Photo: The Baltimore Sun
From where I'm standing, Baltimore is a beautiful city. As an incoming professional and college graduate, I'm seeing Baltimore the way that the advertisers who “reimagined" the economically depressed Baltimore in the 1970s intended: Charm City. Being a black man, I see everyday people who look like me living in historic communities that I have the audacity to say that I am helping to “revitalize.” I am fortunate to have an Ivy League degree. I dress up whenever I go anywhere so that I'm not mistaken for a "townie.” My position as an educated black male professional allows me entrance to places where some of the decision-makers who ultimately determine the future of communities of people who look like me can be found. Although I am and already have been subject to racial discrimination, I have, in a few days, gained access to people that many native Baltimoreans have spent their lives unsuccessfully attempting to connect to. This feels inherently unfair.
For those who share these similar thoughts, maybe there is an anxiety here. Maybe these anxieties arise from a feeling of “survivor’s remorse,” for those who came from humble means and who feel guilty for trading a life among their home communities for one of ostensibly self-serving accomplishment. For me, I felt that I should wait my turn to gain access to leadership roles and community leaders, being both young and new to the community. Yet the old adage of to whom much is given, much is expected comes to mind. What am I to think when I am given much but feel that I did relatively little to earn it?
As I worked my first few weeks with the start-up BridgeEdU on improving college retention rates by providing additional supports to incoming first-year students, I felt this aforementioned remorse/guilt every day. As I read Venture for America CEO Andrew Yang's recent article acknowledging the relativity of risk, I considered my emotional reaction more. I have spent much time trying to reconcile my desire to produce change locally with the fact that my privileged life insulates me from the issues that affect a large number of native Baltimoreans. While grappling with these thoughts, I soon found direction in a call-to-action that almost felt personally tailored to those in my position from Dwight Watkins, Baltimore activist and author of The Beast Side, who spoke at Baltimore's recently-held Kaiser Permanente Community Forum.
Watkins laid out the problems with the premise of “revitalizing” Baltimore, and the issues with the philosophy and the practices with which city leaders engage in their vision of improving the city – a process that often further marginalizes native communities. The most memorable point that he made was in questioning how students, professionals, and leaders of businesses and philanthropy could effectively navigate their roles, yet question how to uplift those who need help. Watkins concluded that the reason that many groups do not engage in change-making is not because they are incapable of determining how – they are, after all, excellent problem-solvers in their other endeavors – but because they lack the willingness. From this, I realized that I had the answers to the question of how to be a responsible citizen – as responsible as a gentrifier can be – but that the only impediment to becoming one and making real change is a lack of willingness.
Earlier this summer as I began my fellowship with Venture for America, I spoke on its central credo: "there is no courage without risk," and offered a counter-credo which seemed to resonate with some: “risk is relative.” What do almost all start-up founders have in common? Somewhere, somehow, they have access to people and capital for funding their ideas. This access is stratified along the lines of race, class, gender and various other identity cleavages. A poignant example of the stratification of access and the intersectionality of identity is evident in a 2014 Washington Post article which spotlights Terrell Kellam. As a student, Kellam scrounged money on a daily basis to take the multiple buses necessary to commute to Morgan State, and operated through an ultimately insufficient patchwork of grants and loans to attend college. His perception and experience with risk is far different from the “risk” taken by a young Bill Gates, a son of economic privilege who dropped out of Harvard to develop what would become Microsoft or, though a bit fictionalized, even stories like those of The Pursuit of Happyness featuring the protagonist Chris Gardner, a millionaire entrepreneur who was once a struggling, homeless, single father. At a pivotal point, Gardner took a huge chance on entering an unpaid internship to achieve a better life for his son, demonstrating real risk taking.
In my fellowship, I found myself reimagining and adding intention to the concept of "revitalizing American cities." What does it really mean to revitalize a city? Does it entail going to work at organizations founded by other Ivy League college graduates who create customized water bottles or apps to make ordering hardware simpler? Does it mean to scale up an organization which hires professionals from outside the area to provide the skill set needed? When we champion urban renewal in Baltimore, for instance, are we building up the communities that need it, or are we pushing them out? The greatest insult that you can give a community is that they lack the redeeming qualities that comprise a prerequisite for revitalization. Watkins posited that, “people think that there’s no social fabric in the hood. They are mistaken.” Revitalization often means erasing and replacing what was once originally there. Revitalization has NEVER truly meant benefitting low-income communities and communities of color. We can see this trend all across the nation, in places like Harlem, Brooklyn, pockets of D.C., the Bay area in California. Low-income cities and communities of color are forcibly being changed in the name of “revitalization.” We ignore that a vibrant and rich community exists, seeing only blight and "urban decay." So what is revitalization?
Often, when we picture a revitalized city, we see a city with brand-new developments, a "safe" city -- one filled with urban professionals. In essence, a city free of low-income individuals and people of color. A city where skilled labor employment (which provides living wages) go to those outside of the community. As a result, the revitalized city DOES look like what we pictured. But, instead of helping the community, we leave members worse off. We expel them. If we do not want to reject this word entirely, then we need to change the preconceived notions of what “revitalization” looks like. And what revitalization looks like is prioritizing the uplift of marginalized communities.
When we seek to make a connection with the city, how do we do it? Real change requires challenging the status quo, which requires genuine intentions and the assumption of real risk — taking steps which are not guaranteed to be perceived in an advantageous way or to pay off. Real risks are those that could actually adversely impact us financially, socially and personally. If we claim to work with these communities, we have to stand in solidarity with them. Not just allying with them when convenient. Not being so enamored with entrepreneurship that we look to make money first and make societal change second. True opportunity creation aims to specifically develop employment, education, recruitment and mentorship experiences for the historically underserved and overlooked. Serving as advocates for change requires educating ourselves as allies, opening ourselves to criticism, and working unceasingly to end all forms of discrimination in every instance of occurrence.
As I embark on the third month working my VFA Fellowship, I think about what the program means for me. I think about how I fit into the start-up culture. I consider how it will be possible to feel at home in a fellowship that is heavily white and upper-class, and in the startup industry, which looks similarly. The imposter syndrome that I thought I left behind in college makes unwelcome reappearances on a frequent basis.
Young black professionals often have to deal with the call to be responsible to their communities, epitomized in the often-rehashed phrase of “never forget where you came from.” At the same time, as the saying goes, they have to work at least twice as hard as their white counterparts to forge success in industries that have historically lacked diverse representation. We do have the responsibility of learning about our new communities, as our blackness does not exempt us from being gentrifiers. Baltimore is 63.7 percent black, yet I live in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, in a house that is in far better shape than those of my neighbors. Starting with my block, the neighborhood transitions into a sea of properties resided in by young professionals. I know little to nothing about the history of my neighborhood, and I do not speak the language nor understand the cultures of the residents of this community. I hesitate to go into the local Peruvian restaurant down the block, the bodegas on the nearby corners or the botánica two streets down because I can't speak or understand the language of the folks who own and occupy these spaces. Like me, they are entrepreneurs looking to make a change, to support their communities, but there is a language and cultural barrier that I have failed to attempt to transcend. Clearly, I am also part of the problem.
By the end of my time here, what I have just described will no longer be the case. This article is an intensely public way of holding myself accountable. I am making a conscious decision to not embark on a two-year journey to “rediscover” the community, finding the “cool places” to hit up. I am committing myself to engaging with the whole community as-is. My neighborhood is likely not what you would see represented in a brochure enticing tourists to come to the city. Baltimore is not just the white, not even just the black or the impoverished, but it encompasses all of us who call it home.
In seeking to reduce our gentrifier footprint and in creating opportunity, we have to define what success means for us, with the hope that our successes will enable future aspirants to achieve the same, if not more.
As for VFA, I came to realize that if my program does not yet reflect me, it will. It is my job to help build a home in it so that future fellows are empowered to feel more comfortable and more represented than I. Institutional data on just how many fellows of color VFA has had to date is presently inaccessible. Despite this, however, one thing is obvious: though we represent far too few of the Fellows in this program, black professionals do have a place in Venture for America. Being in such a position, one can feel misunderstood and excluded; at the same time, as a young, educated professional, I still have the ability to exclude others.
Though we are underrepresented, professionals of color and professionals of humbler origins can force a place in the start-up industry. Those who belong in the conversation are the folks who push it to improve its awareness. Those who belong in the conversation are the residents of the cities that we migrate to and live and work in. Those who can succeed in this industry are both the financially and/or racially-privileged young entrepreneur. Hopefully increasingly as time goes on, such a person will find at least as much in common with the populations in the urban locales in which programs like VFA occupies - Atlanta, Baltimore, Birmingham, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Denver, Detroit, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Providence, San Antonio, St. Louis — as their peers. It is imperative, though, that industries which are inherently exclusionary, those like the high-risk start-up industry, never cease to be called out and challenged to make themselves more inclusive.
One of our primary adages at VFA is that “there is no courage without risk.” We have the power to seize this unique opportunity that we have been granted as young professionals. With our privilege comes the power to truly create change and battle injustice while recognizing our privileges, questioning our assumptions and rectifying our ignorance. As for keeping my gentrifier footprint as small as possible, I recognize that I have a long path ahead. I am committing myself, however, to learning five words of Spanish daily, and engaging with a new person in my community every day as well. How will you do the same? As Pulitzer Prize-winner Alice Walker wrote, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” Let’s make it happen.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
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