By Franklyn Baker, President and CEO, United Way of Central Maryland
As a black man leading an organization with deep roots in the Greater Baltimore region that is part of a global system, the systemic issues that have been exposed, again, are no surprise to me. This is not the first time our city and our region have dealt with the issue of racial inequity. This is something we fight against every day. We saw it in 2015 with Freddie Gray, just as we did in the 60s, and in the 40s before that.
When we are overwhelmed by complex challenges, it can seem impossible to know where to begin in order to overcome them. George Floyd is unfortunately another example of injustice and his senseless killing has again pointed to the glaring need for sweeping change in our region, across our state, and throughout our nation and the world.
Racial inequity is a war we at United Way of Central Maryland fight 24 hours a day, every day of the year. We have known for too long that it is our disproportionately poor, predominantly black communities that are hardest hit by crises, as they are already fighting for equal opportunity in their workplaces, in their neighborhoods, and in our world.
As the leader of United Way of Central Maryland, I work every day along with my committed team to fulfill our promise to promote equity, create opportunity, and improve lives. And we fight daily to ensure these values are upheld during these tumultuous times. Systemic change is a critical need now more than ever, and it’s what this organization was built for. United Way is building the capacity and power of residents to build bridges between neighborhood residents and those entities and organizations that control essential resources that impact the health, safety, and quality of life in communities from Baltimore City to Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, and Howard Counties. In fact, as of June 12, we have distributed almost $1 million in COVID-19-related grants to 93 different organizations, directly or through collaboratives, all while applying an intentional equity lens. Empowered residents are the necessary condition for any effective change in a community’s conditions.
In 2015, after the death of Freddie Gray, we learned the importance of working with and lifting up our community leaders. Since then, we have brought together leaders from all sectors to confront issues – holistically and tenaciously. Our work, and the neighborhoods we work in, are informed by data. We’ve learned that this data doesn’t necessarily tell us about inequities we already see and know exist. But it does pinpoint where these inequities are felt more deeply. We, as an organization, have the unique knowledge and networks to effectively mobilize entities across the nonprofit, public, and private sectors. And we, as leaders, need to be working to build bridges and nurture partnerships – working to make change every day to change lives and neighborhoods for the better – whether that’s in schools providing support to ensure kids don’t fall behind, or with local corporations to provide needed resources like job training, childcare, or healthcare. Whether that’s amplifying the voice and potential of a burgeoning community leader, or funding and investing in his or her program or initiative.
Our collective work toward equity as a community must include equal access to opportunity and justice.
One of my mentors and his wife, Dr. Freeman and Jackie Hrabowski, often quote: “If not you, who? If not now, when?”
This sentiment will undoubtedly lead us all into challenging issues like institutional and structural racism and a reform of law enforcement and our criminal justice systems, with a focus on advocacy that may become uncomfortable at times. We must make an ongoing commitment to tackle underlying issues if we have any chance to succeed in ensuring equal access to the essentials of education, employment, housing, and health for all.
I call on local leaders, corporations, and residents to join me and our organization as we commit to continuing this vital and life-saving work.