The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s time to change the narrative on Baltimore. There’s a lot worth celebrating.

The Inner Harbor from Federal Hill Park in Baltimore. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Rachel Garbow Monroe is president and chief executive of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

It seems like years since Baltimore has gotten a break. From violence to corruption, we have read story after story that portray our city negatively.

While I cannot argue with the overarching point of recent articles that violence and crime — and the tangle of racial, economic and social issues undergirding them — pose a serious challenge for Baltimore, the articles offer a limited picture and reduce the city’s story to predominantly one of violence. Why should we care what these articles say about us? Because headlines have real social, economic and psychological impacts, both on those living here and those contemplating a visit or move. So, what can we do about it? I urge everyone to think and talk about Baltimore in a more balanced way. We don’t have to dismiss our challenges, but we can simultaneously highlight our successes and our triumphs over adversity.

First, by many measures, our city and region are thriving. The Baltimore area is home to more than a dozen institutions of higher education. Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland Baltimore bring billions of federal research dollars to the city. In fact, Johns Hopkins leads all U.S. universities in research spending for the 38th year in a row. And Baltimore is a global hub for medicine, biotech and cybersecurity. University of Maryland Baltimore County has graduated more African American students who have gone on to earn advanced degrees than any other college in the country. Want to know more about our vibrant economic landscape? Just take a look at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s 2018 State of the Region Report.

Second, I have a privileged view of a lot of the good that happens in this city, and I am always excited to spotlight the work of Baltimore’s countless unsung heroes. There are hundreds of success stories I could share. Here are two:

• Baltimore’s Housing Upgrades to Benefit Seniors (HUBS) initiative, a collaboration of nonprofits, including the Weinberg Foundation, the city and philanthropy, has effectively eliminated a backlog of critical repairs for more than 1,000 older-adult households. Without this intervention, the likely outcome would have been abandoned houses and residents forced out of their homes. But through HUBS, the housing stock has been preserved, and low-income older adults have been able to remain safely at home. In 2018, this initiative was recognized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as one of the best public-philanthropic partnerships in the country.

• Then there’s Thread, which pairs university and community-based volunteers with underperforming high school students. The outcomes of this multiyear, intensive mentoring model speak for themselves: Eighty-five percent who have been in it for six years graduate high school, and 83 percent complete a four- or two-year degree or certificate program. So, while Baltimore City Public Schools continues to face substantial challenges, leaders such as Sarah Hemminger, Thread’s co-founder, and BCPS’ chief executive, Sonja Santelises, are changing the trajectory for some of our most at-risk kids.

The final example I’ll cite is the appointment of Michael Harrison as the city’s police commissioner. Under his tenure in New Orleans, that city saw the lowest homicide rate in decades. Harrison also garnered high approval ratings for his reform efforts. Complementing his efforts will be innovative initiatives, including Roca, an anti-violence program that serves highly at-risk young men and was launched in Baltimore in 2018 after 30 years of success in Massachusetts. Combined with others, including the Center for Urban Families, which has been achieving strong outcomes in serving this same population for years, there is real hope that we will see improvement in tackling crime and building community trust.

Here’s the point: The way we tell our story matters and shapes what we become. For too long, Baltimore’s narrative has been narrowly focused on what is wrong. This has unwittingly encouraged too many of us to believe that there’s little we can do to make a difference. So, we sit passively on the sidelines and let others tell the unbalanced stories about Baltimore’s bad news. But for the sake of everyone who calls Baltimore home and for the organizations that have chosen to be based here and are working tirelessly to make meaningful change, I challenge us to choose a narrative that goes beyond what is wrong and instead embraces what is right, what offers hope and what makes us proud. Our beloved Baltimore has so much promise. Let’s all start telling that story, too.

Read more:

Catherine E. Pugh: Baltimore can do better. Here’s how.

Gregory Tucker: How to ensure the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra stays a ‘major league team’

Kofi Elijah Whitehead: We played ‘Let’s get the black boy.’ I was the black boy.

Nate Loewentheil: How Baltimore can reform its way out of a crime wave

Todd Oppenheim: One man's long road to justice in Baltimore