The Daily Record: Priorities for post-unrest teamwork

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Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on TheDailyRecord.com on May 15, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

Baltimore’s good character is clearly showing in the city’s time of trouble.

Business, civic and government leaders are responding compassionately to the unrest that erupted in the city on April 25 and 27 amid public protests and reaction to the death of Freddie Gray.

Private-sector and civic leaders are flocking to the aid of 350 damaged businesses. Just last Monday, more than 850 business executives who attended the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Annual Meeting responded to an impromptu appeal for texted donations by raising $200,000 in less than one hour for the Baltimore Development Corporation’s business recovery fund.

At the meeting, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake noted the “building spirit” of partnership to aid impacted businesses and neighborhoods. She also called for the development of a “common, sustainable agenda” to address the long-term economic and social challenges faced by the city.

“We have to get this right,” Rawlings-Blake said. “The desire to do better is not enough. We need to be deliberate, we need to be thoughtful.”

Business leaders at the GBC couldn’t agree more.

There is much work to be done to address long-simmering issues that require serious attention, not just to get beyond the recent violence, but to resolve important economic and quality of life challenges in a city with otherwise strong potential for economic growth.

David Warnock, the GBC’s new chairman, noted that teamwork for Baltimore’s future needs to begin by rebuilding trust among advocates in the city.

“The breach in our collective confidence that we can tackle the serious inequities and poverty that plague our city is real and will only be overcome with leadership and collaboration at all levels,” Warnock said.

Now that virtually everyone in Baltimore government, business and the civic community is calling for fresh collaboration and teamwork to address systemic challenges at the root of Baltimore’s riots, what long-term issues should be on the priority list?

At the top of the list should be education – not just to develop broader and stronger academic skills to poise current public school students for success, but to implement strategies for struggling graduates in need of better skills. The outcome should be that all city high school graduates have a solid academic and critical thinking foundation or a vocational skill to position them for success in the workplace, whether or not they go to college.

Education is, by far, the most important determinant factor not only for job success, but for a fulfilling life.

Gainful employment opportunity ranks a close second on the priority list. Much is needed to better connect businesses to Baltimore’s young people – the workforce of the future. Among other things, we must better organize the way that businesses interact with job-ready young people in the city regarding employment and career opportunities.

It starts with aggressively acquainting high school students with career options in private-sector workplaces during the school year, but especially in the summer through programs such as the mayor’s Hire One Youth initiative.

But there is room for improvement on many other employment issues, including better communicating middle-skill job opportunities to city residents, improving transportation options to those jobs and finding ways to remove employment barriers for ex-offenders.

And of course, the ultimate driver of job creation in the city is to smartly nurture a climate for strong business development and growth in the city.

A related priority should be to ensure that the city’s youth are afforded access to personal development activities outside of school – ranging from sports and recreation to tutoring programs.

For the GBC’s part, here are a few tactical priorities we will be working on:

  • Strengthening the GBC’s 12-year-old Bridging the Gap program to nurture minority-owned and woman-owned business success, personal and professional development programs and to promote business purchasing from minority- and woman-owned vendors.
  • Providing mentoring and professional development assistance to top executives in public institutions, beginning with Baltimore City Public Schools.
  • Engaging in a dialogue with community and faith-based leaders to identify best practices to address underlying challenges facing neighborhoods. Using that collaborative effort, uncover potential policy actions to be included in an urban improvement agenda to take to the 2016 Maryland General Assembly.
  • Advocating for a well-funded state transportation fund and for a superior transportation infrastructure – a core pillar for a competitive business environment.
  • Advocating for automatic expungement of non-convictions from criminal records.
  • Studying ways to change child-support collection policies that place severe financial and driver’s license restrictions on 6,000 young men annually who return to Baltimore from incarceration. The current policies inhibit their ability to get a job.
  • Establishing a mentoring program to match experienced CEOs with small business entrepreneurs.
  • Advocating for tax credits for angel investing in startup companies.
  • Working to put more tutoring and GED resources directly into the community.
  • Growing Baltimore’s Hire One Youth summer jobs program and working to expand the city’s youth jobs programs with the goal of providing a summer job to all young people who seek one.

These are just a few examples. And this is not to say that there aren’t many dedicated people and organizations in the city currently working on these and other issues that relate directly to breaking the cycle of poverty in which too many in the city find themselves.

But broad-based teamwork is needed to generate the enduring economic progress that is absolutely essential for citizens in the city and region to fully realize and enjoy the opportunity for success that exists in our midst.

As a community, we must convert a broad cauldron of tactical agendas into shared values and a shared vision for Baltimore’s future and then act on that vision together.

Donald C. Fry, president & CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. His e-mail address is donaldf@gbc.org.

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