Baltimore Nonprofits Protect Staff, Push Peace

June 2, 2015       Mark Hrywna and Patrick Sullivan      

Unrest in Baltimore, Md. following the funeral of a man who died a week after being injured while in police custody forced some Charm City charities to close their offices, with staff working from home. Nonprofits have since begun the work to address the underlying causes of the violence and protests.

Freddie Gray died April 19, sparking protests around Baltimore and several other urban centers around the nation. After his funeral on April 27, some protests became violent, leading to arrests, looting and rioting.

The American Heart Association (AHA) canceled its Quality of Care and Outcomes Research (QCOR) meeting after discussion with local authorities, hotel management and the Baltimore Convention and Visitors Bureau. Almost 300 attendees had registered for the annual conference that was scheduled to run from April 29 to May 1 at the Hilton Baltimore.

In a brief video message posted online, AHA President Elliott Antman, M.D., said it was a difficult decision to cancel but there was a major concern for the safety of volunteers arriving for the meeting. The important research and science “about to be presented does not go away,” he said. The information slated for QCOR will be presented on AHA’s website and other journals. Oral presentations will be incorporated into future AHA meetings.

Staff at AHA’s downtown Baltimore office worked from home, although the violence had not reached that part of the city. Some of the most violent protests were less than two miles away and protests near downtown could be seen from the offices of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS).

LIRS leaders gave employees the option of working from home on Tuesday, after Monday night’s riots. LIRS has more than 100 staff, according to spokesperson Miji Bell, who estimated that 60 percent of them stayed home Tuesday, so it was “a noticeable absence.” LIRS typically allows staff to work from home on a case-by-case basis but it’s still pretty unusual, said Bell.

LIRS shares a building with Lutheran World Relief and typically has security in the lobby, with visitors required to check in and employees showing a badge. Managers took the extra step of locking the building’s front door the week of unrest, requiring staff to swipe a passkey to enter. “It was just an extra effort to reassure staff because we are right downtown,” Bell said.

At leadership team meetings the following week, Bell said there were quite a few people in the room who lived in the city and indicated it was unsettling having to plan movements around the city with respect to a curfew. Seeing National Guard on every corner, “that really affects you day to day. You experience that, you see that, there’s a heightened level of anxiety,” she said.

“What it did for us as an organization was to give us an opportunity to reflect on internal policies, make sure some things are in place in terms of crisis response,” said Bell. It also afforded the opportunity to examine policies regarding workplace flexibly and human resource issues, Bell said.

Other than administrative or facility staff, most of the almost 400 employees at Catholic Relief Services (CRS) worked remotely, equipped with laptops and an organizational intranet. “It doesn’t affect us hugely,” said Tom Price, deputy director of communications.

Some CRS staff worked right through the weekend after an earthquake struck Nepal. “It was an odd situation that we didn’t get a break, then we were going back home,” said Price.

Some employees tend to work odd hours given the myriad locations around the globe that the charity works. “It’s not uncommon to see an email about security because of the places we work,” Price said, but it was the first time for one regarding its Baltimore headquarters.

CRS has some arrangements with employees, allowing them to work at home or in other places, with permission of their supervisor and human resources. “If it’s in the best interest of your position and the agency, you can telecommute,” Price said. Telecommuting or working remotely is increasingly common “because the sun doesn’t set on the work that CRS does,” he said.

The CRS office closed at about lunchtime on the Monday and upon recommendation of the police department, closed for the day on Tuesday. It’s located near Lexington Market and fairly close to where some of the rioting occurred. CRS moved from a smaller building on Fayette Street to the old Stewart’s department store on Lexington in 2008, joining a business renaissance that was pushing west, according to Price.

Days after the unrest, Maryland Nonprofits hosted a community forum with many organizations working directly in the communities affected, as well as representatives from the governor’s office and the mayor’s office. “We had people talk about the short-term need for support for these organizations that are providing mentoring and afterschool programs,” said Heather Iliff, president and CEO of Maryland Nonprofits, an association of nonprofit groups.

An urgent priority that came out of the forum, as well as a follow-up event on May 4, was increasing the capacity of summer programs, especially for older students. They aimed to connect the short-term crisis with the long-term issues of “disinvestment, inequity, and hopelessness that’s been allowed to persist in the Baltimore community for decades,” Iliff said. “The issues of police brutality are just the spark, not the underlying cause of the protests,” she said.

There was huge participation from the governor’s office, including four cabinet-level secretaries, Iliff said, providing an opportunity to educate the new administration, as well as representatives of the mayor’s office and the state attorney general.

“This brings into focus the needs and assets that we can be building on in Baltimore to really help the community recover, not just in the short term but in the long term,” Iliff said. Potential solutions have been identified but not the resources. Leaders of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, the Family League of Baltimore and other groups are working to get funders together.

One of the most urgent priorities is summer youth employment. “This really is a huge opportunity to do something concrete,” Iliff said. There are hundreds of programs serving more than 7,000 youth but interest is far higher. The mayor’s summer youth employment program, Youth Works, had 5,000 slots. By January, 8,000 students had signed up to participate. Youth labor 25 hours per week, with the city paying the wage and a workplace being the host. It would take about $4 million to expand the program to handle another 3,000 students, Iliff said, adding that there also is a gap of 850 work sites to identify.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra had to postpone a number of events due to the unrest but added one — an impromptu “peace concert.” President and CEO Paul Meecham said that although employees were frightened by events, having something to work on helped morale.

“On Tuesday morning (April 28), almost everyone came in but people were scared. The looting and violence went on into the middle of the night. There was tension, but this galvanized everyone,” he said. “What are we going to do? Sit back and worry or do something and try to make a difference? It really focused people; instead of agonizing about it, people were getting on with a task they knew how to do and had to move quickly.”

Meecham said it took about six hours to set up the concert, which happened at noon the following day in Mount Vernon. “We live in a collective bargaining environment. The rulebook had to be thrown out,” said Meecham. A spontaneous event such as the peace concert “requires everyone’s agreement that normal rules do not apply.”

The idea for the concert, said Meecham, was from the musicians. “They were totally on board with saying we have to do something and were willing to forget the normal contracts.”

Wherever possible, the BSO tried to postpone and reschedule events instead of cancelling them entirely. Meecham said for the most part the organization was able to do so.

“To the extent we cannot, we have insurance for business interruption which could cover lost revenue,” he said. “We haven’t really explored that because I think everything can be rescheduled.” He said the biggest problem was the curfew. For events that have not been postponed, the BSO started them earlier to comply with the 10 p.m. curfew, and Meecham anticipates some ticket holders might not attend.

In an email to supporters about recent events in Baltimore, Lester Salamon, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, said the protests were “grossly misinterpreted,” describing police as having “totally over-reached to some social media postings by students at one of the city’s large high schools on the day of the funeral of Freddy Gray.”

He was “saddened by the unfortunate stain that this incident has put on this city and deeply ashamed and angry at the harsh policing, mandatory sentencing, and budget-cutting policies of our government that have contributed to the legitimate frustrations of so many of our African-American fellow citizens.”

Some of those postings invited students from various schools to meet at a mall for a march to City Hall to “show solidarity” for Gray. Earlier, police announced they had received a credible report — which turned out to be false — that gangs had formed an alliance to attack police.

“Police officials seem to have flipped out,” Salamon said, deciding to pre-emptively turn the area “into a militarized zone” so that when students got out of schools and filed into the mall area, like they do every day to take buses home, “they were confronted with a huge phalanx of police in full riot gear, who had shut off all means of exit around the mall, closing the nearby Metro stop, and preventing buses that usually carry students home from entering or exiting the area.”

It was only after police refused to give any ground or let students leave that things escalated, Salamon contends, with arguments breaking out, pushing and shoving, and bottles being thrown.

What has happened since then, Salamon said, has been uplifting — a “powerful confirmation of the importance of civil society organizations have long been the focus of our research. In a word, civil society has come to the city’s rescue.” Many community groups mobilized members to stand between rock-throwers and the police and work with religious leaders to calm nerves, as well as “articulate the frustrations of the black community in this city, like that in so many, justifiably feel toward the police.” NPT