Two days after one of the low points in the civic life of Baltimore, with just over 20 percent of its registered voters taking part in the 2011 citywide primary, the following bulletin arrived from our nation's capital: "Baltimore high in civic engagement, according to federal research."
The report comes from an agency I didn't know we had, the Corporation for National and Community Service. It has been around for a couple of decades. The genesis of the agency was "a thousand points of light," George H.W. Bush's kinder-gentler call for volunteers to help the nation, using funds from the so-called post-Cold War "peace dividend." Congress created the agency during the Clinton years to "support the American culture of citizenship, service, and responsibility." It acts as a foundation that makes large grants. AmeriCorps is one of the programs it oversees.
The CNCS conducted a national survey to measure "civic engagement." Here are Baltimore's rankings:
•14th in volunteering, at a rate of 30 percent
•17th in voting, at a rate of 45 percent
•sixth in "working with neighbors," at 11.6 percent
•15th in "participating in one or more groups," at 38 percent
A closer reading of the CNCS report shows that the area studied was the "Baltimore Metropolitan Statistical Area," which goes well beyond the city limits to include all the surrounding counties, plus Queen Anne's. So it's misleading to say, "Baltimore high in civic engagement." It's the entire region that shows well in this survey.
Like the CNCS, I don't take voting as the only measure of civic engagement. Nor do I take from the low voter turnout in Tuesday's primary the message that the city is doomed and its residents have given up all hope.
Rather, what I have seen in the last 10 years, even as Baltimore's population fell, is the emergence of a new class of young, professional, progressive and demanding citizens. They've already left their mark in neighborhoods around the city. They've taken ownership of their streets and their parks. They've planted gardens. They've started charter schools. They like city life. They want to stay here and not become part of the flight. They do not want a mayor who just manages the further decline of the city. They want to hear Stephanie Rawlings-Blake say her ambition is to make Baltimore a great place to live and work and raise families — a city that wants to grow again.
I believe these people, a lot of them in their 30s and 20s, want to hear the mayor ask them for help, and she ought to do so.
She could start 100 community projects next year and ask for volunteers to step up and make them happen.
She could also ask two of the men who just ran against her, Jody Landers and Otis Rolley, for help. They both care passionately about the city; they have good and specific ideas. Engage them, put them to work.
Beyond that, there are the "Beltway progressives," men and women who might have lived in the city once upon a time but who decided to raise their families in Baltimore County, or Howard, Harford or Anne Arundel. Many of them work in the city. They care about the city. They do not want to see it fail. They would respond to calls to service.
The mayor of Baltimore, along with the progressive county executives in Towson, Columbia and Bel Air, should form an alliance and call for more civic activism generally. They should promote a cross-border sharing of volunteer resources — as mentors and tutors for children who need it, in the city or the suburbs; as laborers in efforts to renovate old schools, clean up neighborhoods and the rivers that flow from the counties through the city to the Inner Harbor and the Chesapeake. Tap into the regional identity and our pride of place. Build on the spirit of progressive activism, volunteerism and formidable brainpower that's already here.
There are thousands of Baltimoreans — in spirit, if not residency — who want to see the city succeed, in the same way we all want to see the Ravens succeed. Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in collaboration with her county peers, has an opportunity to rally the region behind a better Baltimore. All she has to do is ask.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of the Midday show on WYPR-FM. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.