugu Society and one of her friends.  Her friend was surprised to learn I had only been in the country two days.  “You seem so comfortable.” I was. And I wasn’t.

I went to Kenya not with answers. I went with questions. I went expecting to be discomforted by the disparities I encountered. I went hoping to be divested of Western “solutions” related to aide, Millenium Development Goals, and the like.

I ended up spending most of my “free” time in Kibera a slum, not out of a sense of charity, but because that’s where the life was, the youth were. It’s where I could witness the rich civil society unfolding, refolding, transforming in the hands of the youth. It’s where I could listen to their stories of creative and peaceful rebellion.  It’s where I found the most friendship, partnership, and hope.

If ever I feel false or out of touch with myself, if ever I feel too ambitious and distrusting of my motives, it is youth that bring me back. Their raw and often accidental authenticity help me not to lose my own. The youth are my truth.

I may make it to those countries that I hope will be my teachers, but even if I don’t, I know that I will always learn in the presence of youth, Kenyan or otherwise.

Follow the links above to read more stories of  youth civil society and self advocacy in Kenya.