There’s a lot that’s been said about Sandtown lately. As an outsider who’s lived in the neighborhood for five years, I’m thankful for the media coverage that has highlighted the tough challenges Sandtown residents face and the historical forces that have shaped the neighborhood as well as the positive response to recent unrest and the ongoing work of Sandtown residents. As the furor dies down, though, my neighbors and I want the rest of Baltimore to think about how we can (in the words of one of my neighbors) “take this reaction and turn it into action.”
It’s important to recognize that people in Sandtown have been working to make the neighborhood better for many years. The No Boundaries Coalition in particular has been working on the issue of police brutality for some time now. The voices of the community tend not to fit into clear political categories; this combined with all of the other noise can make it hard to appreciate the nuances in the community’s thought. The main result of the listening campaign that No Boundaries embarked upon at the height of the protests, just before the riot occurred, was that people in the community didn’t feel heard. For all the bad things that happen in Sandtown, people here want to be recognized for the beautiful things that happen here, too. It takes some effort, but taking the time to listen to what people in the neighborhood are saying will lend a much more powerful perspective.
For example, during the protests, even the chant of “No Justice, No Peace” was felt to be too confrontational for some and a group of youth, clergy, and representatives from the Gray family worked together to promote a different message: “Let Justice Bring Change.” (Unfortunately, this chant didn’t take off at the protests.) Some young people I talked to can recall better relationships between police and citizens as recently as 1998; they have a lot of ideas for how the police can change to help stop the violence without constantly violating their rights. However, folks in the neighborhood often feel that there are too many officers who don’t respect residents, poisoning the well of relationships necessary to promote public safety and undermining the work of officers who do apply themselves to serve and protect with respect and reciprocity.
Those of us who live here and have been working to deal with longstanding crises are grateful that there’s been increased attention on our neighborhood’s plight (although we wish it didn’t take burning stores and a man’s broken neck to draw more resources). We need systemic changes—more jobs, better policing, and public goods such as rec centers. However, we also need help to augment the ground-up work that has been going on and will continue to go on regardless of what systemic changes come or don’t come. It is imperative that we channel resources and energy primarily toward those who are already the most invested in improving Sandtown. As someone who was welcomed into Sandtown from outside, I can tell you that the neighborhood is very welcoming to people who are willing to listen to, learn from, and serve under the leaders in the community. Again, though, it takes more time and energy to do this than to just swoop in with an agenda determined by outsiders.
There are many opportunities to take part in this ongoing work: I’ve already mentioned No Boundaries Coalition, which is a great entry point for supporting a variety of efforts around public safety and community organizing. There are community institutions such as Jubilee Arts where you can even take classes in dance or art alongside lifelong residents. There are opportunities to volunteer or give money through places such as New Song Community Learning Center, where children have been educated and supported beyond the school walls for over two decades, or Newborn Holistic Ministries, a set of programs that supports people in recovery, returning citizens, and the aforementioned Jubilee Arts. Newborn is building farms in our neighborhood with a vision for more jobs, better food, and a stronger economy for Sandtown. I’m personally affiliated with New Song Community Church, which is working with Men of Valuable Action and other organizations to respond to a variety of needs in the community. Much of our focus lately has been on helping people in the community access needed mental health care in a culturally appropriate way, which will be an important theme in that event. There are many other opportunities to connect through local churches, which are often refuges for people dealing with grief and trauma as well as powerhouses for local advocacy. Some, like myself, have even been led to move into the neighborhood and participate in life together through church.
My role in writing is to tell you what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen in the last few weeks, months, and years. But to really understand Sandtown (or any other vulnerable neighborhood in Baltimore), you have to spend some time on the ground and see for yourself. The statistics about Sandtown are important to know, but nothing will help you understand what’s happening here like having friends in the neighborhood. Those relationships can then guide your action and advocacy. As one of my friends put it, “Come and see what goes on throughout the community. [People from outside] came out and showed that they want justice. If they could pull together and come help us do small things, we could make a big change in people’s lives.”
Matthew Loftus lives in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood and works as a family physician. Follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus.