What we can -- and should -- learn from Baltimore

baltimore sandtown
A memorial for Freddie Gray in Baltimore's Sandtown neighborhood.

Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore police custody ignited a firestorm.

For some observers of the tragedy, it is viewed as an inevitable byproduct of years of disinvestment in an inner-city neighborhood. But the facts are quite different.

Starting in the early 1990s, government and private-sector players came together and invested more than $130 million in an effort to revitalize Freddie Gray's Sandtown community.

Despite those efforts, Sandtown's poverty rate today is more than double the national average; unemployment is almost four times higher; and rates of incarceration and arrest, child mortality and teen birth are depressingly high. We further dishonor the death of Freddie Gray if we don't make sure that the lessons learned from that investment inform local, state and federal policy and practice much more than they have to date.

Lesson: Stop investing more in fixing real estate than creating opportunity

A lot of money was spent on revitalizing real estate in the neighborhood, while the citywide systems that kept people poor and without hope continued to fail.

For example, we know that a person graduating college makes $1 million more in a lifetime than a person without a high school degree. Yet in Baltimore then, as in so many cities still today, we spend billions of dollars on public education that doesn't prepare those like Freddie Gray for success.

For real success, we need almost every actor in the system to admit that they are failing our kids and have been for generations. That's why I'm encouraged by the more than 60 cities in the StriveTogether network, where public, private and philanthropic leaders are publicly holding themselves accountable for real change, from cradle to career.

Related: Where poor kids stay poor

In Cincinnati, they just issued a public "report card" showing that they are getting better results across the board. They also have the courage to pull out data by race so they make sure that improvements are impacting those historically most left behind.

Lesson: We can't rely on superhero leaders to fix the problem

Transforming communities like Sandtown takes time. It requires a resilient and sustainable "civic infrastructure," including public, private, philanthropic and nonprofit leaders who distribute responsibility so their efforts can survive the inevitable turnover by mayors, superintendents, university presidents and others.

There is no better example of this dynamic than Detroit. With the government in disarray, local philanthropy and business leaders have shared the leadership for more than a decade, making investments that now position the city to take advantage of its fresh start.

Lesson: Investment needs to be tied to the real economy

We never should have expected the Sandtown initiative to generate a needle-moving number of neighborhood-based new businesses and jobs. A single neighborhood is not the right economic unit to focus on. Even strong neighborhoods -- think of where most well-paid, suburban professionals ply their trades -- don't have enough economic activity to support sufficient jobs at sufficient wages for their residents. That's the role of the regional economy.

Efforts have to be driven by employer demand and focused on advancing workers into family-supporting careers.

Related: How to fix wealth inequality

Following a path pioneered in Cleveland and Detroit, there is an emerging effort in Baltimore by local economic drivers (largely hospitals and universities) to manage their hiring, procurement and even construction contracting decisions to benefit residents of neighborhoods like Sandtown.

Johns Hopkins Hospital, for example, has become a leader in hiring the previously incarcerated and creating an environment that supports their long-term success. Other cities, like Louisville, with the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, have figured out how to work with their major employers to ensure that they provide more employees with stepping stones to advance.

We do Baltimore and the country a disservice every time we ignore these lessons.

Ben Hecht is president and CEO of Living Cities, an organization that harnesses the resources and knowledge of its 22 member foundations and financial institutions. He worked in Sandtown while Senior Vice President of Enterprise Community Partners from 1996-2000.

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