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Where I Come From

We Need to Talk

A few weeks ago, while reading the news, something inside me broke. I bet it’s happened to you too. For years you hear about rapes, murders, incivilities, some seemingly unthinkable act of degradation repeated just one week later with a twist, and you don’t even blink. Then, suddenly, something slips past your guard. It was only after the last, unexpected shot landed that I realized I’d been suffering body blows for days.

In mid-August, Jewish residents of Park Heights found cars spray-painted with swastikas, the word hitler, and the message ih8u. It happened over the Sabbath, just weeks before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The following weekend, the murder of a Honduran worker near Patterson Park, allegedly by a man who declared he hated “Mexicans,” raised concerns that Latinos were being preyed upon, as Martin Reyes was the fifth to be shot or killed in that area in the previous two months.

But it wasn’t until I got to work the Monday after Reyes’ death and read Baltimore Sun columnist Jean Marbella’s assessment of the generational poverty in the Madison Park North apartment complex, known as “Murder Mall” by some of its tenants, that I sat limp in my chair. KO. Marbella asked some good questions and walked away with the beginnings of an answer, but what stuck with me that gloomy day was how intractable the problems seemed. We had Jews, Latinos, and African-Americans in separate communities frightened, the subjects of news reports that could scrape the what but not the why. The most frustrating part was feeling that these stories, but for a few details, could have been written on any day since about 1960, as if the whole city has been trapped in a much darker version of Groundhog Day for 50 years.

So how do we move on? We need to talk.

Baltimore is intensely segregated. According to an analysis of data from the 2000 census by the Brookings Institution, if we wanted to make each of the city’s census tracts fully racially integrated, two out of every three African-Americans would have to move to a different neighborhood.

This type of cultural isolation can warp your world view. When I was a kid in East Baltimore, almost all of the carry-outs and corner stores in my area were owned by Asian families. The shoppers were black, the proprietors were not, and a quarter-inch of bulletproof glass stood between us. It wasn’t until I was 25 years old, visiting a friend in New Jersey, that it hit me. Up north, when we stopped for egg rolls, there was no barrier, so I stared dumbfounded at the counter, amazed that I could just grab all the duck sauce I wanted. This should not happen to another generation of kids.

To break these barriers, we need to capitalize on and create opportunities to hear about each other’s lives. We need to talk, and there are a few ground rules that can help this conversation.

First, take it as given that everyone is an expert on at least one tremendously important subject—his or her own life. Next, center the conversation around experiences. Forget ideologies. What events led you here and shaped you along the way? That’s an interesting story. Lastly, pay attention and try not to interrupt.

If you’re open to it, you’ll find unexpected opportunities to learn something new. I’m reminded of the day my mechanic, a middle-aged white man who lives in Joppa, became more than a stranger. When I asked about his plans one weekend, his smile explained as much about men, boats, and the open sea as several readings of Moby Dick.

That’s the micro level. We also need to scale up. The Stoop Storytelling Series, for example, is doing this. Since 2006, it’s given more than 200 people, including me, an opportunity to share some funny or tragic bit of personal history with a supportive crowd. There are also bright spots here and there on local radio and a diverse series of speakers at area libraries and colleges, to name just a few outlets that I know of, but we need more.

Conversation is not an answer to poverty or violence or segregation, but the understanding it can lead to is a prerequisite to any real solution. You need to talk. I need to listen. Then we’ll switch roles and repeat. I have faith that this can do some good because listening—not just hearing, but giving these pieces of someone else’s life a shelter, even temporarily—is an act of love.

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