RISING Baltimore: Managing Tensions in Communities
In October 2017, RISING joined the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB), USA and community members from the city of Baltimore, hosting a dynamic two-day peacebuilding symposium, based on the RISING Global Peace Forum held in Coventry, UK.
RISING BALTIMORE: Managing Tensions in Communities was the first RISING event hosted in the USA and was designed to share community engagement strategies across professions, universities, and borders, focusing on the challenges currently facing Baltimore.
The event was part of RISING’s international series of peacebuilding events, which has also seen symposiums hosted in Northern Ireland and Colombia.
Baltimore has been struggling with the highest levels of community tension in 40 years, highlighted by the city-wide unrest and violence that erupted in April 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray whilst in police custody.
Gray, a 25-year-old African American man, was arrested by Baltimore Police for apparently possessing an illegal switchblade knife. Whilst in custody, he sustained spinal injuries, fell into a coma and consequently died.
Protests and destructive riots erupted across the city, with the community directing their dissent towards the police force, culminating with a state of emergency declaration, National Guard deployment and the enforcement of a citywide curfew.
As was observed in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Browne only a year earlier, the events in Baltimore highlighted the deep divisions and tensions between authorities and the community, and the urgent need for reconciliation.
Following weeks of unrest, Baltimore’s homicide rate began to soar, with the highest levels in 40 years recorded that year. Maryland State Senator, Nathaniel McFadden called all local officials and experts to work together, claiming that “the whole state has a problem”.
“Help us. Help the engine that runs this state. Address the problem because this is not just Baltimore city. This is the state of Maryland”, he pleaded.
RISING Baltimore: Managing Tensions in Communities
The symposium was co-led by RISING Global Peace Forum and The Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR) at Coventry University, UMB Graduate School and UMB Center for Global Education Initiatives.
UMB President Dr. Jay Perman, opened the event, calling it a “transformative opportunity” to engage and learn from different perspectives striving to achieve a similar goal:
“Baltimore might talk about civil rights, social justice and community engagement, our colleagues in Coventry might talk of trust and peace and reconciliation, but vocabulary aside, our similarities are too similar to ignore”.
Lord John Alderdice, UK Parliament then led an inspiring keynote presentation and discussion focused on “Building cohesion in deeply divided societies”, drawing on his role in negotiating the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland. He was keen to note that:
“We’re not here to tell you how to solve your problem, we’re just here to tell you our story – our color problem is orange and green and not black and white, but other aspects of our difficulties are not as far away as you think.”
Watch Lord Alderdice’s keynote presentation:
Day two consisted of lively presentations and panel discussions, featuring a range of speakers from CTPSR, UMB faculty and the Baltimore community.
Virginia Rowthorn, Director of UMB’s Center for Global Education Initiatives spoke about Baltimore’s need for global awareness and understanding and the positive impact it is having already:
“We can’t say we have all the answers, because we don’t – This meeting is about sharing best practices, and my dream from this is to take some community members to Belfast or Malawi and to share how they work in communities and to show that we’re part of the world.”
A faculty lightning panel highlighted the successes and challenges of university engagement in local communities.
Sinead Ouillon, who leads the City Initiative at CTPSR, spoke about the success of the programme for local engagement in Coventry, through the provision of community skills courses and practical workshops in a range of industry areas.
Michael Pinard, co-director of the Carey Clinical Law Program, said:
“Focusing on community is really important for our students. It teaches them to listen. It teaches them humility, the humility of being led and being taught by individuals who are directly impacted by the issues they are living with.”
Another panel explored strategies to improve racial and social relations in communities, and Professor Harris Beider, CTPSR, spoke about his race and class research in the UK, offering hope for the city of Baltimore.
In his closing remarks, Lord Alderdice noted, “Baltimore has enormous strengths as well as big vulnerabilities”, encouraging the universities and the community to continue to progress and inspire others.
“When you succeed in creating something different, people will want to look to what you have achieved because they will know you’ve done something of enormous significance.”
Further CTPSR visits to Baltimore are planned for December, with the Centre making a commitment to support the city and University’s ongoing plans. Members of the Baltimore team are also set to visit Coventry in May 2018 to learn more about RISING and CTPSR’s work.
*HBO Documentary not affiliated with RISING Global Peace Forum
Baltimore News Source: USA Today