Justice without community building from the ground up? Is it possible?

Recently a colleague attempted to convince me that the powerful stakeholders directing the process of redevelopment in East Baltimore ‘get it’. Later I thought, who ‘gets’ what justice is? We seem to all ‘get it’ differently. And even more deeper to understand is whether our understanding of justice involves community building from the ground up, without discrimination and violation of human rights.

Perhaps my difficulty in understanding what my colleague and his friends ‘get’ is based on my own experience with these stakeholders and the pattern of inconsistencies surrounding their words and actions: the leadership directing the current redevelopment project in East Baltimore. The past 12 years suggest that the collective understanding of justice and community building, by Baltimore’s Mayor in 2001 (now Governor of Maryland) and the past and current leadership of Johns Hopkins and the Annie E. Casey Foundation runs something like this: it is okay to repeat history from 50 years ago as long as we convince people that we really ‘get it’. Fifty years ago in the 1950‘s, Baltimore City Department of Planning and the Mayor assisted the Johns Hopkins Medical campus’s expansion by 59 acres through displacement of more than 1000 majority African American and low-income families during the Broadway Redevelopment Project. In 2001, the Mayor and the Department of Planning and Housing and Community Development again assisted the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus expansion into another 88 acres through displacement of another 1000 African American and low-income families. This time the Annie E. Casey foundation threw in its power to assure this could happen after erratic outcomes in their ‘Making Connections’ projects across the country. Both East Baltimore projects were sold to the public under the heading of urban renewal and public benefit. And yes, community building was hailed as the core; however it was not the existing community that was the interest of either of these development projects, it was the community of the powerful developer of Johns Hopkins and its partners. Certainly a different brand of ‘justice’ than those involved in social justice movements and most importantly community residents directly impacted by the development ‘get’.

The powerful stakeholders understanding of ‘justice’ in 2001 was to use eminent domain to take the land of residents for the Hopkins Science and Technology Park expansion project. However it met with unanticipated resistance when residents organized and challenged these outside stakeholders and their partners to declare their understanding of ‘justice’ – benefit to the existing community through a right of return to the rebuilt area and a ground-up approach to community rebuilding involving residents (see details in Chapter 5 of the Book page on this website). For 8 years they proceeded to show the powerful stakeholders what ‘justice’ meant for them, through organizing residents and demanding consistency in words and actions. And today, another growing community base continues to challenge the projects’ brand of ‘justice’ known for its inconsistency, non-transparency, and inequitable benefit to existing residents of East Baltimore (Daily Record Series in Resources page on this website). The different understanding of justice, by those with great power and little power -and all those in between- continues and this post will present some evidence of this and challenge us to reason how we can bridge the gap between the words and the actions across the divide of inconsistencies.

Table: EBDI Pattern of Inconsistencies

The inconsistencies come in many forms and suggest that we pay close attention to how each one intends or acts toward who the community is being rebuilt for. While the language used by the developers has been about ‘community building’ the social engineering experiment has consistently left the existing community out of the discussion and decision-making. For example, it has been more than one year since EBDI had a regular open meeting for community residents to learn about the status of the project. And as shown in the table insert, when ‘public’ events occur residents are hand-picked for attendance or informed after-the-fact.

Perhaps we must agree on what the term justice means to all stakeholders to begin to bridge the inconsistences in words and action-to meet on a path where everyone is moving toward a collective understanding of justice. Until then those with less power must organize to demand equity in benefit because the powerful stakeholders are currently running the show-creating a reality for the public consistent with their view of ‘justice’.

Finally, if we abide by the law defining what is ‘justice’ in regard to the use of eminent domain in community building, it is clear: ‘a taking of private land should be struck down if it is clearly intended to favor a particular private party over another, or if only an incidental public benefit exists’ (Supreme Court 2005). Because public:private partnerships have been the power behind this redevelopment project and substantial public funds have contributed to removal of residents, acquisition and demolition of property, preparation of land, update of infrastructure, tax incentives for developers, subsidies for developers, public:private status of development agency and new community school, ensuring equitable and sustainable benefit cannot be a side-effect but a major measurable outcome. Anything else would be an injustice-socially and legally.

How public:private partnerships contribute to inequity in community rebuilding

Figure 1.roof

Urban redevelopment and neighborhood health in East

Baltimore, Maryland: The role of communitarian and

institutional social capital

critical pub health

Why we need alternative models for rebuilding our disinvested and abandoned communities: building a path forward

At a recent conference in November 2012 of the Applied Research Center in Baltimore, Maryland-Facing Race- a panel discussion on community rebuilding resulted in lively discussion and shared ideas about knowledge in this area; not only by the expert panelists but by an expert audience. It was a standing room only forum and more than an hour after it ended and the last comments and questions were heard did we leave the room. Two days earlier, a similar discussion occurred after two bus tours- hosted by Baltimore Racial Justice Action- through East Baltimore surveying the current 88-acre development by East Baltimore Development Inc. of an expansion of Johns Hopkins Medical Complex and the communities peripheral. Having participated in both as a moderator of the panel and a tour guide on the bus, I noted the comments and questions shared by attendees who came from research and academia, foundations, community organizing, resident groups, social work, law, journalism, geography, sociology, anthropology, peace studies, urban studies, and public health students, public, health, and community development policy and legal sectors, anti-racism and anti-oppression networks, and development corporations from across the country-several from abroad.


What became clear very quickly was the unanimous decision that we need alternative models for rebuilding our disinvested and abandoned communities. Models which do not disproportionately grow the wealth of developers while using tax incentives and government subsidies gained on ‘poverty areas’. Models which do not view the existing communities as cause of the current conditions but recognized the racist and classist laws and policies which built these communities of disinvestment. Models which did not treat the current residents as obstacles to revitalization but participants in change toward healthy outcomes. Instead attendees at both these events shared about models that would assure that historic communities received equitable benefit in wealth or health through jobs, fair wages, affordable housing and amenities, effective transportation. Models which acknowledged the causes of current day outcomes and attempt to address these causes. Models which incorporate the affected residents in every aspect and a comprehensive understanding of all the conditions which lead to an unhealthy  and a healthy community. Models which address not only housing and jobs but opportunities for residents becoming business owners and investors in new businesses, apprentices in jobs that assure skills. Models which address the result of decades of abandonment and disinvestment on the health of the people and the means to address these effects (programs for those with drug and alcohol addiction, history of incarceration, affordable health care and preventive health services, programs targeted to chronic illnesses, obesity, addiction, etc). Models that address education as a major role in changing a community (see previous post) and how it can be equitably integrated. Models that address transportation which supports a healthy and livable community and provides access for all. Models which address recreational facilities for youth and nurturing programs for elders. Most importantly was the unanimous comments that projects like the current one in East Baltimore which treated historic residents as obstacles to rebuilding -by violating their human rights through removal and non-participation- needed to stop and new models which includes the affected community as co-decision makers and visionaries in their destiny must emerge.


While those of us involved in this work recognize that this is not new knowledge, what was important was the recognition that many across the US are tired of this ‘business as usual’ model of community rebuilding and are ready to stand up and struggle for change. And what came across very clearly was that these different sectors see the need for us to merge our forces together and become a powerful collective movement to assure change does happen-the parts must become a whole.


Below are issues/strategies toward solutions offered by attendees from these two events:


Identify equity tools and use them skillfully
Role of foundations in contributing to the status quo of unfair development: what do they gain?
Power and control in the hands of government, developers, community: Government has the most, community the least. Government: developer partnership is bad for community,  accumulated power and control
Role of the media in change/new weapon of social media/taking issues viral/outside of the US
Using PR like developers do: they create and sell their reality to the public, what about the reality on the ground?
Leverage their co-optation tactics, make it public, show their lack of accountability, lack of transparency
Follow the money trail: HUD dollars spent how? Judicial monitoring of housing built. Is there discriminatory intent in using federal, state, city dollars. Role of FHA
Gentrification as an acceptable part of revitalization-no it’s not
Keep a vigilant eye on boards and budgets-why and how they change
Building coalitions across diverse sectors and different struggles-unaffected communities are important resources and partners-community organizing is key to all
Recognizing how we got here-helps us get away from here
Role of universities in unfair development-always been there now highlight the pattern
Monitor environmental impact throughout projects
Accessing higher income people who recognize the injustice of current development projects
Know the facts/data and use -who is really behind the development project? who is funding it? leveraging funds? who are the trustees of funders/corporations/ foundations/  non-profits? Get the data they don’t talk about/hide
Challenging the giants (developers, universities, foundations, corporations,, stadiums, Walmarts etc)
Political process-how do we interpret the current ‘policy’ language and advocate for more beneficial to community
Using visuals more effectively: unemployment, boarded-housing, wealth of developers, racial segregation, high rises vs row houses
The system is working perfectly-for the developer and corporations. Turn it upside down so benefit for the community. Slow it down so community can organize for their rights
Litigation-public housing, FHA, integration vs gentrification, equity in benefit
Social enterprise as alternative model for development
Get better at putting research into practice by connecting research/policy activists and on-the-ground practitioners/activists/residents/organizers-everyone has a a role in translating change
Identify and build political power in community (tap, energize)-every tool must be used wisely
Crowd funding as source of supporting challengers; less dependent on foundations which are brain-drainers of communities
Probing the non-transparency of public meetings. Probing quasi public-private entities and lack of transparency and accountability
Affordable housing is a must-refinance, post-construction financing, note clauses that are linked to punitive outcomes and loss of housing
CBAs-lots of examples, notice implementation and evaluation
University students as allies for change


The symposium-Equitable and Sustainable Development: a Path Forward- on March 9, 2013 in Baltimore, MD is continuing this movement of change. It will bring together practicing experts from different aspects of community development from across the US to describe alternative models of community rebuilding implemented in their communities. It will acknowledge the wrongs of current rebuilding practices and use this knowledge to assure that alternative models right these wrongs. And it will acknowledge that only by bridging the gap between our various sectors can we accomplish an outcome which incorporates all these diverse sectors-health, housing, economics, safety, education, recreation, transportation. Join us on March 9th.

March 9, 2013 Symposium