Baltimore’s Cory Booker in the Making
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because behind the story of a city is sometimes the story of a person.
By Nick Fouriezos
I meet Fagan Harris around the corner of his Mount Vernon apartment, at Dooby’s, a modern, hip eatery with brick walls, glass orb lights — you know the type. In the thin morning light, he explains his goal to revitalize a place known as Charm City to some, Bodymore, Murderland, to others. “A city is in control of its destiny,” Harris tells me, and sitting in this gleaming eatery, the outlook looks bright.
But just a block from this chic hot spot, Harris’ neighbor was shot. Another was badly beaten. A few years back, the unofficial “Mayor of Mount Vernon” was shot, ultimately fatally, on the front stoop of his brownstone up the street on Chase and Charles. And today we’re Ubering because Harris’ car was set on fire not far from here, a stone’s throw from Johns Hopkins and the internationally renowned Walters Art Museum.
Hometown boy Harris hesitates to tell me that last part. After all, it fits so neatly into a long-running narrative about the city — one refreshed after the violent protests that followed Freddie Gray’s death last year— for which the former NAACP organizer and White House aide has no patience. That image is low-hanging fruit for presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who were here recently, outlining their visions to save Baltimore from itself. Those who move to Baltimore, as I did a few years back, often hear that safety varies “block to block.” Harris disdains the phrase: “It’s quite lazy to be cynical; it shows to me you’re not serious,” the 29-year-old says. “It doesn’t mean we’re Pollyannaish, or naive. It’s just a far more nuanced and thoughtful evaluation of where we are and where we need to go.”
Baltimore has plenty of problems with many potential answers, but all of them start, Harris says, with talent — the brightest and the best, the kind of people cities like New York and San Francisco take for granted. As the CEO of Baltimore Corps, his budding operation of about a dozen full-timers, Harris plays matchmaker between civic-minded idealists and the local groups who could use their brilliance. They are a mix of homegrown Baltimoreans and those attracted to the fellowship’s aspirational pitch of “The best place in the world to change the world.” In two years, he’s placed 45 “fellows” in leadership roles. Roughly 75 percent of the fellows’ have their salaries paid by their employers, while the other 25 percent are paid by Baltimore Corps.
Harris understands that his nonprofit’s challenges are inherently tied to the city’s struggles. “We want people who are builders,” Harris says. His task force is growing: He’s adding another 45 this fall to help develop the city’s leadership, and the program has been so successful that leaders from other troubled midsize cities, like Stockton and Birmingham, have inquired about how to emulate it. As Baltimore Health Commissioner Leana Wen tells OZY: “Fagan is one of the people shaping the future of Baltimore.”
His little battalion extends to every compass point within the city’s reach, from the coffee shop in Sowebo that hires only locals to the mayor’s office near the Inner Harbor and the Johns Hopkins hospital by Greektown. As Harris pulls together all these whirring parts — placing fellows according to their skills and where they’ll be of most use — the city’s machinery creaks along. “Baltimore has been hollowed out by bad trade deals,” says Ben Jealous, the former NAACP president who still texts Harris regularly. His grandfather came here in the Great Depression, and he remembers a city that once was a beacon for freed slaves and Black businessmen. “It was a gateway of opportunity,” Jealous says.
But are initiatives like Harris’ — encouraging, targeted and, still, undeniably small-time for now — enough to pry open the fist of institutional racism and generational poverty that has so long clenched his city?
It’s an idyllic spring day as Harris and I drive past Patterson Park, where the sun glints off cherry blossoms and the pagoda-style Observatory and where, one night as a Baltimore Sun intern some life ago, I was told to take a taxi for the two-block walk or I’d probably get mugged. Near here, Harris introduces me to one of his fellows, Isabel Abaunza. A middle-age Mexican woman turned Baltimore transplant by marriage, she helps enroll the children of undocumented immigrants into healthcare programs — the booming, fairly recent presence of Latinos (now almost 5 percent of the city population, according to state studies, compared to just 2 percent in 2008) is one of the quiet secrets of Baltimore. “She’s helping us really understand what we don’t know and how to justify maintaining” certain practices, says Sarah Polk, co-director of Johns Hopkins’ Centro SOL.
In the old American Brewery, a historic landmark of East Baltimore, a quirky white fellow named Sarah MacFadden crunches numbers to show which work-training programs have better outcomes and why. Before Harris introduced MacFadden to the workforce development nonprofit Humanim, “We were in this perpetual holding pattern,” says Angel St. Jean, its director of family and youth. Another fellow, 24-year-old native son Corey Holland, works with data and employers to help the mayor’s office use a $5 million federal grant to train 700 job seekers from distressed neighborhoods — target demographic: young, Black, male. “My opinion is being used,” Holland says. “Everyone says millennials don’t want to work in government,” Harris adds, but at Baltimore Corps, such a fit isn’t uncommon.
In almost every arena, Harris and Baltimore Corps allow city advocates to see the forest for the trees. “I don’t have people whose job it is to look for areas of collaboration and think outside of the current project,” says Health Commissioner Wen, who has eight Baltimore Corps fellows under her wing. The fellows add this big-picture perspective to the everyday grind, the vision needed for a city trying to redefine itself. Not unlike Harris. As a Stanford undergrad-slash-Rhodes Scholar postgrad, he was advised to work at a consulting firm like McKinsey & Co., because “that’s what guys like you do.” “I remember thinking, ‘What kind of guy is that?’ ” Harris says. “I thought deeply about it and that wasn’t my path. There weren’t many professors saying, ‘Oh, you should just go into public service.’ ” Harris is the kind of guy who, as a senior at Glen Burnie high school — a mixed kid with few friends who ran track, played in the orchestra, regularly got good grades and was regularly beat up for it — wrote a college application essay about the inherent difficulty of using essays to capture the worth of a person. “Think of all that gets left out,” Harris says. “You can extrapolate that to the city of Baltimore.”
Between the fits and starts of a lingering cough, Harris reflects on philosophy and impact. His principles focus on “authentic storytelling” and “organizing around small wins to get the big wins,” strategies taken from the playbook of Marshall Ganz, a grassroots guru who has advised everyone from Cesar Chavez to Barack Obama. He used the same tactics at the NAACP, where Harris was charged with ginning up Black support for legalizing gay marriage, and also while helping craft policy for the White House Council for Community Solutions.
I mention that Clinton was here in Southwest Baltimore the week before, giving a speech about her plan to target struggling communities like those in Baltimore with specific federal aid. Sanders, who also hosted a local rally, took a different tack. He argued that dismantling the big banks would help all communities rise in a reverse twist of trickle-down economics. Which way is better: bottom-up, led by grassroots efforts, or a top-down government approach that’s racially agnostic? Both, Harris says, admitting it’s an unsatisfying answer. “People here, agitating and speaking out and organized and demanding action, that’s what sets the context for policymakers to come together and drive change.”
Deep-seated roadblocks remain for both Harris and the city whose homeless sleep on park benches that proclaim “The Greatest City in America.” (In 1988, the mayor declared Bmore the “city that reads,” emblazoning the slogan on these same benches. Amused locals soon edited them to read “the city that bleeds.”) Working in government, fellow Holland says it’s difficult to “break the mold” of bureaucracy. Humanim’s St. Jean says the local community is rebuilding itself, but also becoming gentrified, pushing out those who stayed through the bad times and won’t see the benefits. (For a couple of decades now, D.C. residents, among others, have bought up what was once cheap real estate, allured by the zippy commute to the nation’s capital on the MARC Train.) And Baltimore’s Latino population faces monetary and linguistic barriers to getting the healthcare it needs, adds John Hopkins’ Polk, which could make it the new flashpoint for the city’s income gap in the next decade. Harris takes all this in stride: “The headaches and frustration and slow-moving bureaucracy,” he says, “that’s what change looks like.”
The Baltimore Corps creative team meets on the third floor of a brick row house overlooking the harbor, in seats crammed amid the hallmarks of startup culture, all whiteboards, beanbag chairs and a colorful corner piñata. Harris lets his employees lead the meeting from their temporary office — they’ve gone through a half dozen in the last year — as they strategize for a nonfellowship initiative that would place more career-minded talents in Baltimore businesses. This all began in 2013, after Harris moved in with his parents, took out a $15,000 personal loan and, six months later, got his first break, a $100,000 grant from the Straus Foundation. The fruit of his efforts? His fellows — and, of course, this warm, messy workplace, at least until they move into their first “permanent” space later this year.
The question remains: How do you get the nation’s best — and not just the upper-middle-class white ones — to fall in love with and commit to Bodymore, Murderland? It’s easy to assume the narrative can be flipped by a revolutionary figurehead — a Cory Booker type. Could that be Harris? At the nexus of grassroots and government, he would seem like a qualified candidate down the road, experts from Baltimore say. But he’s hesitant, despite having already been approached to run for public office before: “Maybe” he will one day, he says, in what amounts to a verbal shrug. His leadership style is quiet, understated, hands-off rather than wrenching the steering wheel. He wants to cultivate power horizontally and watch it proliferate via entrepreneurship and grassroots action. “Every city needs its heroes. I’m wary if it’s too much around an individual,” Harris says. “We have a lot of ordinary people who, if you judge them against the popular narrative, they are extraordinary.”