The time is now to help make Baltimore healthier for all its citizens

Last week I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a lengthy discussion convened by The Aspen Institute about Baltimore’s future, with particular focus on the role that the arts and culture could play in improving Equity, Diversity and Social Cohesion in our city.

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. From time to time it hosts seminars which help participants reflect on what they think makes a good society, thereby deepening knowledge, broadening perspectives and enhancing their capacity to solve the problems leaders face.

The seminar group was hosted by Sammy Hoi, President of MICA, and included representatives from Baltimore’s arts community as well as nationally recognized thinkers and funders for the arts. The first day included site visits to the Baltimore Design School, the Youth Resiliency Institute in Cherry Hill and a BSO OrchKids site in West Baltimore.

On the second day we heard from Maria Rosario Jackson, a social policy expert who’s focused on the arts in DC & in California. She talked about the ways artists and art education can strengthen communities, with a particular focus on “Creative Kitchens,” the places where communities “cook” their cultural activities for consumption within those communities. This grassroots approach could, very naturally, improve cohesion within cultural groups and present an interesting cultural vitality in the broader community.

Baltimoreans spoke about their vision of Baltimore’s future in the context of Equity, Diversity and Social Cohesion. I’m not alone in noticing that the division in Baltimore’s neighborhoods is particularly stark. In fact, the differences in wealth between adjacent neighborhoods are among the most extreme nationwide. A recent study found that the life expectancy in Baltimore’s poor neighborhoods was 22 years less than in its wealthy ones.

The disinvestment in certain neighborhoods is historic and intentional, dating from at least the 1930s and it has brought us to today’s situation and April’s uprisings. To learn more from the Aspen Institute’s findings and work group recommendations, click here.

Surely these are not the characteristics that we would envision in our dream of a “perfect Baltimore.”  What to do about this situation and can arts and culture play a role in making our city healthier for all its citizens?

Certainly city and state government play a role in providing resources for development of the built environment and for social services. Those resources need to be applied equitably with an inclusive vision of our city’s future. That said, arts and culture can provide critical human connections for young and old alike. Beyond this, art and culture provide an important way for each of us to make meaning of our lives and of the communities in which we build with those lives.

The programs we visited last week, the Youth Resiliency Institute in Cherry Hill, OrchKids in West Baltimore and the Design School are all doing this work with our young people.  Through our high school and TWIGS programs, BSA also provides a place for youth from all over Baltimore to come together to make meaning of their lives.

BSA is also reaching out to communities that may have a difficult time getting to us through TWIGS with other programs. We have a partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs at a few of their sites, and another new program to introduce students from two challenged communities in East Baltimore to the arts at BSA.

All of these efforts thrive because artists care and each effort makes a difference. But each is limited in its reach and struggles to find support to continue its work. We need something more to reach a positive tipping point in providing powerful experiences for ALL of Baltimore’s young people. We need organized, coordinated programs that reach all of the kids in Baltimore.

Interestingly, one of the mayoral candidates did attend some of this seminar. And our brilliant leader, Sammy Hoi, composed an “open letter to the next mayor of Baltimore” summarizing many of the visions expressed around the (large) table.

Of course, one listening candidate and one letter have limited effect. To put ALL of Baltimore’s citizens in an optimistic place, to build the social cohesion that would benefit ALL of Baltimore’s residents will take a clear message from the larger community that this is the vision of the whole community.

All of the participants agreed upon one thing: Baltimore is at a critical point.

The nation is watching us, national foundations are watching us and we have a special opportunity and a serious charge to move forward in building an Equitable, Inclusive and Socially Cohesive city. Also—this is a limited time offer. The time is now.

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