More than 75 community groups will converge onto the City College High School tonight at 6:30 p.m. for the first Baltimore Neighborhood Congress. The Neighborhood Congress has a plan to combat the woes of Baltimore life: Give the citizens’ a voice, and give them the power to act Perhaps even more to the point: If enough Baltimoreans are unified in a single coalition, pity the politician who does not pick up the phone when they call.
On the table this evening are the very guts of the project, an egalitarian process in wmen any and every resident in the city can vote for what should be the priorities of the Congress. The issues have been categorized as.
such: housing and open space; crime and drugs; education; and sanitation.
At least 500 people are expected to attend tonight’s convention. A plan of action will be finalized and commitments of time and effort will be made by those attending.
Even to get to this prelimiminary point has been an exercise in participatory democracy. In January, the Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA), the city-wide neighborhood association umbrella group, sent out about 1,000 letters to neighborhood organizations and activists. The letter called for a summit to address the upcoming city elections.
Over 60 neighborhood leaders attended that first meeting, brainstorming about an agenda and mission. There is some question as to to whether it was the participants idea, or CPHA’s prompting, but a resolution was reached to expand further
than the mayoral elections into a long-term citizen-based strategy. The Congress was bom.
The Congress then held three planning sessions earlier this month. The 300-plus citizens who attended the sessions identified the principal problems that all neighborhoods were suffering from, regardless of ethnic ori- * gin or economic status.
The Congress has been criticized for having vague priorities and structure, but its proponents have hailed its lack of form as the true sign of a grass-roots effort evolving into a wide-reaching organization. CPHA press officer Lisa Smith acknowledged that media outlets were having a difficult time writing about the Congress, because of its embryonic fuzziness.
Cleo Stuart, a founding member of the Congress and the Reservoir Hill activist responsible for “The Listening Project,” stressed that the Congress was about systematic change in the city’s bureaucracy, not about electing politicians. “It doesn’t matter who gets to be mayor, as long as we are engaging citizens,” she said.
Bev Thomas, another founding member and chairperson of Citywide Liquor Coalition, sees in the congress the ability to affect policy and hold politicians accountable. She notes that most success stories in communities have been isolated, without the resources of a larger group.
“People are tired of not seeing long-term or positive change,” she said. As an example of what the Congress could do, she noted that housing code enforcement in the city was lacking. As a partner with the city, she said, the Congress could get the funding the city did not have access to. They could then hire building inspectors for the specific areas that are a problem.
The cohesive idea that has captured the heart and imagination of community activists around the city was most succinctly put by Stan Edminster of Dogpatch (a self-named comer of Greater Homewood): “in one hand you have hope, in the other you got s—t We ain’t taking this s—t no more.”
The Neighborhood Congress. Tonight, 6:30 p.m., at City College High School (off 33rd Street between The Alemeda and Loch Raven Blvd., on MTA bus lines 3,22, and 36)