Featured image: Baltimore’s skyline. Image from the City of Baltimore website.
Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has one hell of a job.
As the current mayor of Baltimore, Md. and the second woman to hold the office, she oversees the largest city in the state and the 26th most-populated city in the United States. Like any city, it’s not without its problems. Baltimore struggles with huge income disparities, which agitate deep-seated racial tensions and inequalities. Lack of access to well-paying jobs, education opportunities and reliable transportation in parts of the city make it difficult for some people to escape the cycle of poverty.
Speaking on a panel at SXSW Interactive 2016 on Saturday, March 12, Rawlings-Blake discussed what her city was doing to alleviate these problems for some of its poorest residents. Also on the panel was Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Bookings Institution, and Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin.
The discussion began with a conversation about scalability. While it’s a term usually used in reference to software, in this case the panelists were discussing how to expand social services such as job and transportation programs. Kneebone emphasized the need to look at these issues holistically, which means thinking about how to sustainably grow programs and systems that work well in one community in another. She also said policy makers need to take a holistic look at a low-income person’s entire eco-system of experience, which means considering factors such as ensuring access to quality housing in one area, reliable transportation across districts to reach services, and strong job opportunities across the city.
— Jill Reddish (@myJillieBean) March 12, 2016
Rawlings-Blake noted how Baltimore had put Kneebone’s words into practice, and it was just one example of using policy to affect social and economic change within Baltimore communities. In February of this year, the Baltimore’s Board of Estimates approved a memorandum of understanding on a blight elimination plan introduced by Rawlings-Blake and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. The plan focuses on demolishing an estimated 4,000 vacant properties.
“We’re focused on rebuilding homes and rebuilding neighborhoods,” Rawlings-Blake said.
In addition to a wide income inequality gap, Baltimore struggles with deep-seated racial inequalities. Those issues came to the forefront of national news broadcasts in April 2015, when demonstrators took to the streets to protest the death of Freddie Gray. Gray was a 25-year-old black man who was arrested April 12, 2015 and suffered serious injuries to his neck and spine while being transported in a police vehicle. He died a week later on April 19, 2015, sparking marches throughout the city.
The demonstrations bought issues surrounding police brutality and racial inequality to the forefront of residents’ minds, and images from the protests dominated the media. Rawlings-Blake was thrust into the situation, trying to mitigate concerns of angry citizens while working with police to limit the destruction of property and avoid all-out chaos.
“I can’t stress enough how around-the-clock it was, how much I talked to anyone and everyone to help get us there,” she said. “They weren’t alway good conversations, but that didn’t matter to me. What mattered was making sure we could bring peace.”
She said despite the riotous images the media portrayed, no one was killed and damage was kept a minimum.
“As ugly as it got — despite the endless loop on CNN — we were able to contain that for a few hours, and able to make sure no life was lost,” she said. “Damage was confined to an extent in very short order, and we were able to quickly re-open any businesses that were impacted.”
The conversation again came back to inequality on multiple levels, and how that contributes to the anger many Baltimore residents feel. The death of Gray was just a flashpoint that ignited emotions that had been bubbling under the surface for decades.
“There’s a lot of anger in this country right now, and it’s bursting out wherever there’s a path for it to come out,” Rawlings-Blake said. “We’re dealing with class issues, and the people who are being left behind are angry about it.”
While issues of race and income inequality certainly weren’t going to be resolved in an hour-long discussion, Rawlings-Blake explained the key was not to see issues as political and partisan, but rather as human issues powered by intense emotion, feelings of injustice and sometimes utter hopelessness.
“There’s frustration, anger, anguish and a lack of hope when the odds are so stacked against people,” she said, referring to cycles of systemic poverty that keep generations of people in poor communities poor. “It’s a story that plays out all over our country.”
To put an end to this vicious cycle, the city uses a variety strategies and has introduced a number of programs. For example, services like mobility counseling help low-income families move into areas with better opportunities, and the Baltimarket Healthy Stores Program partners with local retailers to increase supply and access to healthy foods. In the end, Rawlings-Blake said meeting people where they are, face-to-face, goes a long way in driving the conversation forward in a positive direction.
"We're not dealing with partisan issues, we're dealing with class issues." Baltimore Mayor Rawlings-Blake #SXSW2016
— Jill Reddish (@myJillieBean) March 12, 2016
“We’re not dealing with partisan issues, we’re dealing with class issues,” Rawlings-Blake said. “[I’m always thinking about] how can we connect to people who have been left out and left behind. I’m fighting for them, hopefully with them, to fix those structural issues that have lead to these problems.”