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by Marc Grossblatt, ICJS Justice Leaders Fellow

My experience in the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship has prompted me to think deeply about economic justice issues in Baltimore and around the country. Prior to applying for this fellowship and being advised that economic justice was going to be the focus of the program, the topic about the digital divide came to mind. My experience in the fellowship has broadened my perspective to view the issue of economic justice through a series of divides encompassing race, wealth, and access to affordable food.

The reading I encountered during this year’s fellowship that most influenced my thinking was “The Racial Wealth Divide in Baltimore” from the Corporation for Economic Development (CFED). This reading is from 2015-2016, so it’s a little outdated as the numbers have changed, but it provides excellent statistics on numerous topics. The three I want to focus on are the following topics: “Households of Color in Liquid Asset Poverty”; “Population and Vacant Homes in a Shrinking City”; and food deserts in many Baltimore communities. 

The issue for “Households of Color in Liquid Asset Poverty,” also known as redlining, is still an issue in Baltimore today. The practice began in the 1930s, where the federal government under the New Deal created a corporation (the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation) to expand home-buying opportunities that then created residential security maps. Although the direct use of these maps was effectively outlawed by the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the maps created patterns of disinvestment in non-white neighborhoods that continue to shape U.S. cities to this day. In communities of color, getting credit from a bank to buy a home or even start a business is much harder than it is for white people. This is another obstacle people of color face when they try to gain equity to close the wealth divide. 

The second issue is about population and vacant homes. Baltimore has seen its population shrink for some time. This trend continues today as residents struggle to find jobs. If someone has a criminal record, finding employment is almost impossible. People coming out of the prison system are at a disadvantage when trying to find employment, and more needs to be done to help change this. Another issue is vacant homes in Baltimore. As of January 2022, there were 15,032 vacant houses in the city. On January 31, 2022, Mayor Brandon Scott issued a directive to address the issue of vacant houses  that have been an eye sore for many years. The State of Maryland has slowly helped demolish some of these properties, but this process could take years to come to fruition. A question I have is this: what would happen if these houses were fixed up and people could move in, own a home, and have a property investment?

A recent news story I want to highlight is about the plan to address the “highway to nowhere” in West Baltimore. Fifty years ago, a once bustling neighborhood of 1,500 people were forced to vacate their predominantly Black community so workers could build an extension of Interstate 70. This project destroyed 971 homes and 62 businesses to make way for the highway, which was left partially constructed after the project was canceled.  When the project was stopped, workers left behind a sunken, 1.39-mile highway with a series of overpasses that has stood in place of once-vibrant blocks since 1969. The City and the federal government are in discussion about how to use funds from President Bidens infrastructure bill to redevelop the Highway to Nowhere. It would be the largest federal investment into infrastructure projects in more than a decade. Furthermore, U.S.  Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen are advocating for the American Jobs Plan to include money to redevelop failed projects like the highway. Other possible legislation is the Reconnecting Communities Act, a similar piece of legislation which would provide money to revitalize communities harmed by the construction of the Interstate Highway System.

The third issue is the lack of grocery stores in certain Baltimore communities. Approximately 20% of city residents live in a food desert where people have to travel sometimes hours on public transportation to get to a grocery store to purchase fresh food and vegetables. Baltimore City has a total 68 grocery stores. 

In closing, I wanted to reflect on my group project where I worked with three other fellows to discuss what is currently going on with the digital divide in Baltimore City. Over the course of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship our group conducted research on different nonprofit organizations, researched what the state, city and federal government is doing to assist with closing the divide and shared numerous news articles as they occurred. We also made contact with religious leaders from our faiths and I contacted staff members in the technology and communications department at the Baltimore City Schools to request information on what they were currently doing regarding technology.

I enjoyed  the team building and communication aspects of this project and working with my group. Through these aspects, I educated myself further on this issue and our group came up with an excellent Powerpoint presentation. My aspiration post-fellowship is to continue working on this project and hope some of our suggestions are addressed by connecting with government officials from the city and state to consider possible legislation. The other suggestion our group proposed is to introduce a pilot ICJS-sponsored laptop loaner program; that would partner with city schools and religious institutions throughout the city that focus on areas that show the most concentration. Furthermore, I would like to continue working on this topic with any interested fellows or connect with a non-profit organization where I could seek volunteer opportunities, or work with ICJS staff to write a grant that could get financial support to start the pilot loaner computer program we suggested.

Marc Grossblatt is a Benefit Authorizer, Social Security Administration, Office of Disability Operations, and a member of the 2022-2023 ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship.

Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. Members of the ICJS Justice Leaders Fellowship consider how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings and practice can contribute to the public conversation about (in)justice. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives. We do not seek a single definition of justice between or within traditions.