In April 2015, civil unrest in Baltimore City in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray—an unarmed black man who died in police custody—brought a renewed focus on finding solutions to socioeconomic and political disparities. In cities like Baltimore, where predominantly low-income communities of color face abysmal educational, health, and economic outcomes, it is hard not to point to the vestiges of structural racism, which are both deep-seated and historical. Despite being located within the nation's wealthiest state, nearly half (49.7 percent) of Baltimore City residents have income 50 percent below the poverty level (or $5,385 per individual), whereas the wage to afford housing in the city is $23.69 per hour or over $49,000 per year (Maryland Alliance for the Poor, 2016).
Given these data, solutions to ameliorate these disparities will not be found overnight. Nor can we assume that transactional service provision, which focuses on programs and services to address micro-level social functioning, will alone address such issues. This city and other urban areas that share similar challenges are at a critical juncture, and shared power is necessary to bridge interpersonal relationships from family to community levels (Solomon, 1987). Although conversations around these issues are not always easy, they are imperative. We must begin to create a culture in which community involvement is at the forefront of creating societal-level solutions.
The purpose of this commentary is to share how one community-based organization, which serves as a field placement site for four MSW students at the University of Maryland School of Social Work in Baltimore City, is spearheading a community conversation series to discuss the city's pressing issues in the aftermath of civil unrest—with attention to its first conversation focused on identifying solutions to structural racism. Community engagement and community-focused solutions are so often taught in our schools of social work. However, social work students often end up working for organizations that do not model these concepts in their culture. Through foundation support and partner collaboration, this organization operated outside of its usual approach of transactional service provision to facilitate transformation-focused discussion through community-building activities to address disparities, oppression, and racism in their communities.
Diverse and inclusive communitywide dialogue is a necessary step toward meaningful socioeconomic and political change (Haynes & White, 1999). Within Baltimore City, local and state government, community-based, philanthropic, and faith-based organizations as well as grassroots movements have responded to the death of Freddy Gray in a variety of ways (for example, funding new programs and expanding existing programs, proposing new policies and practices, and organizing on a community level). At the time of this writing, many of these efforts are still underway.
On October 1, 2015—six months after the death of Freddie Gray—the Center for Urban Families (also referred to as CFUF or “the Center”) with financial support from PNC Bank held the first of a three-part series of town hall–style community conversations (CFUF, 2015). This conversation was titled “The Future of Baltimore: Conversations and Solutions: How We Got to Where We Are as a City.” Elizabeth M. Nix, PhD, assistant professor, Division of Legal, Ethical, and Historical Studies at University of Baltimore, initiated the community conversation. This was a presentation of Baltimore's historical trauma, which elucidated the causes of intergenerational poverty and cultural dispossession (Okoye, Nwakibu, Ibelegbu, Rodriguez, & Alshahwan, 2015). Nix asked, “How did Baltimore create an environment with such low chances of upward mobility? How did we create these neighborhoods in Baltimore?” She proposed that the answer was structural racism.
Nix's talk was followed by a panel of Baltimore City residents, advocates, and policymakers who responded to her presentation. Pursuant to the panel discussion, a planned community dialogue with audience members took place. Through this effort, CFUF endeavored to create an atmosphere to foster solution-oriented discussion to reverse the historical course of structural racism in Baltimore City. The community audience members then gave CFUF their ideas for change.
Solutions to Diminish the Effects of Structural Racism in Baltimore
Cultural humility as conceptualized by Tervalon and Murray-García (1998) consists of lifelong dedication to self-assessment and self-critique and to rectifying power imbalances (in this instance, the power imbalances among races). Cultural humility, as described by respondent's statements, reflects understanding and strengthening relationships between races. The narratives also incorporate a necessity to go beyond awareness to combat institutional racism and promote integration and racial equality.
Increased Community Engagement
According to McCloskey, McDonald, and Cook (2013), several critical organizing principles (that is, fairness, justice, empowerment, participation, and self-determination) are components of community engagement. These principles were apparent in the responses. Specifically, suggestions encouraged more community- and national-level conversations, which should be community led, so that such concerted efforts would allow for diverse voices to join together.
Laws, Policies, and Structures
Many community members appeared to agree that laws, policies, and structural reform are needed to change structural racism in Baltimore. Community members highlighted the need for more and better leaders at every level. Those who spoke also wanted to fix the systems that perpetuate structural racism. People made a connection between the city's laws and policies and the lack of economic opportunity (discussed in the next section).
Participants raised a myriad of solutions as crucial to economic opportunity. These include wealth redistribution, greater economic investment in underprivileged people and neighborhoods, jobs creation, workforce development, income equality, economic literacy, more businesses, mandatory hiring of Baltimore City residents, and the need to hire individuals returning to their communities from incarceration.
Education and Jobs
Many community participants touched on the topic of improved education. Commenters emphasized the need for a stronger and improved education system across demographic (such as race and age) groups. Other comments reflected the need to change funding priorities from corrections to education.
Change in Attitudes
In an effort to attain community-level reconciliation and healing, individual attitudes ought to change (Shapiro, 2005). Sentiments relating to becoming more honest, open-minded, aware, and hopeful toward one another and about the future of Baltimore were raised.
Discussions involving healing historical and structural racism are not the most comfortable and should not be taken lightly. Haynes and White (1999) noted that “social work needs to build real, not artificial, bridges to communities” (p. 389). The community conversation on October 1, 2015, was a first step toward critical analysis and consciousness raising. A sense of hope, reconciliation, and a need for action were apparent from community input. Through this series of community conversations, CFUF is participating in a healing and solution-focused process. Other organizations in Baltimore are incorporating a host of strategies and share similar intent—to reconcile community relations and restore power in the city. These conversations will foster deeper efforts toward inclusive critical consciousness that will raise awareness and spur on community action, particularly for residents who are most affected by historical and contemporary trauma stemming from structural racism.
CFUF's community-engaged approach to address structural racism is consistent with the intergroup approach, developed by Potapchuk (2007), that brings together racially diverse groups to dismantle stereotypes, build trust, and problem solve. Community-based institutions serving low-income populations must develop new collaborative approaches to solve complex issues (Meehan, Reinelt, & Perry, 2009). The second community conversation provided an opportunity to go deeper on this issue. Participants overwhelmingly recommended improved accountability systems for police misconduct as a means to enhance trust between the community and the police department. Other solutions called for cultural competence training for police, community-engaged policing approach, humanizing and respect for police, decriminalizing substance abuse, and alternatives to incarceration, among others.
Baltimore City is facing a critical local election in which the current mayor is not seeking reelection, the predominant political party is overcrowded with 15 mayoral candidates, and at least one-third of city council seats are expected to turn over (Broadwater & Wenger, 2016). Thus, these community conversations are timely, critically important, and necessary to provide an opportunity for community leaders and city and statewide decision makers to engage in productive dialogue focused on solutions to structural racism. Meanwhile, MSW students learn how to engage in true community practice.