Building the City We Want When We Can’t Be Near Each Other (Café Recap)

We held the first Interaction Baltimore Virtual Café last Wednesday. We had a mix of people from all over the city, including Federal Hill South, Mt. Vernon, Southwest Baltimore, Old Goucher, Better Waverly, Druid Hill, Northeast Baltimore, and people who worked or went to school at MICA and the University of Baltimore.

We had two rounds of small-group conversation, discussing what we’ve seen that makes us hopeful, and how we might address those challenges going forward. At the end of each round, participants wrote their key takeaways on a piece of paper and held it up to the screen. Here’s a smattering of those responses:

Keeping children engaged and informed Plasma for plasma How do we move forward after COVID-19 without falling into the same routine?
Small businesses There are passionate people in the city they all want to make the city a better place Broad coalition
Sustain and empower smaller actors who are addressing challenges Keep and get people engaged Letter writing

“Plasma for plasma,” which actually came up as a takeaway for multiple people, probably bears some explanation. It was the brainchild of Dr. Sarah Federman of the University of Baltimore. The idea is that if you’ve had COVID-19 and get better, and then you donate your plasma so that the rest of us can benefit from the use of the antibodies, you would be rewarded with a plasma TV by one electronics company or another.

I should probably mention here that I encouraged everybody to be creative, think outside the box, and not worry about practicalities too much. I don’t know if we can all collectively convince Sony or Samsung to donate plasma TVs to this cause (but please let me know if you start that campaign). But this idea does illustrate how we can begin to build an economy that rewards behavior that benefits society, instead of one that all too often rewards antisocial behavior. And if we want to use the catchphrase “plasma for plasma” to signify that sentiment, I’m all for it.

Andrea Williams-Muhammad from Southwest Baltimore wrote “letter writing” as her key takeaway. In one of her small-group conversations she discussed the limitations of the virtual world with her fellow participants. Being stuck at home has made her appreciate human contact more. And one way she discovered to enhance the experience of human contact at this time was to begin exchanging handwritten letters with a friend in Virginia. Being able to leave something tangible for the recipient and receive something tangible from them offers a connection that is difficult to replicate online.

“Keep and get people engaged” and “broad coalition” highlighted a recurring theme during the conversation. At the end of the discussion, several people shared volunteer opportunities we could all get involved in.

There are the quarantine response teams that have popped up in many neighborhoods. (Though I will point out that parts of the city is still missing from that list, indicating that there is still be work to be done in order to ensure that people throughout Baltimore have help if they need it.) There is also the citywide Baltimore Neighbors Network sponsored by more than a dozen local organizations to connect people who need support with those who can offer it.

One of our guests was Lisa Molock, who thought that “social distancing” might be the wrong term to use. What we need now is physical distancing. It’s still important to stay social. Lisa’s organization, No One Left Unhelped, has launched a campaign called “Technology for Achievement,” which aims to put laptops and tablets in the hands of Baltimore schoolchildren so they can connect to the internet. (I’ve written about the digital divide on this site before.) The organization also has a “Stop the Spread” campaign, recruiting public figures like Felicia Pearson (“Snoop” from The Wire) to get the word out about safety during the pandemic on Instagram Live.

Sheri Parks, who serves as MICA’s Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, talked about the challenge of getting that message across and urged compassion for Baltimore’s young people who might not seem to be taking the crisis seriously. She has worked with several squeegee workers recently in creating Korner Boyz Enterprises to bring them closer to financial independence. When Sheri talked with some of them about the importance of safety practices during the pandemic, she said they told her, “We live with the fact that we could die … any day. So this isn’t new.”

Sheri’s comment highlighted one of the biggest challenges the city faces during and after the pandemic. WBAL’s Jayne Miller pointed out on Twitter on Monday that the 21215 zip code in Northeast Baltimore, which is 95% black and has a median income of $32,189,  had the most confirmed coronavirus cases in Maryland at 153. Meanwhile, North Baltimore’s 21210 zip code – 77% white and a median income of $117,951 – had just eight.

It’s difficult to find the words to encapsulate the disparity and the tragedy in those numbers. But I do believe we have to talk about it. The Café is built on the premise that conversation is how human beings create and transform the realities in which we live.

I hope to see you at the next one.