Visionaries Wanted

Lately, I’ve been thinking about one man’s perspective on Baltimore, but I’m not referring to the president. I’ve been considering, instead, the words of a Baltimorean who spent his life focused on community revitalization until his death this past July. “See the world, not as you want it to be, but as it is,” Ed Rutkowski said. “And then, fix it.” He had clear eyes about the tremendous challenges facing neighborhoods in our city, which he balanced with an abiding belief in his fellow community members. And always, he rolled up his sleeves to help fix it.  

I met Ed two years ago, when he first lent his community redevelopment eye toward the neighborhood surrounding Cecil Elementary, where I serve on an advisory board. He toured our incredible school and quickly seized on the potential of a large parcel of land behind the school and a neighboring recreation center. He assembled a team of stakeholders to fundraise for and design an outdoor community space. Group members talked about new playground equipment and better lighting; someone even flirted with the idea of a splash pad.

Ed dismissed such small-potatoes brainstorming with a wave of his hand. “Bigger,” Ed had said. “This needs to be spectacular.”

Spectacular. That was the word he said over and over again, at meeting after meeting. He pressed us to think bigger, to encourage residents to imagine what might have felt unimaginable in an underserved neighborhood that, on the surface, could easily be fodder for presidential mudslinging. To imagine it for the simple reason that a spectacular space was what they deserved. Ed looked out at that L-shaped expanse and, like any great visionary, he saw two things simultaneously: He saw swaths of crabgrass and broken asphalt, but he also saw something spectacular. He saw this space as it was, he envisioned how marvelous it could be, and then he got to work. He’d send me lengthy emails and voice mails with tasks to keep the project moving along. Ed engaged in the hard work, and he expected nothing less of others.

And I miss him, because we could use more Eds in Baltimore City right now.

Elected officials like President Trump and Governor Hogan have the power to see something as it is and fix it. They choose, instead, to debase our city, even as they help perpetuate systems that close off opportunities for so many residents. They offer neither solutions nor an admission that many of the vines choking our residents were seeds planted over generations, by legislation and policies promoting discrimination and racism. I’ve only called Baltimore home for a decade, but already I’ve learned that real change in our city requires the resolve, imagination, passion, ideation and execution of ordinary people. That we can’t wait around for a mayor to put citizens before purse strings, or a governor to provide underserved populations access to life-changing public transportation or a living wage, or a president to dignify my fellow residents as human.

With Ed’s death, we lose a visionary at a time when our city needs them so desperately. Real problems ail our city, and lately it feels like we can’t catch our collective breath, treading water that is sewage laden, spewing from broken water mains that we can neither afford to fix nor even charge our residents for. In almost any setting, there is a gap between vision and current reality, systems thinkers call it a creative tension. The distance between seeing things as they are and how we want them to be. For our city, that gap feels deep and wide.

And yet, I stay here—despite my own middle class mobility—and I believe in this city so much, because it has so many natural resources—of place and people—with the potential to fill that gap, that creative tension. To make this city spectacular.

So if you’re a visionary—one with clear eyes about both the problems we face and their institutional and systemic root causes—join us. We need more Eds in this city. If not, please: Tweet about something else. Because most of the visioning I see happening in our city today is happening thanks to ordinary citizens who see the gap and are doing something to fix it. For my part, I’ll be doing everything I can to ensure that the community space behind Cecil Elementary is, in a word, spectacular. Because that’s what our students and the Midway community deserves.

We all scream for ice cream

Last summer, a highly anticipated birthday part at the pool was canceled. My husband, stranded with two volatile terrorists under six, did what any rational parent in his situation would: He diffused the situation with ice cream. They arrived home, an hour earlier than expected, in dry bathing suits but boasting sticky cheeks. “We went to Charmingtons!” they said, referring to the hipster $6/cone store one neighborhood over. My husband congratulated himself on the quick save.

And then, a week later, it happened again. This time, lightning closed the pool right as they were arriving. Meltdowns were imminent. Again, they returned home smacking the dried strawberry ice cream from their lips. This time, I rolled my eyes. Seriously? Again with the ice cream? I pictured my daughters two decades in the future, nursing a break up with a bottomless gallon of Breyers.

A month ago, I was excited when my husband struck up the idea to have a reward chart for good bedtime and wakeup behavior, since our children are generally horrible human beings at those times of day…And then I realized this was, in fact, a ‘Charmery checkmark’ system, which, if earned, was essentially institutionalizing a weekly trip to the ice cream shop. At this point, I secretly wondered if my husband himself had some weird childhood associations with ice cream. (Or there was a particularly pretty ice cream scooper at this place that I should be worried about.)

But then, earlier today, when my daughter ‘graduated’ from Kindergarten, I found myself brainstorming special treat destinations that all included chocolate. That’s when I realized, I’m actually just as bad. The other night, when my husband had to work late and I was bribing the kids to walk the dog with me? Potbelly milkshakes. Bored? We make chocolate chip banana bread. My kids are going to have juvenile diabetes or some deep-seated relationships with sweets if we don’t seriously change the formula here. Luckily, I stopped myself before making any suggestions out loud to the newly minted first-grader, and instead offered to walk with her to the bookstore to get a book. She was psyched, and instead of spending $6 on a cone, we spent it on a story.

Last night, instead of a Charmery check marks, my husband offered our four-year-old a Frozen sticker if she successfully brushed her teeth and went to the bathroom without ruining everyone else’s night. This morning, it was all she could talk about. Tonight, she was going to have TWO Frozen stickers. SUCCESS! I couldn’t believe that some tiny sticker could rival the Great Ice Cream Incentive. I was pretty proud of our parenting that we’d found a non-caloric alternative to rewards. (Until I found out that enough stickers get them a slurpee at 7eleven.) Oh well, at least it’s not the Charmery. Baby steps…

Life After Birth

I was a fetus once, does that count?”

I read the question—scrawled on old cardboard—at a gun reform rally last spring, clearly a dig at those in the pro-life movement who remained silent in the wake of Parkland and other school shootings.

I was 30 weeks pregnant at the time, fully enjoying the warm hug that society bestows on women as they bake a small human. Relatives called more frequently, coworkers jumped over themselves to pick up a fallen pen, random strangers asked to help load my groceries. But, as the protest poster implied, I also knew that hug was fleeting. I have two young children, after all, so I am painfully aware of how quickly a pregnant woman goes from being revered to side-eyed in the grocery store for not getting a tantruming toddler in check.

I’ve thought about that protest sign often over the past month—the first month of my third daughter’s life—since news broke of the Trump Administration’s policy of separating families at the U.S. border. The children impacted by these border separations are, in some cases, toddlers—some still nursing—and yet the compassion from many in the pro-life movement feels absent: It is the parents’ fault for bringing them in the first place; the Democrats’ fault for not conceding to more stringent border security. The Bible tells us to follow the law, and these are lawbreakers. What kind of parent puts their child in this situation?

Children are being used as a negotiating tool to build a wall. And while there has been public outcry, some of the very people who support this policy are those who would fervently stand up as pro-life advocates. In fact, a majority of Republicans (55%) support President Trump’s family separation policy—nearly as many as support outlawing abortion. (Quinnipiac)

Which leaves me to wonder: When did being pro-life become solely about life before birth?

And what would it look like if ‘pro-life’ in the United States didn’t stop once a baby takes its first breath? What if we prioritized supporting those babies who become toddlers who become children who become teenagers? What if we supported their parents, including and especially those who have suffered a harrowing and dangerous journey to arrive at our borders. And what if, rather than criticizing their decision, we acknowledged just how dangerous their homeland must be in order to take that risk—that this was actually just the better of two terrible alternatives? What would that pro-life movement look like? What would the life outcomes for all children in our society look like in that world?

After all, they were once fetuses. That should count for something.