How Do We Build Community When We Can’t Be Near Each Other? (with No One Left Unhelped and Baltimore Community Mediation Center)

This is the fifth part of a series. Go to Part 1, Part 2Part 3 or Part 4.

It’s been six weeks since I first launched this series. At that time I think some people thought we might be back to normal by now, or close to it. Now it seems the future is more uncertain than ever.

That leaves many of us with no choice but to focus on the present, doing whatever we can to make the best of today. But to the extent that we dare to look toward the future, we may find ourselves imagining something radically different than what we knew before. The idea of “back to normal” is quickly vanishing from many of our minds.

BCMC mural

There will be a toll, for sure. The world is closing in on 200,000 deaths from coronavirus, a figure that’s already difficult to process and is still rising. Economically, the U.S. unemployment rate is over 20 percent. Closer to home, Maryland’s largest employer is beginning pay cuts and layoffs as it expects to lose $375 million this fiscal year. No matter how or when the COVID-19 pandemic ends, it’s not going to be easy to recover from the blows we are taking as a society.

At the same time, moments like this do give us a chance to reassess our priorities. Issues in the community that have had difficulty gaining traction – like homelessness, mobility, digital access, mass incarceration and others – suddenly seem to be getting much more attention. Maybe it shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic, but I do find myself feeling hopeful that we as a society will come out of this experience with a healthier set of priorities than we had before, and a newfound will to put those priorities into action.

Meanwhile, there are still dedicated people in the present working to make Baltimore the best it can be. I talked to Lisa Molock of No One Left Unhelped and the team at Baltimore Community Mediation Center, asking them how we build community when we can’t be near each other. Here’s what they said…

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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

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How Do We Build Community When We Can’t Be Near Each Other? (with No Boundaries Coalition and Impact Hub Baltimore)

I realize that renaming this project “Interaction Baltimore” three weeks ago, just as interaction was about to become one of the most feared activities on the planet, might not have been the most timely decision. But as much of the city, and much of the world, is coming to a standstill in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, I do feel this project gives me an opportunity to shine a light on the work in our local communities that is still important in the face of a challenge like this.

My original plan for this week was to write about Strong City Baltimore‘s move to East Baltimore, and what that could mean for an underserved community. Then next week I was going to spotlight Baltimore Safe Haven‘s efforts to minimize the harm that routinely comes to some of the most marginalized people in our city. I’m shelving those stories for the moment. I’ll publish them when all of our minds aren’t focused on this global threat.

But as much as coronavirus is rightly demanding our attention, it also seems wrong to forget about the people working to make our city safer, stronger, healthier and more integrated. That work is still going on, even if it’s harder now, and I want people to know about it.

Always B-Mo small

I want to see how the coronavirus threat, and the social distancing that has become necessary because of it, is affecting local communities in Baltimore. I want to know how people are dealing with it, what lessons they’re learning and what they anticipate in the weeks and months ahead. So I’m reaching out to people all over the city and asking them, How do we build community when we can’t be near each other?

This is the beginning of a series. I don’t know how long it will last. At this time, there hasn’t been a reported case of coronavirus in Baltimore City (though there have been two in the county). The conversations I’ve had so far have reflected the fact that we are in the preventative stage right now, and not dealing with a local outbreak. I don’t know where they will go from here.

Yesterday I talked to Nabeehah Azeez and Ashiah Parker at No Boundaries Coalition and Michelle Geiss at Impact Hub Baltimore. Here’s what they said…

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