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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No Boundaries Coalition: “Baltimore Is a City of Innovation”

In December 2015, during an uptick in drug trafficking, representatives from No Boundaries Coalition lobbied the police department for more foot patrols along Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s the corridor where the historically black neighborhoods of Sandtown-Winchester, Upton, Druid Heights and Penn North intersect.

The police told them there were no resources for the patrols.

A day later, the same police department announced that after a recent surge in robberies in Bolton Hill, it would be tripling the patrol in the area by deploying four more officers.

Bolton Hill, as it happens, is on the other side – the whiter side – of Eutaw Place.

All these neighborhoods – along with Reservoir Hill and Madison Park – share a zip code: 21217. But for generations, that boundary of Eutaw Place has split Central West Baltimore into two different worlds.

21217

No Boundaries Coalition was formed in 2008 in an effort to erase that boundary. As CEO Ashiah Parker told me, the organization’s vision is a Central West Baltimore in which “neighbors can advocate together for issues that are important to these neighborhoods regardless of race, class or gender.”

It started with the Boundary Block Party, now an annual event to bring all the communities of 21217 together. In addition to food and entertainment, block parties over the years have also provided space for voter registration, listening campaigns, walking tours and other activities to connect residents to the broader community.

The block parties – which are now complemented with a more issues-oriented “CommUNITY Gathering” – gave rise to resident-led advocacy efforts in four main areas: public safety (including police accountability), health and food justice, youth organizing, and civic engagement.

The story I related above about the foot patrols came from a 2016 report called Over-Policed, Yet Underserved, which No Boundaries released in partnership with BUILD and UMBC. Later that year, the U.S. Department of Justice referenced that report multiple times in the summary of its investigation of the Baltimore Police Department. And as the consent decree took shape in the months that followed, No Boundaries played a significant role.

Over-Policed, Yet Underserved highlighted a dissonance that plagues residents in and around Sandtown. They feel unsafe because of the lack of police presence in the area to deter serious crime, and yet they also feel unsafe because of the overzealous policing of their everyday existence. A survey of 453 residents revealed 57 “unique accounts of misconduct,” including verbal harassment, humiliation and excessive use of force. Beyond that, 92% of the respondents refused to be on the record, “showing the extremely high level of fear community residents have of police retaliation.”

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