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Being Nehemiah

Fraser Smith

In death, the name Freddie Gray became part of the national call for police reform. Quickly, though, the challenge widened. Every urban issue from unemployment, to education, to vacant houses, to public schools and the re-entry of ex-offenders was on the urgency agenda.  Gray grew up a victim or a product of them all. How urgent, though, would be question.

For weeks and months there was little in the way of official response. And yet the need was everywhere apparent. Gray’s Sandtown neighborhood has an unusually high number of offenders and ex-offenders, for example. Thus it was not surprising to learn that one post-Gray effort focused on helping those with records find their way into the workforce.

“Turn Around Tuesday,” a one-stop shop for assistance, found some significant allies. The sponsor of this program, Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, or BUILD, called upon Johns Hopkins Hospital for more help. Hopkins’ president, Ronald J. Daniels, responded to BUILD’s request for a meeting.

As Daniels stood to speak, he was interrupted by Bishop Douglas Miles, BUILD’s president emeritus. Rob English, BUILD’s lead organizer, recalled Miles’ question and President Daniels’ answer.

“Our question to you is: Will you be our Nehemiah or not?” Miles said.

The Biblical Nehemiah led the reconstruction of Jerusalem. Bishop Miles and BUILD were pressing Daniels to be such a figure in Baltimore.

If surprised at all by the challenge, Daniels quickly composed himself.

“He looked up and said, without hesitation: I will be one,” English recounted.

Over the next several weeks and months, other Nehemiahs followed his lead and lined up to find a role in the daunting task of dealing with depressed neighborhoods such as the one Gray lived in.

The state recently stepped up with $300 million in help for solving an array of problems.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played two free special concerts only days after the burning and looting. And that wasn’t a one- or two-shot deal. Since then, symphony players have given concerts at the Enoch Pratt Free Library branch on North Avenue.

Recently a group of string and woodwind players performed for a dozen or so startlingly quiet youngsters – who climbed all over the players between a series of dances by Bach. The bass player, Jonathan Jenson, gave a quick lesson in what creates sound. He’d been eager for the opportunity.

“All of us who were so appalled at what happened here want to do what we can to share our gifts in the community to create an atmosphere that’s positive so these people don’t feel quite so neglected – especially these kids,” he said.

Somewhat older Sandtown children – teenagers -- meanwhile, were working on their own Nehemiah contributions.

Eighteen-year-old Samirah Franklin says young people were not surprised to learn of Gray’s death in police custody. They know what’s happened to others.

She said the ensuing uprising had a purpose.

“It was time for our voices to be heard,” she said. “We couldn’t go on living like that.”

And she thought they were heard. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake put $4.2 million in her budget for youth activities. Pleased with what she and her friends had accomplished, she was eager to say that Sandtown has its strengths.

“Sandtown is a very resilient neighborhood,” she said. “Horrible things happen but great things happen as well… We’ll be having a great block party tomorrow with No Boundaries Coalition. Sandtown is alive and well.”

In addition, these young people have been working on voter registration and education this spring. Recently turned 18, Samirah will vote this year for the first time.

She and BUILD organizer Rob English questioned Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s recent decision to cut the youth programs. English said the mayor has yet to explain her decision and expressed consternation.

“The BUILD organization and the city want a balanced budget but not on the backs of our kids,” he said.

BUILD’s strategy has always called for getting firm commitments from officials and following up on them. The new police commissioner, Kevin Davis, has made some commitments and kept them all, English said.

President Daniels, too, kept his promise to recruit partners; T. Rowe Price got on the team along with Under Armour, and the law firm, DLA Piper. Some 25 companies in all joined the Nehemiah project.

But recovery from the disinvestment ills of Baltimore, English said, is likely to be a multi-generational effort.

“This city did not come to a crisis over night.”

A comeback will require more than a year – and the help of every available Ron, Jonathan, Samirah -- and Nehemiah.