Fishing for Answers: An Interview with Community Leader Hathaway Ferebee

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Today Baltimore Fishbowl begins a series of interviews with Baltimore’s policy makers, old and new, working in the trenches and behind the scenes. By talking to baby boomers who have been fighting for social change since the 60s and millennials making changes now, we hope to understand more about the big challenges in Baltimore, and how best to address them.

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Hathway Ferebee, executive director of Safe & Sound

Those of us who live in Baltimore know the problems of the city didn’t begin following the Freddie Gray riots. They have been around for decades. Despite entrenched problems, some people have been working on solutions for years. Baltimorean and Roland Park Country School alum Hathaway Ferebee is one of those people. A graduate of the masters program at
the University of Maryland School of Social Work and Community Planning, the community activist led the Citizens Planning and Housing Association for years before becoming executive director in 1994 of the $7 million Safe & Sound campaign, a program to ensure children grow up safe and healthy.

We sat down with the veteran community leader to learn what she thinks about what’s worked, what hasn’t and what lies ahead.

We have been working on these issues for decades. Why do you think we are still so behind?

As I see it, the reality of city life persists against the ideals that the Safe and Sound Campaign advances because so many people grow up in conditions that fail to nurture or support the human development process. That these conditions are found disproportionately in African American neighborhoods in Baltimore is a legacy from our past and persists in the way public dollars are spent despite public awareness of the injustices and the failed outcomes that result. Rather than assess the gaps in developmental opportunities and services (ex. prenatal care, early learning, educational and extra-curricular opportunities, and fair-paying jobs) our public data systems track “problems” that are the direct-result of these developmental gaps; and instead fund expensive governmental programs that generally deepen the problems they are paid to fix. Research and the city’s data highlight the failure of such systems as prisons, juvenile detention and foster care and the generational disadvantages each creates for those served.

There is no exaggeration I can think of to better describe the ineffective allocation of public dollars and resulting conditions for the people growing up and living in Baltimore. We fund mass incarceration, poor education, and allow for low paying part-time jobs to dominate the options for those coming out of these systems. The problems are of our own making. Our elected leadership focuses on these problems rather than the injustices that create the problems in the first place. And we, the citizens, are complicit in maintaining the status quo, by allowing the problem to be seen as “bad” people, instead of “bad” public policy. Our shared goal must be to stop allocating huge sums of dollars to programs that don’t work. We need to deconstruct the systems that deepen the disadvantages of targeted populations and neighborhoods. We need courageous leadership in the Mayor’s office to declare the flaw in our public systems and the city budget and present a policy and budget proposal to move money out systems that maintain inequality and instead deliberately grows opportunity accessible to all Baltimoreans.

When you think of Safe and Sound Campaign’s successes, what makes you most proud?

I am most proud of Safe and Sound Campaign’s Opportunity Compact, which is a public/private financing innovation that produces better outcomes for vulnerable populations by shifting public dollars from remedial and punitive programs to less costly and more effective alternatives for those being held in custodial programs (foster care, juvenile confinement, jail and prison). In partnership with the private philanthropic community, which provides one-time “venture capital” investment and relevant state agencies, Safe and Sound Campaign facilitates the designs and invests in effective programming for individuals who would otherwise spend years confined to institutions. The Opportunity Compacts enable the public sector to innovate with effective alternatives to these custodial programs, producing better outcomes while saving the state millions of dollars – that are made available to invest in basic developmental services and opportunities. Opportunity Compacts have seeded and are in operation with three Maryland state agencies: juvenile services, human resources, and public safety and correctional services. Each compact program is fully sustained with savings leveraged by the programs that produce significantly better results than the custodial program where the participants otherwise would have remained.

Which sector do you think is more effective for making change: business or government?

Corporations are going to be the ruin of us, putting local enterprises out of business and controlling wages far below rates required for self-sufficiency.

Do you think arrest of Freddie Gray and the aftermath have brought much needed attention to the lingering, hard-to-solve problems we face?

No. The events surrounding Freddie Gray’s death have only added to the image of Baltimore depicted in “The Wire.” The coverage continues to narrow the problem to bad racist police whereas, racism is deep in our public systems driving tax dollars to be spent managing the consequences of unequal access to basic opportunities to grow up safe, healthy and educated. The police brutality is a result of fundamental inequality – and a serious issue; however, it will never go away until our tax dollars are spent fairly across all races. It is so disappointing to see politicians standing in the intersection of Pennsylvania and North Avenues blaming the events on chronic conditions that they have the ability to address, but choose not to.

How are you feeling, personally, about the Freddie Gray incident and the unrest that has followed?

I am disappointed in our politicians asking the television public to forgive the people looting the CVS for their behavior because of the conditions they’ve grown up in. We are responsible for those conditions, and we along with our elected representatives must accept responsibility for that. However, I am encouraged by our youth who chose to march from the train station in civil, peaceful protest. It is typical of the Baltimore I know, to come together with efforts to clean up, demand justice and bring peace back to our own neighborhoods.

What do you think of the concept of the non-profit industrial complex? There are some young leaders who believe the programs put forth over last few decades have been posited by people not directly affected by the problems they’re trying to address. What do you think of that criticism?”

The term encompasses a broad body of thought and I believe that additional research that links specific actions to outcomes can be very instructive for how non-profits operate and by whom and for what purpose. As a fundamental principle for ensuring a wide range of services and opportunities across sectors and people, I don’t find the hypothesis very helpful. I measure my effectiveness against my values and integrity and the work of the Campaign against our mission: “to ensure that all children in Baltimore have equal access to opportunities and supports to thrive and succeed.” I believe in our operating principles and the progress we are making.

What next? What are your thoughts about how we try to make change moving forward?

Hopefully, we will elect a Mayor who will stop spending money on problems and start spending our money on opportunities for healthy development so that we will have a city of success – not a city of problems. We cannot make change if we keep spending tax dollars on programs that deepen the problems they are intended to alleviate. We must reallocate our financial resources from failing systems and dedicate those resources to our citizens for the services they need. I believe the only solution to our shared challenges is to provide equal access to all people to the services that are required for healthy living: education, employment, health care, and the opportunities for a successful life.



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2 COMMENTS

  1. I appreciate everything that Ms. Ferebee has to say, and I am even more grateful for the work and lifelong commitment she has made here in Baltimore. I do have one question though about her statement, “Corporations are going to be the ruin of us.” What is she suggesting? Should we run the Johns Hopkins Health System Corporation and UnderArmour and T. Rowe Price and Amazon (and the few other companies still willing to locate themselves here) out on a rail? If we are able to give our city’s children the best chance to succeed, where will they find jobs? Perhaps in our shiny new casinos, Maryland Live and the Horseshoe? I’m not sure that small local businesses can possibly provide enough employment for the elevation of this demographic, and I have to wonder — if we drive all the corporations away, will we only have gambling institutions (and perhaps strip joints) left? It just seems counterproductive and intellectually lazy to demonize “corporations.” I hope the new leadership of Baltimore is, first of all, actually “new” leadership (not Sheila Dixon or just a member of the City Council who has shared in the responsibility for the mess we’re in), and secondly, willing to embrace compromise and to create a “big tent” where all of Baltimore is well-served.

    • Hello Millicent,
      Thank you for your kind words and yes, I agree — my statement about corporations was intellectually lazy and not instructive. I admit, I wasn’t thinking of our own corporations, but the giants that populate all over the country. My hope for corporations, as wonderful members of the community, is their leadership and commitment to pay everyone of their employees a wage that allows the worker to live — home, food, health care with minimum benefits such as sick leave and couple of vacation days. Also simplistic — however, if the majority of working people earned enough to support themselves we — I believe would avoid the despair of criminal activity and instead have lots more money going into our local economy — stimulating more jobs. Thanks for reading my interview and your reply.
      all the best,
      Hathaway

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