This democratic sentiment that policies should be decided only by and with the dedicated participation of those most affected by it has long roots, all the way back to Central European politics in the 1500s. The English version was popularized in the 1990s as disability-rights activists demanded their voices be heard as states passed legislation related to disability rights and access. I got to know the rallying cry well when I lived in New Orleans after the levees broke and well-meaning people flooded in after the waters to tell the people who had been displaced what they should do, where they should move, and that maybe some of them shouldn’t come back at all.
This year, “Nothing about us without us” is my resolution for Baltimore. Rather than continuing to make decisions based on the fantasy needs of people who might one day be convinced to move to Baltimore, let’s make decisions based on the needs and desires of those of us who are already here. Should we build the Red Line? Let’s ask the people who travel that corridor what they need, not some dude in Annapolis who probably hasn’t taken public transit in his whole damn life. How should we revitalize Station North? Maybe instead of hoping Johns Hopkins and Thomas Dolby will bring their magic vision of what they’d like to see there, we should ask the people who are already there what they’d like to see happen where they live. Rather than knocking down McKeldin Fountain and replacing it with a giant lawn, maybe we should ask the people who hang out there all the time, eating lunch, waiting for the bus, or enjoying public space. And how’s about instead of building expensive high-rise condos for new residents, we think about what people’s housing needs actually are, and what will make this community livable for the people who live here right now? Those condos are good for somebody’s bottom line, but they aren’t good for the rest of us.
Maybe, just maybe, we should stop fantasizing that luring big developers and their fantasy Baltimoreans to the city will solve our problems of poverty, violence, addiction, and deep, deep need. That’s been the city’s strategy for decades upon decades, and it hasn’t worked, unless you consider temporary low-paying jobs and the outflow of capital to the banks of developers to be “working.” Maybe we should ask the folks most pressed by these daily realities how they experience those problems, and what their ideas are for getting us out of the muck of it all. The people who are experiencing the challenge are the ones who understand it. If we prioritized those needs and those ideas, we might actually get somewhere in solving our problems. Thing is, money doesn’t trickle down, and neither does justice. In my Baltimore, that stuff trickles up.
Dr. Kate Drabinski is a Lecturer of Gender and Women’s Studies and the Director of the Women Involved in Learning and Leadership (WILL) program at UMBC, and writer of the Field Tripping column for City Paper.