After the COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellation of our annual Neighborhood Institute, Strong City launched a new program: Neighborhood Conversations. The first two Conversations were a big success, reaching a combined audience of well over 2,000 on social media.
In September, we presented “Neighborhood Leaders Respond to the Pandemic,” with 35 attendees joining us on Zoom for an exploration of how local leaders were adapting to meet their neighbors’ needs during an unprecedented public health an economic crisis.
The panel included Arianna Koudounas of Madison Park, founder of the Eutaw Place Play Days, which promotes art, recreation and community; Ashley Esposito, founder of Village of Violetville, a wellness-based neighborhood organization in Southwest Baltimore; Lucia Islas of Highlandtown, President of Comité Latino de Baltimore, the city’s first Latino community group; and Sandi McFadden of Mid-Govans, longtime York Road community leader and Strong City’s Community School Coordinator for Govans Elementary School. Our moderator was Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Vice Dean for Public Health Practice and Community Engagement at the JHU Bloomberg School.
One thing that conversation brought to light is that neighborhoods that were well-organized before the pandemic were better positioned to keep functioning and to respond to the crisis with energy and creativity. Many of the neighborhoods that did well were places where Strong City had a history of working to support community leaders.
In October, we shifted the focus to “The 2020 Election: Community Views and Challenges.” Our diverse panel, with backgrounds in community organizing, youth mentoring, civil rights, politics, and election disinformation, made for a lively discussion and generated more than 300 Engagements on Facebook.
Appearing on the panel were Joshua Harris, Vice President of the Baltimore City NAACP and former Green Party candidate for Mayor; Diana Emerson, Director of Community Relations for the HARBEL Community Organization in Northeast Baltimore; David Troy, disinformation researcher and co-founder of the Baltimore City Voters Facebook Page; and Don Gatewood, Co-Director of The Initiative, a youth engagement and mentoring program. Tasmin Swanson, Director of Programs at Baltimore Votes, served as moderator.
One of the big takeaways from our second conversation: Civic engagement can’t end with Election Day but must be a year-round, citywide, multigenerational process, in which everyone feels they have a stake.