Joshua Harris, a community organizer and nonprofit co-founder, puts his leadership and campaign skills to the test as he runs in the crowded race for mayor of Baltimore. Exuding confidence, Harris shared in an interview with Baltimore Fishbowl why he believes he’s uniquely qualified for the job.
Among the highlights, Harris explained how playing basketball prepared him to be mayor, touched on his plans to use renewable energy to spark an economic resurgence, talked about turning Baltimore’s vacant homes from eyesores into assets and explained why the unrest of April 2015 wouldn’t have happened under his watch. Read the full interview for more about Harris and his take on these and other significant issues facing Baltimore City:
Where did you grow up?
How did your experience as a kid compare to those who are growing up in Baltimore City today, in terms of education and opportunity?
I was raised similar to many in Baltimore City, by a single mother, in what would be considered at-risk neighborhoods. We were on public assistance, but my mother worked hard to provide for my brother sister and I. My high school was one with many challenges and today is unfortunately ranked as one of the worst in the State.
When you were a kid, what did you want to “be” when you grew up?
I wanted to be a professional basketball player like most minority youth that grow up in poverty. I worked hard and luckily was able to transfer the lessons I learned on the court to everyday life. This is why I began my sports mentoring program, “Project ‘A’ Game”, which focuses on teaching student athletes to use sports as a tool to create opportunities outside of sports.
I understand that athletics are important to you. Talk about their influence on you growing up, and how you’d like to translate that significance to Baltimore City youth.
Athletics taught me discipline, hard work, commitment, the concept of team, and so many other life lessons. Athletics also exposed me to how large the world is and actually has taken me to many places around the world. It is because of this experience that I truly value the exposure of our youth to athletics, music and the arts. For me it was sports, for another student it may be music or the arts that helps peak their interest and opens up a whole new world to them. These programs have to be funded and supported for our young people.
How did you find yourself in Baltimore and where in the city do you live now?
I came to Baltimore to work for a nonprofit that provides community service and scholarship and mentorship opportunities to young African American boys and men. I currently live in Southwest Baltimore’s Hollins Market neighborhood.
Where are you employed currently and in what capacity?
I am currently still employed at Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity as a communications specialist, where I am our liaison to Capitol Hill in Washington D.C as well as the managing editor to the second oldest continuously published African American Journal in the country.
You are the co-founder of the Hollins Creative Placemaking, correct? Explain briefly the goal of the organization, why you helped found it, and your current involvement in it.
Hollins Creative Placemaking is an organization committed to creating urban revitalization and urban renewal, using arts as a catalyst, while minimizing cultural displacement. Understanding the trends of gentrification and the displacement common to it, we recognized a need to focus on engaging and empowering people in efforts to create an environment of belonging. We work to counter the negative impacts of gentrification through creative place making. We work to empower people to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient so that they can grow and develop as the environment and infrastructure around them develops, giving them the ability to adapt and remain an integral part of the community. I helped found the organization because of my experience with city development and seeing how all too often cities have been comfortable displacing problems and people rather than developing solutions. During the campaign I am currently in an advisory capacity.
You sit on several boards: the Charles Village Urban Renewal community board, Paul’s Place Community advisory board, Baltimore’s Promise Mentoring Task Force, and Baltimore’s Southwest Partnership. Why is it important to you to be involved in these organizations, what do you get out of the experience, and how do these boards benefit by your involvement?
Nonprofits are an integral part of Baltimore’s economy and as a board member I’m allowed to get an up-close view of how decisions are made by them. These organizations have a greater impact than one might expect or at least greater than I realized.
Why are you running for mayor of Baltimore City?
I am running for mayor because I believe each and every resident deserves equal access and opportunity to be successful and I am committed to providing that so that Baltimore can be a great city again. Baltimore has a number of assets that positioned it to expand in ways that are limited by our inability to imagine its greatness.
How did family and close friends react when they heard you were running for mayor?
Well, most of my close family and friends were not surprised. I have been in leadership roles for most of my life but I did not wear the title. Those who know me said they expected high and noble things from me because this has been the trajectory of my life. They understood that this was just a continuation of work that I have already been doing.
What experiences have best prepared you to be mayor, and how?
My experience playing basketball and studying overseas prepared me in so many ways for the mayor’s office. First, I had to learn how to interact with people, institutions and programs that were different than what I was familiar with in the U.S. This provided me with a tremendous opportunity to grow and develop the social skills that a good mayor must have. Secondly, basketball, contrary to popular belief, is a business and must be attended to as such. If your performance is lackluster, the chances of remaining with the team are almost non-existent. Every day a player is being evaluated and it is as if you are under a microscope. So it is with the mayor. It is as if you are under a microscope and your performance has to be satisfactory every time out otherwise you will become a one-term mayor.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
Always maintain a positive attitude and always work hard.
What’s the worst?
To join the campaign of the candidate most popular and most likely to win because that is what would get me a title or appointment.
The unrest that followed Freddie Gray’s funeral showed the need for mayoral leadership in navigating a crisis such as this. What would you have done differently if you had been mayor of Baltimore on April 27, 2015?
The question presupposes that the crisis was the result of Freddie Gray’s death and that is not accurate. The uprising in April was the result of a host of ills facing this city and that have plagued the city for decades. If I were Mayor, the uprising would not have occurred because the conditions (broken education system, police brutality, lack of jobs, inadequate housing, dis-investment, disparity in healthcare, etc.) would have been addressed before the uprising. It’s called respect for human rights.
Post-riots, there is talk of doubling down on efforts to address entrenched issues related to race, poverty, education and community-police relations. What is the first step you would take as mayor to “rebuild Baltimore”, and how would that be a part of your broader plan?
The very first step is to create jobs. I have a plan to transition Baltimore to the 21st century through phasing in renewable energy sources and making residential, commercial and governmental buildings energy efficient.
Baltimore saw record violence in 2015. How can we curb the bloodshed?
The best crime deterrent to date is a livable-wage job, thus my focus is on creating jobs for returning citizens and at-risk individuals.
Baltimore has been referred to as the “heroin capital of America”. As mayor, how would you solve Baltimore’s drug problem?
There is a strong need to place emphasis on treatment as opposed to punishment. We will begin to look at the way we treat non-violent drug offenses and the way they are processed through our criminal justice system by working with law enforcement, including the State Attorney’s office, to allocate more of the resources on interdiction of major suppliers and treating consumption as more of a public health crisis.
According to the Housing Authority, there are approximately 16,000 vacant homes in Baltimore City. If you were mayor, what would you do about them?
Those vacant properties are actually a non-performing asset for Baltimore. As part of my economic agenda, I have a detailed plan to bring those vacants back online as valuable performing assets.
While every child deserves a safe, engaging and challenging learning environment, Baltimore City public schools don’t uniformly ensure these basic tenets of education. How do you think Baltimore’s schools could do better?
Very briefly, I will implement career orientation and preparation for employment as part of the curriculum. In other words, we plan a major overhaul of the school system that will allow students to start thinking about careers in a way that will put them on career pathways to success.
Do you think the relationship between the Baltimore City Police Department and the residents of Baltimore City is broken and, if so, what is the best way to fix it?
Absolutely. The first thing that needs to happen is the police need re-orientation about the people they serve. A restoration of relationships has to occur. The residents of this city are not uncivilized creatures but deserve the respect of citizens in Guilford or Roland Park. The citizen must understand that law enforcement has a job to do and breaking the law will not be tolerated regardless of the neighborhood.
Baltimore has its share of challenges. But it also has a lot going for it. As a resident of Baltimore, what do you like most about the city?
As someone who has lived in many other cultures, I am excited about the diversity of Baltimore neighborhoods. I know that Baltimore is a great city and I know that it’s the people that make it great.
What do you think is the single most important change needed to make Baltimore a stronger city?
The single most important change is the elimination or reorganization of Baltimore Development Corporation. We have to put people before profit.
This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.