Responding to the full range of disturbing events in Baltimore at the end of April, Lester Salamon, the distinguished Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, wrote,
"What has happened since [Monday, April 27] in Baltimore is quite uplifting . . . and also powerful confirmation of the importance of the civil society organizations that have long been the focus of our research. In a word, civil society has come to the city’s rescue.
Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods have rich networks of neighborhood clubs, church communities, and even gangs that function as community watch-dog organizations. Already on the day of the riots, many of these community groups mobilized their members to go out on the streets, to stand between the student rock-throwers and the police, and to calm what had turned into a mini-riot. And this has continued into the days following the turmoil. In fact, the several gangs have played a helpful role in this, mobilizing their members to work with religious leaders to calm nerves, but also to articulate the frustrations that the black community in this city, like that in so many, justifiably feel toward the police."
We might well add that some of the positive things that have happened in Baltimore represent a dividend on a long series of foundation investments, especially investments by local foundations that have worked to reinforce viable grassroots initiatives. In the face of poverty, exclusion, and exploitation, the foundation investments have been small. Foundations by themselves did not create the churches, clubs, and community associations that brought so many people out to stand between demonstrators and the police, often protecting the police from the angriest and most volatile demonstrators and critically intervening to persuade almost everyone to observe the curfew. But foundations have done many things to build up the city’s rich web of local organizations.
Perhaps even more usefully, foundations have done much to tie local organizations to one another, and to connect them with larger entities -- City Hall, the County Executive, the Community Foundation, the Chamber of Commerce, religious structures, delegations in the state and federal legislatures -- that can, if they will, actually take useful action regarding criminal justice and policing, social welfare, education, and health care.
In Cleveland as in Baltimore, foundation efforts to build up local civil society go a long way back, and have continually changed to keep up – and to catch up – with the times. Salamon concludes with understandably heated comments about the current need for action:
"Slowly, at least some of the news media have begun to report on this aspect of the developing story as well. And even some of our sorry governmental officials who have been behind the budget cuts and short-sighted policing and sentencing policies that have contributed to the frustration, have had to face up to the failure of their policies and to begin sounding at least a little reasonable."
In the now-distant past, Cleveland could sometimes have been described as filled with associations that effectively urged cooperation across the city’s diverse array of communities. The arrival of large groups of African-Americans who confronted harsh racism, and whose churches and other organizations were disconnected from the city’s established religious and commercial umbrellas, presented a daunting challenge to the city. Cleveland created often appalling conditions for the newcomers – and for their children and grandchildren. Slowly, many Clevelanders have sought to build new bridges and ties, sometimes with helpful foundation aid. As recent events have made clear, many conditions have not improved; a great deal remains to be done. But perhaps, in Cleveland as in Baltimore, we can hope that foundation work has helped create not only more effective neighborhood organizations, but increasingly robust and useful channels of communication – channels for the movement of individuals, of understanding of abuses and needs and aspirations, for the recognition of limited resources, for the exchange of ideas.
[David C. Hammack has written extensively on the history America’s civil society and nonprofit sector and on the history of cities, the built environment, and education. His most recent books include American Foundations (Brookings Institution Press, edited with Helmut Anheier, 2010), and Globalization, Philanthropy, and Civil Society: Projecting Institutional Logics Abroad (edited with Steven Heydemann, 2009). His Power and Society: Greater New York at the Turn of the Century (Russell Sage Foundation, 1984) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; his Making the Nonprofit Sector in the United States: A Reader (Indiana University Press) has been adopted in many courses.]