True Compassion

The following essay was submitted in Governor O’Malley’s “Compassionate Marylander” contest.  Five nominees will be selected to receive $5,000 for their organization. You can vote by visiting http://www.governor.maryland.gov/stronger.asp and clicking on “VOTE for semi-finalists” in the middle of the page.

As a 24 year-old sergeant in the US Marine Corps infantry moments before crossing the border into Iraq, I read the Commanding General’s Message to All Hands. General Mattis wrote, “On your young shoulders rest the hopes of mankind.” I felt an enormous sense of responsibility at that moment. If my unit had been unsuccessful after crossing that border in March 2003, I would have felt at fault. We all would have. Even though General Mattis was leading the 1st Marine Division, none of us would have pointed blame at him for our failures. We were in it together. Imagine if that mentality could be applied to our position as residents of Maryland.

Today, I feel personally responsible for the problems here in Baltimore City and in Maryland. The burdens of this state’s toughest problems do not rest solely on the individuals who caused them, or the systems that accelerate and perpetuate them. They rest too on the shoulders of those with the energy and skills to solve our problems. I am one of those people. Unlike my experience in the Marines where the burden of success was shouldered by all, it seems that Marylanders, and most Americans for that matter, are pointing a disproportionate amount of blame at elected officials, all while sitting on their hands.

Don’t get me wrong. Baltimore and Maryland are definitely not short on philanthropists or philanthropic organizations. Everywhere I look, people are trying to do good things. In fact, most people I know engage in the traditional charitable acts of donating clothes to Goodwill, giving money to the homeless, or volunteering in local soup kitchens; but eventually, we all need to take a collective look in the mirror and ask ourselves why so many people are struggling so badly if there are so many people willing to help them. The answer may be tough to hear. You and I — we’re simply not doing enough. It is one thing to donate some clothes or volunteer at a time that doesn’t inconvenience your normal routine and priorities. It is another thing to sacrifice your time, energy, and resources in a meaningful way.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”  Several of my veteran friends and I, through a non-profit we started called The 6th Branch, have been trying to revitalize East Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood, an area with a reputation for crime and vacant homes. It started as a one-day beautification project. Close to 200 volunteers, half of them military vets, filled a roll-off dumpster with garbage gathered from streets and alleyways. I felt good after that day. I felt like we really accomplished something; but then, I started to wonder about the impact. I started to consider that maybe that service was more for my own benefit than theirs. Sure, it made me feel good, but the problems of the neighborhood remained.

Then, it hit us. What if we could create the same collective commitment to this neighborhood that we had to our military mission? What if we assumed a shared responsibility for the problems of the neighborhood, and not just the credit for improving it? We got aggressive. We started to be “truly compassionate.” We created “Operation: Oliver.” In the past five months we’ve organized more than 1,000 volunteers to spend time serving in a neighborhood that most Baltimoreans, quite frankly, avoid traveling through. We have garnered the investment of nearly every major university in the Baltimore area for a neighborhood they never heard of and have no ties to. We have officially partnered with multiple civic and non-profit organizations wanting to be a part of “Operation: Oliver.” We have volunteers who have traveled from New York City, Philadelphia, and North Carolina to clean alleyways in East Baltimore. They wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves, a familiar concept for the veterans leading the way.

As a combat vet, I can attest to the fact that revitalizing a neighborhood is a much tougher task than destroying one. We need to get serious about the underlying problems of poverty, jobs, and education. We cannot arrest our way out of a heroine problem, and we cannot clean our way out of a poverty problem. That’s why, in addition to highly aggressive beautification efforts, we have invested in children in the neighborhood, creating unique opportunities for them. That’s why we are helping people enroll in job retraining programs. Mayor Rawlings-Blake just announced a goal of bringing 10,000 families to the city.  “Operation: Oliver” fits this goal perfectly.  We want the neighborhoods in the city to thrive and be inviting once again. It is going to be a long road, but at least there is a road.

I am frequently contacted by people asking about our organization. They’re interested in how many people we have on paid staff or where our office is. It is with great pride that I tell them that not a single person involved with The 6th Branch or “Operation: Oliver” has been paid a penny, myself included. In fact, most of us have incurred personal debt in pursuit of this dream. We have no office. Some people ask why we picked the Oliver neighborhood. I tell them we met some people who asked for our help and we decided to give it. It is that simple. “Really?” they ask. Really.

Whether or not real, measurable change will occur as a result of “Operation: Oliver” is yet to be determined. There is a real potential for failure, just like there was when I was given the order to invade Iraq. But just like then, we won’t be afraid to shoulder the responsibility of trying. We are simply honored to share it with each other, and in trying to motivate the people we invest in to also become truly compassionate.

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