By Kahan Dhillon
Born to an Indian father from Punjab and an African mother from Tanzania, I spent a lot of time visiting both places and experienced firsthand the depths to which disparity can reach. For the longest time, I felt blessed. Blessed to have been born in a country that gave me the opportunity to achieve great success and at age 37, to have more material and monetary wealth than I could have ever asked for.
But then one day about a year and a half ago, as I was leaving Baltimore City in heavy rain, I heard my Father God speak to me. His words were, “Son, consider the thrones of others before your own as you are needed.” Though looking out for others before one’s self is how I was raised and is a tenet of my faith, Sikhism, I couldn’t understand my Father’s message. What “thrones” of others was he referring to? Where were these thrones? And who needed me?
As I was almost out of the city, I looked over and witnessed a woman holding three children, sitting in the pouring rain on a city bench that read “Baltimore – The Greatest City in America.” She was huddled on the bench covering herself and her young children with newspapers. She held a sign that read, “Please Help. Please Take My Children. God Bless.” My heart skipped multiple beats, and at that moment I understood what my Father meant by thrones of others.
From that day on, I paid much greater attention to the city benches, and with each one I realized that the overwhelming majority were occupied by those doing far less than great. It made me wonder how I could feel blessed when I saw my fellow men, women, and children suffering so drastically.
Something had to be done, so I went to work to create The Baltimore Renaissance (TBR). TBR is a community impact organization established to work hand-in-hand with the community and organizations to achieve the social and economic changes needed for all of the city’s residents.
From donating more than 2,000 books to Gilmore Elementary – one of the neediest elementary schools – during the mayor’s book drive, to deploying hundreds of volunteers across the city during the annual citywide clean-up, to assisting in the building of a KABOOM playground in the McCollough Homes neighborhood, our efforts have been vast and far reaching.
We are working deeply with the community to move The Baltimore Renaissance (TBR) revitalization plan forward and today it is the largest, most comprehensive citywide revitalization plan anywhere in the country, and indeed in Baltimore’s history. And while the plan has been met with tremendous excitement, optimism, and hope from community leaders, some of our political leaders seem more focused on maintaining the status quo between the haves and the have-nots.
I have always found that the first step to honestly resolving issues is to accept the fact that there are issues to begin with. As an outsider who has come in, it is not difficult to identify the harsh reality that exists throughout Baltimore. It is not difficult to identify the racism and segregation, the deep disparities between communities, or the political corruption that has plagued the City of Baltimore.
I have seen and/or experienced each. It is from these disparities that I set out to create parity and hence TBR was born. Our TBR slogan is the foundation and guide our actions and revitalization plan: “Baltimore Building Baltimore For Baltimore.”
If we are truly going to fight for a better Baltimore for all, we must accept the harsh reality that the tides of change will not rise from just City Hall.
Mayor Pugh, I appreciate the fact that your campaign was built on the foundation to “collaborate and work with all to move the City forward.” Yet it has been almost 11 months and you have purposefully avoided meeting with me to discuss TBR’s vision for the city – even after the Baltimore City Council welcomed TBR to its chambers this summer for a hearing on the revitalization plan.
I’m astonished that as the “Chief Executive” and “Chief Promoter” of one of the most troubled cities in the nation, you cannot find the time to discuss an historic $10 billion initiative to revitalize our neighborhoods.
I have worked in Congress in both the House and Senate, in a governor’s administration, and in many appointed positions in local government, and I’ve never met a public elected official in my 22 years of working within the political arena who did not make themselves available on an issue of such importance.
Even as Baltimore prepares to compete for the Amazon HQ2 that would bring an estimated 50,000 jobs to the region, there is no cohesive economic development, community revitalization, transportation and public safety plan coming out of the mayor’s office.
Yet, could you imagine how Amazon would feel while considering your proposal to lure them if you included TBR, the largest revitalization plan in the city’s history and currently the largest citywide revitalization plan underway in the nation? Apparently not.
This summer, TBR had an initial goal of meeting with 500 stakeholders. We have surpassed this goal and have met with city and community leaders from all walks of life and all sectors of Baltimore’s economy and faith-based community. I have met with every member of the Baltimore City Council and numerous other elected officials throughout the City and no one has been able to poke a hole in the “bulletproof” TBR revitalization plan. In fact, across the city we have built an extensive expansive support base with a volunteer team of almost 650 members and since the City Council hearing our TBR revitalization fund has received hundreds of millions in new commitments.
We stand ready to work with City Hall to make this revitalization plan a reality, yet it is astonishing that after 11 months, you have not been able to find time for a 30-minute meeting to discuss the transformative impacts that TBR’s revitalization plan would have, some specific impacts are as follows:
- Community Development & Revitalization – There is no comprehensive community and site-specific revitalization plan like TBR. Our plan is the largest socio-economic revitalization plan in Baltimore’s history and the largest citywide revitalization plan currently in the nation. In addition to spurring economic development, the plan includes an affordable housing, education and universal job training programs, environmental, jobs, non-profits, public health, public safety aka crime reduction, transportation, and tax plans that all work hand in hand.
- Environment – Baltimore city residents experience more than 5,000 sewage back-ups every year. It is an issue that requires immediate attention beyond the revised 2002 consent decree. Under TBR’s plan, we can expedite the timeline to address Baltimore’s failing sewer system with the use of 21st century technologies to ensure that sewage and wastewater is handled on major TBR sites before entering the public system. Doing so will reduce the number of backups in city homes each year, help restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay, and result in less stress on the public sewer system. TBR’s plan will also focus on the preservation and restoration of our city parks, trails, bike lanes, open spaces and public amenities
- Crime – The tragic increase in crime this year has broken records with virtually every crime indicator. The city’s actions to address this epidemic have been opaque and ineffective, while statistics have shown and even Baltimore City Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has commented that comprehensive revitalization and economic opportunity is one of the biggest deterrents of crime. These opportunities need to be citywide, and not just concentrated in a few communities. The Baltimore Revitalization (TBR) Plan would be a true public-private partnership to achieve holistic development to save lives from violent crime.
- Jobs – An estimated 76,000 people in Baltimore are jobless. TBR’s Revitalization Plan is estimated to create 45,000 jobs at all age and skill levels. Not only will TBR bring many Baltimoreans back into the workforce, it will bring jobs to those areas of the city that have been failed by a wholly inadequate revitalization environment and transportation system.
As a Sikh whose faith mandates that I do my part to tackle social injustice where I encounter it, I extend my hand to all Baltimoreans who would join me in this revitalization effort. TBR stands for MORE for Baltimore and Baltimore Building Baltimore for Baltimore. Together, we have a tremendous opportunity to actually bring economic development to every corner and every community in our city. Mayor Pugh, you can play a big part in making this vision a reality, or you can continue to sit on the sidelines. Either way, the citizens of Baltimore have made it clear to me that they are no longer willing to accept the current state of Charm City.
Oh, and to clear up the rumor mill and as a direct message to whoever started it: The only thing FBI about me is that I am “For Baltimore’s Interest” — so move on and try again.
Kahan Dhillon is president of The Baltimore Renaissance (TBR).