I met some heroes this 4th of July.
Jack runs a non-profit devoted to work-force development. He helps hard-to-employ individuals—because they’ve been incarcerated, or lack a high-school diploma, or just never had a consistent adult show them the ropes—and connects them to potential employers. He assists both sides of the equation, charts achievable steps toward success, counsels and cajoles and congratulates. “It’s two steps forward, one step back” on the best days, he says, a lot worse on others, but after 20 years he’s still committed.
Hannah is a social worker whose patients have suffered traumatic brain injuries. “I meet them in the first few hours after they come to the hospital,” she told me. A lot of her patients are quite young—the victims of accidents or violence—and though they have significant medical issues, “they are kids, so they have all the stuff to deal with that any teenager faces.” She spoke with affection about both the patients she serves and her team at the University of Maryland, the challenges of the city, and how to help it heal. She and Jeff, married for over two decades, parents of three children, bright eyed and quick to smile, admitted that a lot of nights they have to paste their broken hearts back together after work.
Matthew came to Baltimore 14 years ago for a one-year intensive Master’s program, and never left. “I was burned out by my work as a designer, and Baltimore seemed like a good place to re-connect theory with practice.” He had been flying at 20,000 feet and he “wanted to get grounded in relationships with real people and their real problems.” Now he teaches students from all over the world who want to help their cities work—teaching them to listen for what residents need and want, crafting visions that come from the ground up on projects as varied as transportation, green space, housing and employment. “There’s a lot of space to try things, fail, and start again in Baltimore,” he said.
Imani teaches yoga in a variety of places—in homes, in a borrowed studio, in the park—to a variety of people. Some are harried professionals, some are seniors slowing down, others are disabled or challenged by the difficult hand that life has dealt them. Ted works for the FBI, Carlos at the Pentagon. Andre rehabs historic town houses. Kim and her husband are nurses. Wyatt bends metal into stair railings and art. Sam tends a tiny park tucked within an alley, where arsonists burned a row of houses in the 1970’s.
I doubt any of these folks would call themselves a hero—they are just going through their daily rounds, raising kids, tending elderly parents, going to work, sitting on the stoop, getting out from behind their doors and into each other’s lives. Their commitment to building a community in Baltimore is palpable. They reach beyond themselves in small ways and big ways, and step by step, something happens. Eboo Patel, author and activist, once said, “We are each other’s business,” and I felt the gift of that on our nation’s birthday this week.
What makes a country strong? The fabric woven by intimate contact, needs spoken and gifts shared, people offering their lives to each other. It happens block by block, across divisions of race and class and gender and age… two steps forward and one step back, with grit and grace and gratitude. Each of us is called to build it. I am so thankful to be on the journey with you.