News and analysis
April 11, 2016

One Year Later, Hope and Despair Found in Equal Measure in Baltimore

Bryan Woolston

Freddie Gray's likeness looks out on West Baltimore, where nonprofits, companies, and local officials are trying to address the problems that led to his death last April.

It’s one week before federal taxes are due, and staff members at the Center for Urban Families are hurrying through the hallways to the computer lab, where residents are seeking help with piles of documents.

At this nonprofit in West Baltimore, tax day seems to loom larger than another impending date: April 19, the first anniversary of the day Freddie Gray died in police custody, setting off days of what leaders here call "unrest." Although the upcoming commemoration of Mr. Gray’s death is surely not far from people’s minds, in this impoverished part of town, the basic responsibilities of life, like properly filing a 1040EZ form, demand attention.

To a busload of visitors touring Baltimore on a day trip organized by the Council on Foundations during its 2016 conference in Washington, the message is clear: A lot of work remains.

"We’re still in triage mode," says Michael Cryor, a local business and civic leader who chairs OneBaltimore, the city’s campaign to address its racial inequity and economic disparity.

A year is not nearly enough time to assess whether the city’s government, nonprofits, and companies have made progress in their efforts to fix the entrenched problems that sparked protests following Mr. Gray’s death, Mr. Cryor tells the group. After all, Baltimore is still grappling with the fallout of the riots of 1968.

"How do you address multigenerational consequences of despair?" he asks.

And yet Mr. Cryor hasn’t given up trying — and neither have the city’s nonprofits and grant makers.

"We are human beings with the capacity to heal, recover, and restore," he says.

Role of Philanthropy

Mr. Gray’s face watches over the street where he was arrested from a somber mural on a building. Foundation leaders from as far away as Alaska take in the scene quietly through the bus windows as tour leaders discuss the discriminatory policies that shaped Baltimore for hundreds of years.  

"The enduring velocity of those decisions is alive and well" despite the fact that the city government now has black leaders, says Fagan Harris, chief executive at Baltimore Corps, a nonprofit that places young professionals in public-service jobs.

Earlier they listened as Celeste Amato, president of The Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, described how the "unrest" of last April "provoked everyone in the city to have really honest conversations." She explained how the association met with the city’s police commissioner to discuss potential funding plans for adding the recommended number of psychologists to the police department’s staff.

"Our role as philanthropists is making sure those conversations don’t stop," she said.

And they asked Joe Jones, chief executive of the Center for Urban Families, what churches have done to strengthen Baltimore. Not enough, he said. Small businesses? They need capital to grow and hire more employees from the neighborhood. How to help people suffering from substance abuse? Welcome them in. How to authentically serve minority men like Freddie Gray? Respect them.

Connecting Police and Youths

In Leakin Park — of Serial fame — the foundation leaders gather to learn how the protests inspired one donor to help break down barriers between police officers and city children.

As the news unfolded last spring, Kip Fulks, an executive at the Baltimore-based company Under Armour, committed an undisclosed sum to expand a program of Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound that brings police officers and students together in the park to build relationships while tackling outdoor adventure challenges. The donation will allow the program to grow from serving 360 participants annually to serving 3,000 officers — the entire police force — and 3,000 middle- and high-school students in 18 months.

Expanding the program required not just money but also pressure from donors, says Ginger Mihalik, executive director of Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound: It took Under Armour’s "political support" to persuade the city police department to make participation mandatory for all officers.

It also required data from Johns Hopkins University studies showing how effectively the program changes the perspectives of police officers and children, Ms. Mihalik says. The next step will be collecting data about whether the program affects the city’s crime statistics.  

Thinking Big

At the tour’s end, Mr. Cryor challenges foundation leaders to think big.

"Philanthropy is fragmented. I want to see foundations fund something systematically meaningful together," he says. "What are we doing as a funding world to see what it is we can do en masse? I’m not sure we ever fund enough at levels enough to make a difference."

As the bus pulls out of Baltimore, one visitor, Arleta Little of the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis, says she’s struck by the inspiration she felt despite the difficulty of the work taking place in the city.

"For the people who live and work here, hopelessness is not a luxury they have," she says.

The emphasis she saw on local partnerships and relationships is essential to healing what’s broken in Baltimore and other places like it, Ms. Little believes.

"Nobody else is going to do it for us," she says. "We have to do it for ourselves."

Send an email to Rebecca Koenig.