Baltimore is tough, weird and almost never what it seems. Ask the British, who gave the colony to the goofy (but loyal) Calvert family. As the Freddie Gray story continues to unfold in coming weeks the complicated grit of Baltimore will release its many layers for all to see. We’ll see grit and learn what works even here.
I grew up on the edge of Baltimore, 7.3 miles and a universe away from where Freddie Gray was arrested and then beaten to death. My uncle Spence once sold tired in the Sears at Mondawmin Mall back before its glitz turned to dust, and then back to relative glamour and then to smoke last week. My family went to Milford Mill United Methodist Church out in Pikesville on the growing edge of the suburbs. But we were still tethered to the exotic and dangerous port at the city center where my dad was an executive for the Western Maryland railroad. I’ve seen Baltimore since Brooks Robinson played third base and Johnny Unitas ran the real Colts (not the ones playing in the Indiana corn fields). So I was saddened but not surprised, by what happened to Freddie Gray and even less surprised by the upwelling of gritty resilience in response.
Baltimore grit is why the Stakeholder Health Advisory Council met at Bon Secours Hospital a couple months ago. The hospital, led by Sam Ross, is a mile away from Freddie’s corner right where the Wire was filmed. This is the radical edge of where mission meets the bitter streets, and has for generations of nuns and saints of all curious varieties that flourish here. This no-nonsense stew led directly to the shape of the Stakeholder Health White House meeting April 15-16th , which I covered in my blog, “Trellis.” What do we most need to learn on tough streets today? How to find, nurture and protect the life of generative institutions and networks that rise up in even these toughest places. Everything life depends on is already alive. But, it is often covered up with concrete and debris and the heavy weight of despair. We learned from Baltimore that when the hospital folks asked their neighbors to name their highest priority, it was not the druggists (legal and un-), but all the radical mess and shambles and crap everywhere. Help us clean it up and we’ll deal with the drugs.
Anyone committed to improving community has no problem coming up with a to-do list. We have lists and schemes that convert easily into committees, programs and initiatives; sometimes even grants. I do that myself; I’m not really criticizing. But it is rare for those lists to include “get deeper spirit,” “find humility” or “raise up the leaders already here.”
That’s the real story of Baltimore. One Baltimore witness is so preposterously hopeful that even the New York Times noticed, is New Song Church, just a couple blocks south of Freddie Gray’s last stop. It was born under the leadership of Mark Gornik (who I related to as a fellow suburban nerd from Baltimore County). But what makes it so right was that when the New York Times made New Song the focus of its front page coverage of Baltimore last week, he was not mentioned at all. The miracle wasn’t Mark, but Jane Johnson who grew like a tree well-watered through the concrete soil. Read it here.
This is not a story of isolated astonishing heroines and suburban saviors, but improbably tenacious people doing one right thing after another as best they can one decade after another, with whoever they find along the way. Mark talks about the importance of institutions, but means the same thing I mean by trellises (read his thoughts in a Duke interview (here) Following this logic he went to New York, helped seed another version of New Song and then City Seminary.
This is the kind of thing grown-ups do when their sense of life draws them toward what looks like death to others. They go….they listen long enough….to learn…beyond their early, happy, simple schemes …. and then they build…. stable networks, organizations stable, sturdy and spirited enough to bend the arc of time just a few clicks in the direction of justice. I call these organizations as trellises because they allow life to grow on them.
The most important thing to understand is that the answer to dying and deadly communities is life, which is, always and in every case, social. There really is no such thing as a single human. It might be a mammal, but not a human. Life happens among people. And it grows on the time scheme more like olive trees than corn. That’s why it needs a trellis and long-lived humans to tend to it.
It is easy to miss the true story of long-lived generative nodes, churches and institutions by emphasizing the heroic founders, or the strong ties of vision (or data) and powerful common rituals. Social theorists help us in clarifying that both strong and weak ties are necessary for durable networks. Anything that lasts needs both the intimate, inward tribal energy of strong ties in which everyone knows the songs from their first stanza. But weak ties are just as crucial for the adaptive work needed for change, especially the kind of change that needs new ideas, energy and resources. The strong ties reinforce the lasting identities through storms and drought. Weak ties are the bridges across which travels the new ideas, technologies, products and resources. Baltimore and Detroit, Memphis, Akron, Boston and even little Winston-Salem need all both and will for the next half century.
In times of truly radical change weak ties are more obviously useful, but they need to be vetted against the intelligence of place and sustained identity. Weak ties need curiosity and humility, both of which are rare in times of crisis. And they are even more rare when the weak ties link an obviously powerful and privileged institution and an obviously troubled community. The powerful hospital (I’ll pick on my own form of privilege) tends to overestimate the value of its tools and intelligence as applied to what looks like a poor and needy community. And it tends to underestimate the intelligence of the institutions, such as churches, that live there.
Every city that lives at all thrives because of people like Jane Johnson whose intelligence and grit nurture life in spite of goofy founders, broken cops and venal weirdness. (You can read more about her and her colleagues here.)