Editor’s note: This commentary was published on CenterMaryland.org on August 28, 2015.
By Donald C. Fry
In the wake of the civil unrest in late April many in the Baltimore community heard plenty of talk from naysayers in the region and among national press pundits that the basic social contract in Baltimore had been weak and frayed for a long time and now is broken altogether.
Those who know the city and many of the committed hard-working leaders in the business, government and other communities all too well didn’t buy this point of view. Not at all.
But it was clear that some new approaches and initiatives were needed to be put in place, sooner rather than later, to help address some of the economic disadvantages that have dogged many in our city for decades. Some of these played a role, to an extent, in the frustrations which surfaced in the form of unrest in April.
It is important that we put the civil unrest in the rearview mirror as best we can and instead look squarely at making sure that the road ahead is a bright one for Baltimore.
In short, we need to “reconnect Baltimore.”
We need to take proactive steps – not more study – to develop concrete programs and pathways to connect those in the Baltimore area who have a track record of education, work success and business acumen with those who haven’t enjoyed such advantages but could be groomed and poised for their own work and business success.
Such success can open doors to other realms of personal happiness and fulfillment. The ripple effect can change families, neighborhoods and even whole communities for the better.
That’s why I’m pleased that the Greater Baltimore Committee is undertaking a new long-term initiative with an array of innovative programs under an umbrella we are calling “Reconnecting Baltimore.”
One of the first new programs we plan to roll out is the Bridging the Gap Academy.
It’s a business accelerator program for minority and women-owned businesses under which the GBC will offer small business owners, operators and executives four-weeks of classes and training in such key “getting started” fundamentals as developing a business plan, business finance, tax regulations and human resources.
An advanced track will provide training in such areas as access to capital, strategic partnerships, joint ventures and contract law.
The hope is that graduates of the academy, which the GBC plans to launch within 45 days, will emerge from the program with invaluable training and information that can help the graduates take their businesses and careers to a whole new level.
They’ll also walk out of the program with connections to other business operators or executives that have graduated from the academy and are struggling with some of the same small business issues. Thus, they can build a network of peers to reach out to for solutions and perhaps develop new business deals or ventures.
An element of the academy that will pay big dividends for our graduates and the development of the region’s larger business community is a mentor-match program. Under this aspect of the program, each successful advanced level graduate will have an opportunity to be matched with a mentor in a similar field.
Long term, the Bridging the Gap Academy holds the promise of nurturing wealth creation among minority- and women-owned businesses. Managed properly with academy training in hand, these businesses could become a legacy wealth generator for business owners’ families employing area residents.
Who knows? One day some of the graduates may serve as academy mentors or teach in the academy.
Other “Reconnecting Baltimore” initiatives in the pipeline include a program entitled “Second Chance” that will educate and encourage businesses on the importance of hiring ex-offenders to provide a pathway out of crime and into careers. Reducing recidivism is a critical public safety strategy and providing employment opportunities is fundamental to this effort.
Reconnecting Baltimore also includes an initiative to convene and facilitate open, frank and productive discussions in several of our disenfranchised communities about fundamental underlying issues that led to April’s unrest such as race and race relations, poverty, housing, workforce training and education.
The goal isn’t just talk. The goal is to identify and recommend positive courses of action that can be taken to address these challenging issues.
The plan will bring together leaders from the faith communities, neighborhood associations, businesses, and college student organizations, to name a few, for these lively discussions and problem solving sessions. This level of problem solving is entirely consistent with the legacy of the Greater Baltimore Committee over the past 60 years.
It would be naïve and presumptuous to suggest that the Reconnecting Baltimore initiative will solve all of the issues that need addressing in Baltimore.
But it’s time for action – we need to focus our eyes to the road ahead, ensuring it’s a bright one for a city that already has a lot going for it.
Reconnecting Baltimore isn’t the magic elixir to the unfortunate events of April.
But it represents positive steps toward developing minority- and women-owned business opportunities, acknowledging the underlying challenges facing Baltimore residents, forging a consensus approach to the development of long-term sustainable solutions and creating better relationships between our business, faith-based and neighborhood communities.
Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and chairman of the Hire One Youth initiative. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.