This is the third interview in a series with Baltimore change-makers, old and new, working in the trenches and behind the scenes for a better Baltimore. By talking to baby boomers who have been fighting for social change since the 60s and millennials working to improve lives now, we hope to understand more about Baltimore’s big challenges and how best to address them from different perspectives. – The Eds.
Adam Jackson’s ambitions for Baltimore were shaped by his years as a top debater at Towson University. As he researched, analyzed and argued about how to best serve economically challenged neighborhoods, he discovered something he found troubling: None of his fellow debaters had firsthand experience with the problems they were trying to solve.
It was that schism that inspired him to start Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a think tank grappling with issues associated with urban Baltimore. Growing up in West Baltimore, the Digital Harbor High School grad saw the havoc poverty, lack of opportunity, racism and more wreaked on lives. His exposure gave him a perspective he found lacking in the larger public policy arena. With peers from the nationally-renowned Towson University debate team, Jackson formed LBS, where he now serves as CEO, and set about approaching social change in a new way, combining research and debate with community organizing.
Adam and his colleagues are well-practiced at public speaking and research and use both skills to reach a new audience. They are policy wonks in tune with a younger generation. All of the board members of LBS are under 40. Every one of the board members graduated from Baltimore City Public Schools. LBS takes no foundation, government, or political party money. He rejects the established positions of the left and the right, looking to set a new path for thinking about poverty and race. He and the other leaders want to “radically change the discourse around local and regional politics,” according to the LBS website.
We asked him what he thinks of the issues facing Baltimore and what he thinks we need to do to make lasting change.
Many have been fighting the problems associated with urban America for decades. Why do you think we are still getting it wrong?
As a country, we have failed to grapple with the macro-political issue of racism/white supremacy and how it has pervaded our institutions. For Black people, in particular, this is illustrated in how the Democratic party has largely usurped and diluted authentic Black political power. Without any significant grassroots power in the political arena, we’re beholden to the white liberal democratic machine whose interests do not lie in autonomous Black freedom. This also means that the social services and programs provided to Black people are typically not controlled by Black people. For example, if all Black people in Baltimore needed was white philanthropic money, then Baltimore would be a utopia. Unfortunately, that money is funneled through white-run non-profits who aren’t accountable to us. The money that does flow to us isn’t invested in communal Black institution building. At a fundamental level, that’s what’s wrong. We’re not investing in institutions that are controlled by people who are of and from those aggrieved communities, especially when it comes to Black people.
Tell us about Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. What inspired you to start it?
LBS grew out of on-campus activism and organizing that I was doing with some colleagues as a college student at Towson University. We were a group of people who were nationally successful collegiate policy debaters who argued about policy issues pertaining to the Black community. We were extremely successful in our campus organizing, and since we had all this experience in analyzing public policy, we decided to found LBS as a think-tank. We see public policy as the primary driving force of structural racism in this country, and we want people to use our work in Baltimore as a model for organizing for Black institution building.
What is the LBS accomplishment of which you are most proud?
So far, I’m the proudest of our national policy debate camp, the Eddie Conway Liberation Institute (ECLI). The goal is to connect policy debate students to a social justice framework that can guide their arguments and activism. We started the program in 2013, and it has been wildly successful so far with over 70 students from around the US who have completed it. ECLI is also the only debate institute at a historically Black college/university. It’s a very challenging program to coordinate, but it is very fulfilling as our flagship youth development program.
Traditionally, black leaders have worked with the Democratic party and white liberals to move forward a social agenda. You reject that in favor of a more indigenous structure. What role do white people have in the scenario you envision?
In a structure that is indigenously Black, a white person’s role is to merely support the work and autonomy of Black people. They should offer resources when they can and give advice when appropriate. Otherwise, they should see themselves as supporters and advocates for the Black people who are of and from the community.
What do you see as the number one issue facing Baltimore right now? Housing, jobs addiction, education, other?
The lack of communal Black Institutions. The reason why structural racism is so rampant here in Baltimore is that we lack institutions that have the ability to advocate on behalf of Black people that are also controlled and operated by Black people. The only institutions that typically do that work (and get funding) are ones that are controlled by external entities and individuals who are not of and from the community they aim to serve. The task is to institution build so that we can improve the collective quality of life of Black people here. Unfortunately, that is not our focus, and that is why we have been unable to address larger social issues on a sustainable level.
What do you think the leaders of the past have done right?
Black autonomy and Black controlled institutions are what drove the success of the civil rights movement. They built organizations and infrastructure that were accountable to Black people. As time wore on, our power in those institutions were circumvented and co-opted by the white left. We need to get back to a place in history where Black autonomy is the objective and our strategy is to build institutions that do that.
Where do we go from here?