Hope in troubled times: Race, community, and a national bank

By Christine Collins

(February 14, 2017–BALTIMORE)–In Maryland’s largest and most minority-populated city, conversations about race run neighborhood-by-neighborhood. The geography determines whether they’re typical or taboo. But in a time of cultural questioning, more and more businesses are starting and supporting the kind of dialogue that makes a difference.

That was part of the purpose behind Chamber member Bank of America and the Greater Baltimore Urban League’s partnership to present ‘“And Still I Rise: Black in America Since MLK’ – A Discussion About Race in Our Community” at the Maryland Institute College of Art late last month.

“After the unrest in Baltimore, which was now almost two years ago, we were looking for ways for us to be further committed beyond just a financial commitment,” Bank of America Greater Maryland Market President Sabina Kelly said.

The discussion brought together established and up-and-coming leaders in the corporate, political and community spheres to watch a segment of Henry Louis Gates’ documentary, “And Still I Rise: Black in America Since MLK” and discuss the realities it presented.

The PBS documentary traces the last half-century of African-American history. Harvard professor and noted historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. incorporates scholars, celebrities and others in sharing perspectives from the civil rights movement forward, asking what the network calls “profound questions about the state of black America—and our nation as a whole.”

They are perspectives that Baltimoreans live every day.

“There was definitely a hush over the crowd after the vignette played,” Greater Baltimore Urban League Vice President for Operations Kelli Tubman White recalled. “It basically covered the issue of what Baltimore has faced and brought it all home for us.”

The event began with some networking before the screening of Gates’ documentary. A panel discussion followed, featuring Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, University of Baltimore President and former Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises and Downtown Partnership of Baltimore President Kirby Fowler. The panel was moderated by Stephanie Maddin Smith, the chief advocacy officer with the American College Health Association.

“I felt like having a diverse audience and a diverse panel made people reflect on their own actions, accountability and ability to influence a positive future,” Bank of America Greater Maryland Market Manager Janet Currie said.

Maryland Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Christine Ross said she looked forward to more events like this one. “The conversation on race in the community was personally powerful and eye-opening,” she shared. “It asked a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

All four women felt the evening was full of hope instead of worry, and that the partnership between Bank of America and GBUL was fruitful.

“The mission of the Greater Baltimore Urban League is to enable African-Americans and other minorities to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights,” explained White. “This event and this partnership are helping us to work toward eradicating any type of barriers for people so they can enter and stay within a type of economic and social mainstream.

“This is our commitment to our community and how we want to better Baltimore as much as possible, and we know that happens at various levels,” she went on. “It happens when we have partnerships with various organizations like Bank of America.”

Community partnerships, said Kelly, are integral in Bank of America’s business model. “We recognize we are part of the community,” she said. “Our associates live and work in this community. We want to ensure that both our teammates and our community-at-large recognize that this is important, and to give the opportunity internally for our associates to have their voices heard.”

White and Kelly said feedback from the attendees was positive, and that many people said they wanted events like these to continue. That’s an openness that benefits the community and the businesses that serve it.

“I think that people saw Bank of America in a different light and were encouraged that we were willing to partner in this way on this topic,” Currie said. “[They] understood our commitment beyond the business that we do.”

Bank of America is a member of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

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