Many of us here in Afghanistan are wondering if what we’ve done here over the past eleven years will have a lasting impact. We worry about what will happen after we leave. There’s plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking. As T6B approaches its five year mark, I find myself pondering our efforts in a similar fashion. I wonder about mistakes I made when I was the director and I worry sometimes that I’m not doing enough to help. I think about all the projects, volunteers, partners, dirty gloves and all the sweaty shirts, and I wonder if any of it would be remembered if we walked away today. Would there be a lasting impact in east Baltimore? Luckily, what happens if T6B were to walk away from east Baltimore is moot– we’re not leaving.
That’s easy for me to say since I’ve already left the heavy lifting in the hands of others while I’m on active duty. For the team, the heavy lifting is no joke. It takes more energy than most realize. I would say that when we first committed ourselves to east Baltimore that we completely underestimated what it would take to achieve some of our objectives. A few years sounds like an enormous commitment on the front end, but it went by in a blink. There is still blight. There is still poverty. People still struggle. It was a severe overreach and perhaps arrogant of us to storm into east Baltimore thinking we could speedily rectify all of its woes. All along, I was thinking about the finish line. I’ve been asking, what is the endgame? Recently I realized that there was no endgame – we’re not leaving.
For a while we were too big for our britches. The attention and recognition we received far exceeded our capacity. People tugged on us to expand and to bring T6B to Gary, Indiana and to Camden, New Jersey. T6B was included in conversations with well-established nationally recognized veteran nonprofits all while we had no idea how we would pay for next Saturday’s shovels or how long we could go without paying anyone – even our director. There was a lot of external pressure on us to be successful. But there was no pressure on us from the communities we serve in east Baltimore. There was no pressure because, to them, it was a matter of time before we left just like all the photo-op chasing do-gooders that came before us. But – we’re not leaving.
As I impulsively said after our first project in Oliver in 2011, our commitment is indefinite and exclusive. We are The 6thBranch – of Baltimore, a branch of service that anyone can be a veteran of. That’s what we’ve become. Although we pulled our founding principles mostly from military service, we have grown into a diverse melting pot of community servants – our only prerequisite being your willingness to grab a shovel and face the challenges of Baltimore head on. So for all those wondering who we are and where we’re going, now you have it. We’re not leaving.
We have produced some measureable results. I could blab on about how many tons of garbage and debris we’ve removed, how many trees have been planted, or how well our urban farm is doing, but perhaps the most meaningful accomplishment is less tangible. The average Baltimorean five years ago had never heard of Oliver and had never been to east Baltimore. It was a place to be avoided, a place to be forgotten. Now, it is not uncommon for people to speak fondly of the area – as a place where something special has been happening. Those who used to drive completely around the neighborhood in fear, now stop by to chat with their new friends that live there. We have done some serious demystifying. East Baltimore is full of beautiful people – people worth sticking around for. And we like to think that we helped get that word out.