Urban League issues report

Provides in-depth analysis of blacks' living conditions

May 09, 2008|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

Foreclosure counseling by black churches. Expanding the numbers of black workers and entrepreneurs in "green businesses." And urging more federal funding for programs to reduce infant mortality rates among black babies.

These were among the solutions offered by business, community and political leaders in the Greater Baltimore Urban League's report, "The State of Black Baltimore," a collection of essays and analyses on some of the most vexing problems confronting the city's black residents.

The 183-page report, which was presented yesterday at the Marriott Waterfront hotel, examines such issues as growing gang violence, the struggles of ex-offenders to gain employment, challenges in higher education and how the foreclosure crisis disproportionately affects the city's black population.

At the conference, panelists tackled health disparities, noting that black Baltimoreans are diagnosed with heart disease, stroke and diabetes at higher rates than white residents.

Michelle A. Gourdine, former deputy secretary for public health services for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, noted that black male life expectancy is seven years less than that of white men.

And while 11,519 black Baltimoreans are living with HIV/AIDS, the figure for whites is just 1,302, she said.

Although the figures were not new to many participants, Gourdine offered a few reasons for the stark disparities: stress, poverty and a lack of health knowledge.

"We must arm individuals with knowledge and take it upon ourselves to understand these health issues," she said. "Our health care system must also become more sensible and knowledgeable of our community."

Alma Roberts, president and CEO of Healthy Start, a public health advocacy organization, called infant mortality rates in Baltimore and the nation "an American shame."

While Maryland's overall infant mortality rate was 7.9 per 1000 births in 2006, Baltimore's was 12.4, and the rate for black infants in Baltimore was 14.8, Roberts said.

"I offer a pledge to you - to support women of childbearing age and help them overcome their struggles," she said.

In highlighting economic issues, one essay warns of the ripple effects of the foreclosure crisis, saying abandoned homes may lead to increased crime. Black churches could become leaders in their communities by educating parishioners about where to get help if they can't make their payments and by offering financial education, the essay states.

In addition, the report goes beyond social issues to examine such issues as the media's portrayal of black men and Baltimore's business climate for African-Americans.

The Urban League should consider a program to foster "green collar" jobs in the city, said Roderick C. Willis in an essay about increasing employment in Baltimore. Willis, producer and host of the Urban League's weekly talk radio show, noted that cities nationwide are taking advantage of federal dollars to start programs that train low-income residents to install solar energy systems and retrofit old buildings to reduce energy consumption.

As Baltimore strives to expand its economy, Henderson fears the city's black population could miss out on the bounty. Given the redevelopment in Harbor East and the construction of two biotechnology parks in conjunction with the Johns Hopkins University on the east side and the University of Maryland on the west side, Baltimore is on the cusp of an economic renaissance, he said.

"So far with development along the harbor, our communities haven't really benefited," he said. "So the question is, how can our community benefit from that? We know education is the key to economic empowerment, so we have to make sure our community and our children are prepared."

Henderson said he hopes that by bringing together business leaders, nonprofits and community organizations, the Urban League can become an umbrella group facilitating solutions to the city's problems. Participants at the conference included Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso, Baltimore area lawmakers, National Urban League President Marc H. Morial and Susan L. Taylor, founder and former editor of Essence Magazine.

"We need to get our community to understand that we have to recapture our community and not wait for other folks to do it," said Henderson.

"That doesn't mean I'm going to let the government and state and federal agencies off. They too, should be doing their jobs. But we as a community need to step up."

Morial painted a portrait of "two Baltimores," where the economic health of a gleaming waterfront contrasts with struggling neighborhoods.

"The city represents the best it can be as well as the greatest challenges, side by side," he said. "Baltimore, you can lead to change that."

Two years ago the Urban League teamed up with Coppin State University to create a similar report, but the effort was short on details. This time around, Henderson said he hopes to keep these pressing issues in the forefront. The book is available for purchase for $20, with proceeds benefiting Urban League programs.

"I am really hoping that we will be able to develop a long-range strategy of action," he said. "This is not about developing a report and putting it on the shelf."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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