Five Questions with Casey: Sophie Dagenais on the Baltimore Unrest and the Way Forward

Posted October 28, 2015
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog fivequestions Sophie Dagenais 2015

As direc­tor of the Bal­ti­more Civic Site team, Sophie Dage­nais over­sees Casey’s com­mu­ni­ty-based invest­ment strate­gies and grant-mak­ing activ­i­ties in Bal­ti­more. She also advis­es the Foun­da­tion on invest­ing in the East Bal­ti­more Revi­tal­iza­tion Ini­tia­tive, a major com­mu­ni­ty and eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment project aimed at trans­form­ing an 88-acre East Bal­ti­more neighborhood.

Pri­or to join­ing Casey, Dage­nais served as chief of staff for Bal­ti­more May­or Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake. A mem­ber of the New York and Mary­land Bar Asso­ci­a­tions, she pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a part­ner at Bal­lard Spahr LLP and as gen­er­al coun­sel and chief admin­is­tra­tive offi­cer at a real estate invest­ment-bank­ing firm in New York City. Dage­nais grad­u­at­ed from McGill Uni­ver­si­ty Fac­ul­ty of Law in 1988.

In this Five Ques­tions edi­tion, Dage­nais dis­cuss­es the impor­tance of bring­ing all Bal­ti­more­ans to the table — par­tic­u­lar­ly those with lim­it­ed access to oppor­tu­ni­ty — to achieve last­ing, pos­i­tive change.

Q1. What role can foun­da­tions play after civic unrest or dur­ing times of com­mu­ni­ty stress? 

Foun­da­tions can help pro­vide sup­port and a safe space to bring peo­ple togeth­er for heal­ing. We should also look at our­selves, and phil­an­thropy more broad­ly, to see how our own process­es and pro­ce­dures may under­mine fair­ness, access and oppor­tu­ni­ty. As long as chil­dren like Fred­die Gray and their fam­i­lies are dis­con­nect­ed from deci­sion-mak­ing process­es, and as long as sys­tems and com­mu­ni­ties are not aligned and informed by each oth­er, it will not be pos­si­ble to achieve large-scale social change.

Q2. The Casey Foun­da­tion has invest­ed in Baltimore’s strug­gling neigh­bor­hoods for decades. How did the unrest change your team’s approach to its work in the city? 

Although Casey is a nation­al foun­da­tion, Bal­ti­more is our home­town. We have a long his­to­ry of sup­port­ing piv­otal civic orga­ni­za­tions and an ambi­tious agen­da to improve con­di­tions for chil­dren and fam­i­lies in East Bal­ti­more. In response to the events fol­low­ing Fred­die Gray’s death, how­ev­er, we are ampli­fy­ing our work through­out Baltimore.

For instance: We have accel­er­at­ed plan­ning efforts for a nation­al project — set to launch in Bal­ti­more — that will aid old­er youth and young adults from low-income fam­i­lies. This sum­mer, we also bol­stered enrich­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties and jobs for city chil­dren and youth and increased our sup­port for com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing and engage­ment, in addi­tion to build­ing young people’s capac­i­ty to advo­cate for them­selves and their communities.

Q3. What com­mu­ni­ty needs are you hear­ing about now — five months after the events of the spring? 

The needs haven’t changed, but the way we hear them and seek to bet­ter under­stand them may well be chang­ing. We know that we can’t address the root caus­es of injus­tice by leav­ing any part of the com­mu­ni­ty out. Yet struc­tur­al racism and a per­sis­tent dis­con­nect between sys­tems and the peo­ple they serve have under­mined the com­mu­ni­ty for decades — if not for our city’s entire his­to­ry. Most recent­ly, we’ve expand­ed our con­ver­sa­tions with youth, res­i­dents and civic lead­ers. At the same time, we’ve been work­ing inter­nal­ly and with our part­ners to ensure these vital com­mu­ni­ty voic­es are inform­ing our deci­sions and pol­i­cy agendas.

Q4. What is the Foundation’s strat­e­gy for respond­ing to the unrest ear­li­er this year?

As a Foun­da­tion, we have been work­ing to address inequal­i­ty and pro­mote inclu­sion through such efforts as Race Mat­ters and Race for Results. And we know that bring­ing suc­cess­ful approach­es to scale requires evi­dence and a relent­less pur­suit of equal­i­ty. The unrest in Bal­ti­more and sim­i­lar events around the nation tell us that it’s crit­i­cal to focus even more intent­ly on this work.

Q5. If the unrest pre­sent­ed an oppor­tu­ni­ty moment for Bal­ti­more, what should be dif­fer­ent five years from now to show that real change occurred? 

Here’s where we are now: Recent data sug­gest that 34% of Bal­ti­more City’s kids live in pover­ty, and this pover­ty rate jumps to near­ly 50% for kids in Fred­die Gray’s neigh­bor­hood. We also know that the unem­ploy­ment rate is high — 35% — for black youth ages 1624. For their white and His­pan­ic peers, this rate is much low­er — 11% and 12%, respectively.

Here’s a poten­tial path for­ward: We must sup­port poli­cies and strate­gies that con­nect fam­i­lies and youth to eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties, which can help sub­stan­tial­ly reduce these dis­par­i­ties in the next five years. Anoth­er must-have is per­sis­tent engage­ment so that, five years from now, peo­ple feel that their voic­es have been heard and that they are a part of the solu­tion. That’s the call to action.

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