Leaders of Beautiful Struggle’s Adam Jackson discusses Baltimore’s $12 million youth fund

Adam Jackson / Photo by Kyle Pompey

At a time when some Maryland leaders, notably Governor Larry Hogan, are looking to crack down on crime, others are taking a longer view, pushing the idea that the way to stop crime is by focusing on and nurturing the city’s youngest residents. The Baltimore City Council recently approved the $12 million youth fund, aimed at making sure that smaller groups dedicated to working with kids in the city get the money they need to do their jobs. Adam Jackson, CEO of the grassroots think tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), co-chaired a 34-member task force aimed at laying the groundwork for the youth fund and joined me at the Real News Network studios to discuss. What follows is an edited and condensed version of that interview.

Lisa Snowden-McCray: Can you take us through a timeline of what has happened so far with the youth fund and how it came about?

Adam Jackson: In the beginning, in November of 2016, voters approved the youth fund. And then there’s been the actual task force that was convened by the council president’s office from January to May of 2017 and we produced recommendations.

And so, as a result of those recommendations, there’s a few important pieces that people need to understand. One piece of it is that we suggested that there be a new intermediary organization created and that that be the ultimate entity that will manage the fund. And it will have citizen participation, resident participation in that organization, both from the board and in terms of allocations via the assembly of Baltimore City residents. And so, a part of that was figuring out what institution would anchor that process and the recommendation from the task force was Associated Black Charities be the institution to do that. Primarily because it has a racial equity frame when you’re talking about public policy and just general approaches around issues pertaining to people of color, black people.

And so, we suggested that they be the anchor institution and so far, the city has been working with ABC to figure out the arrangement that they would have in the first year of disseminating funds, and also building out this new intermediary group. And so the first year, ABC will be the one distributing resources from the youth fund, but they’re gonna be integrating the recommendations from the task force. That’s a final step that has to go through the Board of Estimates through the mayor’s spending panel.

But already, there’s been an ordinance that has been approved by City Council in November of 2017. That was approved and that essentially authorized an entity to start doing that process. Hopefully our goal is to make that ABC, so we can begin the process of distributing money and getting it to community youths.

LSM: How did LBS get involved with the youth fund?

AJ: Essentially there were a bunch of white corporate nonprofits moving in, trying to make themselves the center of the resources, the center of gravity for the fund. So a lot of our advocacy in general around Baltimore has been criticizing the nonprofit sector in terms of who gets resources and who doesn’t, and traditionally, how they suck up a lot of the air when talking about getting resources from not just the government, but philanthropy. So, part of our intervention in the process was to figure out how to make sure that that money went to smaller, particularly black-led organizations and groups in Baltimore, to make sure that we finance the institutions in our community that are working on behalf of our people.

LSM: Was that something you guys went to the City Council with or did the City Council extend the offer to you? How did you guys decide that that needed to happen?

AJ: I could speak just for LBS. One of the things that was happening like I mentioned in terms of those early meetings, particularly, there was this nonprofit organization, Strong City Baltimore, that was convening with an outside group called Participatory Budgeting, and a lot of their meetings, they weren’t centered on how to make sure it was racially equitable. It was a nonprofit essentially trying to sell its model around how they do participatory budgeting. So we intervened and criticized the process and actually, to the City Council president’s credit, they reached out to us directly and asked me to be co-chair of the task force, and I accepted the role. It was in the beginning parts where we were trying to make sure that the task force had meaningful community participation. I actually ended up happy with the results because of the actual recommendations that we put out which focus heavily on racial equity and ensuring that smaller organizations got capacity-building resources, so they could build out their programs—not just financing a program here and there, but actually creating more of an ecosystem for organizations for youth in Baltimore. That to me was the biggest thing that came out of it, was that, those results.

LSM: I feel like the more people you invite to the table, it’s good, but also it can be a little bit crazy. Being in charge of 34 different adults with different outlooks on life and opinions seems like a gigantic task. How did you guys get work done? How did you get on the same page with everybody, and even have something that you feel was successful?

AJ: Me and my co-chair, John Brothers from the T. Rowe Price Foundation, we actually talked about that in the very beginning. Part of the issue was to figure out how we lead it. So one thing I was very clear to him and everyone else about the task force is that there needs to be leadership by black people in Baltimore to make sure that this goes the right way, and he agreed to that, so that was the first step. Because me and John worked so well together on the task force, it made everything else function. I was probably one of the younger people—probably the youngest person in the room in a lot of those meetings that we had—and you had a lot of people that run city agencies, and philanthropic groups, and nonprofit organizations. And a lot of them, they didn’t disagree with the fundamental idea around making sure that smaller organizations had resources and that it’s racially equitable. The problem was operationalizing it. That energy and spirit was there around wanting to get that done; the problem was that people usually don’t have viable alternatives when you’re talking about actually implementing it. To me that’s what made the work easier down the line, is that once you figure out a way to operationalize it, then putting it into place is fairly simple.

But I think a lot of people, they just hadn’t been used to talking about that in a real way. It’s all very theoretical and abstract in the nonprofit sector—it’s gonna talk about racial equity, but we don’t really know how to put that in place. I think we ended up working well together at the end of the day because people agree fundamentally on the concept, but most of the hard work came when we had to operationalize it.

LSM: I feel like people are usually creatures of habit, and what you guys are doing in the things I’ve read, and even our conversations, is that you’re trying to flip everybody’s brains to think about something a little bit differently. One of the things that really made me want to talk to you is that to kind of decentralize white power and the nonprofit industrial complex, you’re taking people that maybe aren’t trained for this work and you’re educating them so that they’ll be able to do this work and really other work in the future for the city. Can you talk a little bit about that?

AJ: One of the major differences between this fund and how philanthropy is set up generally, is that usually in philanthropy you have the program officers who decide where money goes, and a portfolio, and that’s usually millions of dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars. These people are mostly making arbitrary decisions about who gets money and who does not. In many ways that inoculcates the philanthropic sector from accountability because then they can point fingers to one another at each other’s organizations and say, “well this person does that,” or whatever.

So part of the difference here, like you said, in terms of flipping that, is that we’re putting residents at the center of how money is decided—or allocated, rather—because we recommended from the task force that the city instead have a new nonprofit intermediate organization that is controlled and accountable to and by Baltimore residents. We have an assembly that will replace those program officers, or what we think of program officers. Instead of paying somebody $100,000 a year to decide where money goes, you instead can compensate city residents, have them be in a group setting and look at requested proposals and decide where money goes in their community. So, that’s dramatically different than what happens now. It’s a very small group of people who decide where millions and millions of dollars go in Baltimore every year.

LS: Can you discuss, for those that are not as familiar, the limits of the nonprofit industrial complex?

AJ: In reality a lot of these philanthropic and nonprofit groups are making money off the backs of black people and off the oppression of black people. And they know they’re not accountable to us because there’s just nothing designed in terms of infrastructure to make sure that they’re accountable to black people in a majority-black city. So part of the goal and objective is to not only have input, but to put us at the center of deciding where resources go. Besides that, we are also focusing on capacity building, because a lot of the time, you can have a Bback organization that works with several hundred students every year, or young people, but they can’t get any money to build out their actual institution. They’ll get programming money, they’ll get large swaths of students for their programs, but when we talk about their accounting, their legal infrastructure, some of the very bare bones things that a lot of white organizations have the ability to get because they had the resources to do it, black people don’t have that same access to resources. So the capacity-building piece is gonna be revolutionary, I believe. We’re not just talking about programs for kids every year, we’re talking about people being able to build and scale up their institutions so they can actually go out and receive more money or get larger contracts, or do more business. As opposed to right now, it’s a very small pot of dollars that you can go after, and a lot of times just for programs. So having residents at the center of it, and the piece about institution-building, where you talking about it through a racial equity framework, those are the things I think that make it revolutionary in terms of where public dollars go.

LSM: Because you’re reframing something and we are a city of people who have been hurt by the status quo, have you thought about the challenge of getting people passed maybe their feelings of saying, “oh, that’s not gonna work.” How are you getting people engaged and getting on board with this?

AJ: Well, there’s two different approaches. So, with black people, most of our energy is being focused on training our minds to think differently about how we engage in community work. Because a lot of the time, we think that black people don’t have assets in our community and don’t have institutions and organizations that can really transform our conditions. The problem is, we just suffer from disinvestment and not enough focus on the institutions in our presence, in our ownership already, that we can just invest more money into. So, part of that with black folks is just making sure that we can retrain our minds around that, and also understanding that we have approaches and methodologies to dealing with youths in our community. And so, instead of seeing it from a deficit-based framework, we should see it from an asset-based framework. And so, for black people, that’s the issue.

But when you’re talking about white folks, I don’t care about their thoughts and feelings on it. Most of them are gonna have to be dragged. Like dragged physically to be like, you have to change how you operate if you are actually trying to transform the conditions of people who are suffering. And also, people need to be called out. There are a lot of white people in Baltimore that get six figure salaries working for major nonprofit organizations, claiming that they serve black people and in reality, they’re just hustling off our backs and hustling off our suffering because no one calls them out. And in Baltimore, it’s a very particular problem because white liberals have run Baltimore in terms of resources from the philanthropic entities and in public dollars. And because we don’t see it as an industry, we don’t see it as a method that people are using to make money for themselves to benefit themselves; we just see it as some kind of benign accident. People are getting called out. But it’s over. And people need to understand that they can’t hustle off the backs of our children just because they get a six figure salary and they have good intentions.

LSM: Via legislation and this youth fund and other things that are going on in Annapolis, you kind of seem to straddle this line between activist—you’re not afraid to verbally call people out—but also working within the system. How do you create this lane for yourself? Or do you think that you’ve created a lane for yourself?

AJ: I think our approach has always been of the black, and the black freedom struggle, in terms of how black people have always organized to transform black people’s material conditions. And I don’t see anything that we do as particularly innovative. I just see it as a new machination or a new iteration of what people have already been doing. And in terms of working within the system, versus without, just to be clear to the viewers because I’m a Pan-African Nationalist, people think when you call yourself a Pan-Africanist or a Pan-African Nationalist, that your approach must be one where you have to work completely outside the system. You have to go onto a reservation, buy some land and plant, and be a survivalist basically. And that’s an approach, and I see value in that approach. But the problem is, is that right now, today, black people are suffering under the guise of white supremacy, under the system of white supremacy.

LSM: Right.

AJ: And so, the question to me isn’t, “How do I create this revolutionary fantasyland?” It’s like, I’m actually trying to change people’s conditions. I want black people to eat. I want black people to live quality lives today. And part of Pan-Africanism, if you understand it, you know the first question isn’t, “What’s your thought?” It’s “What did you do? What did you build? What did you create?” And so, for us, when we think about LBS, we don’t see it as a fantasy. We don’t see it as something that has to be 10, 15 years down the line. That should be the goal but in the here and now, there are systems in place. There are government structures. There are people who run those structures. And so our perspective is, if we can figure out a way to get public investment into black people and that will make black people’s actual lives and institutions better, then we’ll do that. But there’s always value in an inside and outside game. I would hope that most Baltimore politicians know that our group is one that will have a meeting and will talk and we’ll go through the process—but the second you out of step with community, it’s on. Because you have to go left.

But it’s a matter of the political process. I think people sometimes see that as abrasive or they can see it as too aggressive, but to me, it’s a matter of black people’s conditions. We’re gonna always be aggressive for black people. So, just because a certain legislator doesn’t like us, it ain’t about being liked. It’s about being effective. And so, if people dislike our approach, that’s fine, but ultimately if we’re effective for black people, that’s all that really matters.

LSM: Getting back to the youth fund. What do you guys say to people like Larry Hogan? When he was in Baltimore last, he kind of, I think, dismissed the mayor’s approach to stopping crime because he’s like, “We’re not gonna see immediate results from focusing on kids.”

AJ: The problem when you’re having conversations about crime with elected officials and public officials generally, is that everyone treats crime in a vacuum. Like it all happens the same way. And it only comes up when the murder rate is high or certain kinds of violent crimes are high. And what’s always missing is the systemic analysis about how we got to this point. Baltimore just didn’t end up with over 300 murders a year because black people are savages and that we need to lock more black people up. It ended up this way because of the systemic problems and it’s from a variety of areas, housing, education, a whole variety of areas in civil society in Baltimore that black people just have not gotten the sufficient resources or investment. And so, understanding that as the history in the systemic analysis, it means that you can point to the places where you need to improve people’s quality of life. And that’s not what elected officials do. What they say is, “More police now. We need more police to lock up more Black people now.” Even though we had a zero tolerance policing from 1999 to 2005 or 2006 with Martin O’Malley. He had over 757,000 illegal arrests and crime went down and people were “safe.” But ultimately, that’s what caused the uprising.

LSM: Right.

AJ: So, now we’re under a consent decree that basically says that those approaches are illegal and shouldn’t be done and now everyone’s stuck trying to figure out how do we decrease crime? The only logical conclusion you can have to fixing crime in Baltimore is to invest more in the people. You can’t just arrest people. You can’t arrest your way out of crime in Baltimore. And so, I think that’s the problem, is that all these elected officials have a very limited scope around what it means to decrease crime and violence, and I think even when people say that we’re gonna invest, it’s very short-sighted. The youth fund is an opportunity for people to invest in our young people on a consistent basis because it’s a rolling fund. And so now, we can have a strategy and an infrastructure for investing in an ecosystem of black people and institutions as opposed to some groups get $50,000 a year for their program one time. We should invest in our institutions and our ability as black people, to change our conditions. Most of the time, these elected officials are talking about one-trick ponies: “Let’s arrest a bunch of nonviolent offenders.” But if you don’t change the conditions, those conditions will always breed crime and violence.

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