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Leading In A Pandemic

Baltimore Metropolitan Council

Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson and Dr. Shanaysha Sauls, President and CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation, explore the challenges of leading through a pandemic and the short and long-term issues they're working to address on behalf of the Baltimore region.

The podcast is produced by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the council of local governments serving central Maryland, with assistance from WYPR.


Tom Hall: Welcome to the Chesapeake Connect podcast. I'm Tom Hall. Chesapeake Connect is a program of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the council of governments serving greater Baltimore. Chesapeake Connect is an annual learning trip that brings together leaders from around Baltimore to explore best practices and programs in a pear region. On past trips they've visited Cleveland, New Orleans and Nashville. Well, like everything else in 2020 Chesapeake Connect's planned trip to the twin cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota had to be postponed. Instead of traveling this year Chesapeake Connect will stay at home and use this podcast to explore the Baltimore region's strengths and struggles, models and missteps with an eye toward building an informed, engaged, and cohesive regional community.

Each episode features local leaders working to improve the quality of life for everyone in the Baltimore region. Today, we are joined by two leaders from Baltimore. Senator Bill Ferguson is president of the Maryland Senate. He's also represented Maryland Senate on the Baltimore Metropolitan Council Board since 2016. He has attended two Chesapeake Connect trips, one in 2017 to Cleveland and the other in 2018 to New Orleans. Mr. Senate President, welcome sir.

Bill Ferguson: Thank you so much for having me Tom. I'm pleased to be here with you.

Tom Hall: And Dr. Shanaysha Sauls is the president and CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation which is a supporter of Chesapeake Connect. She also attended the 2019 trip to Nashville. Dr. Sauls welcome.

Shanaysha Sauls: Great. Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here with you and Senator Ferguson.

Tom Hall: So Dr. Sauls let me start with you. COVID-19 has of course disrupted daily life around the world. How did the pandemic affect the work that you are doing at the Baltimore Community Foundation? Has it made you shift your focus at all?

Shanaysha Sauls: Well in many respects ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic actually clarified the purpose of a community foundation in ways that may not have been as clear or as relevant before. So I wouldn't exactly say that we changed. We were forced to accelerate and to execute at levels that we've never done before. But our first thought was to our communities that we serve in Baltimore city and Baltimore County, our community partners, and supporting our donors and being the connector between the two. And so there was just, I mean I saw super powers as a team that I'd never seen before. What I saw more broadly around the funder engagement was our ability to collaborate with ease and to really seek alignment in ways that hadn't been natural before. And so, one of the ironies of COVID is that it actually brought out, I think, the better part of what philanthropy can do in ways that may not have been obvious before.

Tom Hall: And of course people are figuring out new ways to connect. Senate President Ferguson, the 2020 General Assembly was your first as senate president. And of course it was an eventful one between debates over education funding and COVID-19 of course. So going into your second legislative session as president in the midst of this pandemic what are your priorities?

Bill Ferguson: Sure. Well, you're right Tom I thought last year was hard. Trying to convene a legislature, a body of the people, for the people in the midst of a pandemic has been an enormous challenge and it is absolutely we are essential for the continuity of governance in the midst of an emergency. But the way that we will have to operate is going to be severely impacted. And so, we've tried to really rebuild a 200 year institution in the last nine months and infuse technology wherever we can. But the issues stay the same and the priorities I think had been clarified over the last nine months.

First and foremost, we have a singular focus and that is to help Marylanders get through this crisis and this emergency. The good news is there's a vaccine for COVID. We have multiple candidates. It's almost a miracle that we have so many vaccines that we have every reason to believe can help get us through this. It's going to be a bit to get the full vaccination and administration all the way completed but there is an end. And so what we have to do right now is use the information that we've gathered over the last nine months and seeing the scope of needs. I mean, there are Marylanders with greater needs today than I ever could have imagined and we have got to get the support to the most vulnerable Marylanders who need it most so that they can hang on and so that we can make 2021 a year of real recovery and rebuilding. And when we do that and when we are recovering and rebuilding it must be more equitable and more just which is why we've also had an advisory committee meeting for the last few months.

Yesterday we had the release of 47 recommendations that our President Pro Tempore Melony Griffith put forward around a more equitable and inclusive future when it comes to health disparities, environmental justice, and economic opportunity and wealth generation amongst all communities. And then of course police reform will be a top priority because we cannot continue when we have so many communities who do not feel that the law is being applied equally or justly. That does not work in the social contract and so we have to create more accountability, trust and transparency and we will.

Tom Hall: And Shanaysha Sauls the senate president has just outlined a big agenda. What do you see as the biggest challenges that the pandemic and the economic crisis presents to Baltimore in particular and how have you and other local leaders been responding to these city, county challenges in particular?

Shanaysha Sauls: Absolutely. Well I mean, I think first and foremost that we realized as soon as the pandemic began was just the strength of the nonprofit sector. So, if I go back to March of 2020 we were all scurrying through our homes. We realized that a lot of our nonprofit partners did direct service to communities that were the most vulnerable and under the pandemic that we were facing that face-to-face support just wasn't available. And so figuring out how to help them pivot and that to help them survive, ensuring that the philanthropic dollars were there, in some cases that the public support was there.

And also in the cases of arts and cultural institutions where they no longer had the earned revenue working with a group of funders to support that part of the community became first and foremost. And that's something that we continue to have our eye on and again it's a part of the ecosystem. There are larger questions about the economy, our restaurants, our retail, our main streets in our downtown, but the nonprofit sector, particularly the small and mid size nonprofits are an important part of what makes the city thrive. So that's always first and foremost.

The second issue that I'm actually embarrassed to share was not really on our radar until the pandemic was the digital divide. So there was a time about a year ago when whether or not you had internet in your home actually did not affect most Americans or if it affected most Americans it wasn't a part of our general psyche that it affects our quality of life. And what we saw during the pandemic is that having high quality internet that was reliable no matter where you lived in the city and the county, rural areas at Hertford or an area of Cherry Hill, or in somewhere in East Baltimore, that we needed internet service to number one connect our children to their teachers. Number two, to connect to your medical providers. Telehealth became increasingly important. Number three, so many of us had to have the privilege, not all of us had the privilege of working in our home so it became a workforce tool.

And at least number four was how we got our information. So I voluntarily share with people that I get all of my news now through the internet. And when you have a situation where people cannot be contact-to-contact, face-to-face, they're essentially banished to their homes and they don't have internet, you're actually creating a crisis. That is an ancillary public health crisis in other ways. And so the digital divide, bridging the digital divide has emerged as a number one priority for the Baltimore Community Foundation and its partners in the public sector as well as the private sector.

And then the third thing that has emerged later on and the pandemic and I think it was the combination of both the pandemic and the George Floyd and Briana Taylor crises that we saw in the latter part of the spring is the mental health crisis. And so, while in many regards we are still facing the worst of the pandemic in this current surge the lingering effects on the economy and the ecosystem will be felt for years. And what we know to Senator Ferguson's point is that there are segments in our community that are disproportionately affected. And the mental health crisis that we have generally from the low level, basic isolation of elderly and children who are not in schools to the fact that there are black and brown communities that have disproportionate effects of this uncertainty, we are dealing with what one commentator in the Sun called a level five tsunami of mental health. And so I would say those three, the strength of the sector, second the digital divide, and third this growing mental health crisis.

Tom Hall: And Senator Ferguson, when it comes to something like the digital divide that Dr. Sauls just referred to you represent the city, you know that a lot of your constituents have that problem, you yourself have young children who are learning remotely so you know in a very real way how important that is. So let me pose the same question to you. In addition to those challenges that Dr. Sauls has just outlined what do you see as the biggest challenges to Baltimore city and your constituents and what do you think the state can do to help the city address them?

Bill Ferguson: There are a multitude of challenges and I think Dr. Sauls laid it out quite well on the philanthropic side of where the biggest impact that the philanthropic community has been able to have. I would say what I am most concerned about through all of this is probably shared equally between the economy and educational outcomes and lack of educational opportunities and they're interrelated.

So on the economy front for Baltimore city particularly we know that this pandemic has had a disparate impact. The top 30% of Maryland businesses did better in 2020 than they did in calendar year 2019. And a lot of those, it shows the resiliency of our economy. Those are consultants and lawyers and many healthcare professionals or anything that you're able to be converted into tele-work. The flip side of the story is incredibly challenging. The bottom 30% of industries didn't just have a bit of a drop, they were tremendously devastated. And these are industries that we know because we've been seeing the impacts for the last 10 months around hospitality, restaurants, tourism, anything that is artistic, and creative, and nonprofits and that relies on people coming together in order to operate.

Well, if you think about a city and you think about Baltimore city tourism is a large part of our economic output. And the idea of a city that is functional and working well is bringing people in. We have activities and action and things to do. And that has been put on pause for the last 10 months. That has unbelievable implications. I think we talk about the small businesses but really what's behind the small businesses are individuals who have had their livelihoods just devastated. And there is a level of urgency helping people to hang on that is incredibly pressing.

On the education front statewide we have about 900,000 students enrolled in public schools. About a 100,000 students statewide and we think, we're not sure, we still don't have good projections on this and good data, it's somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 to 40,000 here in the city have not had regular academic experiences since March of 2020. Virtual learning, there have been Herculean efforts to get access to educational opportunities but I can tell you from my kids it is not the same despite the best efforts. And I am deeply, deeply, deeply concerned that if we do not have a very strategic and purposeful plan to help kids catch back up at the back end of this we are going to be dealing with this for decades. And so, I am very, very concerned about the educational outcomes as a result.

Tom Hall: And Shanaysha Sauls, the Baltimore Community Foundation serves both Baltimore city and Baltimore County as you've said. Talk to us a little about the regional focus of your work even pre pandemic and why you think that collaboration across that city, county line is particularly important during this pandemic crisis.

Shanaysha Sauls: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, in I guess the several months before I joined my cohorts at the Chesapeake Connect in Nashville I had the distinct honor of being invited to serve on the transition team for County Executive Olszewski. And that important moment, that invitation I think signaled a number of things. Number one, I think that it made tangible, incredible BCS role as the regional community foundation and it's portfolio in Baltimore County. And more importantly, it showed leadership, political leadership from Johnny Olszewski that he saw a partner in the community foundation and creating a new Baltimore County, thinking about how it becomes not only a more transparent and ethical and efficient county but also recognizing that the opportunities and challenges of Baltimore County was the path light in a regional approach. And so his consistent ability whether it is reaching out to the Baltimore Community Foundation, how he thinks about transportation, how he thinks about other public systems, the water issues that that are it's next stages, just all indicate the fact that you have leadership. And the Baltimore County executive that understands the importance of making those inroads.

So fast forward, I had the pleasure of joining County Executive Olszewski in Nashville. And there are lots of opportunity for formal conversations but there are also opportunities for casual conversations to think about how do we continue to move the needle to make the relationship between the Baltimore Community Foundation and Baltimore County Government more tangible and real. And so what happened unfortunately is a few months later once we were facing the pandemic and we were all scrambling in terms of what to do, Johnny Olszewski's office reached out to us and said, "Look we need to be able to build the infrastructure to respond to our community, the west side of the county, the east side of the county, the far north side of the county, and we want to be able to support those non-profit providers to get to the communities that are the hardest to reach. How can we work together?

And ultimately that landed in opening a fund, a Baltimore County Emergency Response Fund that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide emergency support, food, essentials and other kinds of services, crisis support to women and children who were in a domestic violence situations. All of that was through this effort to think about the regional identity and how we continue to work together as a city and as a region. I'll also share that the Baltimore Community Foundation joined with 15 other funders to stand up the Baltimore, greater Baltimore COVID Emergency Response Fund. And essentially it was about $5 million that we allocated among the 15 funders over the course of four to five months in areas ranging nonprofits, pivots, technology, essential support, and food services to support for first line workers. And we worked together in alignment. We met every single week on rapid response to make sure that the entire region benefited from philanthropic dollars in a way that made sense.

Tom Hall: And Senator Ferguson, you represent the city, your district is in the city but in your role as senate president obviously you have to consider and balance the needs of the entire state. So you were elected senate president last year, what do you think you've learned about how to lead in a comprehensive and regional statewide way that perhaps you hadn't thought about as much in your role just representing Baltimore city?

Bill Ferguson: That's a great question Tom. And I will say first and foremost I fundamentally believe that a regional approach towards governance must be the future for Maryland to be successful. We have over many, many years had these imaginary lines that were put on a map and put on a piece of paper and don't exist in real life but have defined so much of individuals destinies. That cannot be the way that we continue with imaginary walls between jurisdictions. We have got to think in a regional fashion. And when you look at the countries across the globe that are the most successful and that are really expanding opportunity and reducing poverty and finding ways to expand economic options they are taking regional approaches to their work. They're looking at regions figuring out what their competitive advantage is, double down in investing in those areas, and then really winning the day.

And you see in China that is a predominant strategy is to take different regions that have different inherent benefits or inherent competitive advantages. When you think about Maryland we are essentially an area of multiple regions with the way our history has been, the agricultural Southern Maryland, and Eastern Shore, Western Maryland, our mountain Maryland that's had a post-industrial existence, the city, county and around Annapolis as the heart and soul of the city and then the DC suburbs as this really thriving metropolis expansion of DC. And so, that is how we are going to succeed as a state is by recognizing that these imaginary lines between the 24 jurisdictions really are self-imposed. We have to make sure that our interests are aligned and that we're growing together and not letting places fall behind. I see that as more legislators in the general assembly understand that reality and I think we're trying to approach the work. Especially if you think of it about things like transportation and housing and education there are just so many places where Maryland has the opportunity to really double down on regionalism and I think it will be to our benefit.

Tom Hall: Dr. Sauls, early in the pandemic none of us knew how long this was going to last. I did my first interview about COVID-19 on Midday, the show I host on WIPR, on January 29th, 2020. None of us knew how long this would last and perhaps none of us know how long this is going to last. But what's your working assumption looking forward? How are you rethinking work over the next three months, nine months, year? And what's your expectation as to how long it's going to take to get back to some semblance of normalcy?

Shanaysha Sauls: So I will start with the discouraging news which is I think that 2021 will look much like it looked in 2020 if not slightly more concerning because of the surge. The surge is worse than the first sure. So I'll start there, I think that 2021 will very much be between the vaccine rollout, the cold weather that's what we're dealing with at the start of the month and then I think still some ongoing questions about the effects of the new variants and how quickly are the new variants spread. I think that 2021 we should expect about the same and some of it will just be mindset. I mean, we're not going to flip on a switch. We flipped off the switch to get everyone to come into their houses. We don't unfortunately flip the on switch to get people to come out of their houses again so to speak. So that's the first.

I think in terms of what 2021 will look like in terms of resilience, I think that we have a lot of promise. I think that the vaccination rollout while bumpy and certainly the senator knows much more, the president, President Ferguson knows much more about this than I, I think that we're learning really quickly. And I think that what we'll see in a month and two months from now will look very different from what we are experiencing now. I think Maryland, we just have too many public health assets at our disposal not to get this right. So, whatever we're dealing with now I think things are going to get better.

I think that once the warmer months are here I think that there will just be more optimism just in general about re-engaging in society and getting our economy to work. I have every bit of confidence that with new leadership, mature leadership, no matter where you sit ideologically but with mature leadership that really knows how to collaborate and bring the country together and bring the disparate parts of the American identity together we actually will see some real investments in infrastructure that will get people back to work and get people moving. And I think that we'll see the appropriate investment in the economy and perhaps even closing the digital divide. I think that's going to be a real opportunity to bring the Democrats and Republicans together if we can get it right. And again, you can tell that I care about that. But that will take some sausage making making in 2021.

So BCF will support where we can support. We'll listen and learn. But recognizing that 2021 is going to be about the same. However, my hope is that 2022 is when we're really in the state of enjoying the recovery and the rebuilding and putting Humpty Dumpty back together again where people are coming out of their homes, they're meeting again in person. My goodness we may not be wearing masks when we see one another on the street. But I think that we just need to continue to be resilient and focused and optimistic but just persist through the current year.

Tom Hall: And Senate President Ferguson obviously you had plans last year in 2020 and you had to change those plans somewhat dramatically. You have plans for this session and this year 2021 which may well be, it turns out you have to be flexible again. What are you seeing on the horizon in terms of a return to normalcy and a consensus about when that might happen and what the best way for state government to help the state get there?

Bill Ferguson: So I would say first and foremost that a return to normalcy would be an unacceptable outcome. In the returning to be able to congregate safely absolutely that is a key priority. But if we take out of this experience having been in quarantine and in cases isolation and all of these traumatic experiences that have happened, that awakening around racial justice that happened over the summer that I think is all connected to the experience that we've all had with a pandemic really re-evaluating what's most important in life. And how do we make sure that we can protect ourselves, our neighbors, our loved ones? I don't think we will ever be the same and I think it would be a lost moment if we allowed it to, if we just were able to flip a switch and say, "Okay, we're back."

What I think is there is this moment and it's happened in human history before when you've seen pandemics with the Spanish flu or with the bubonic plagues and if you go back through history post pandemic periods are some of the most humanistic and thriving times for humanity. Because I think as we've been in this sheltered world when there is an opportunity to re-emerge there is a greater sense of the interdependence of humanity. You think back with the bubonic plague serfdom lasted for hundreds of years, the impact on the labor market after the bubonic plagues ended serfdom. It created an entire new economic future for the entire globe. And in some cases that was great, in other cases it led to the exploitation of capitalism and the imperialistic colonization.

But it was the pandemics that led to this re-evaluation of humanity and so I think as we emerge from this and I'm hopeful, I'm not a scientist I don't know, I am hopeful that if we get this vaccine distribution and administration going that 2021 by the end can be a period of re-emergence. Certainly we should be prepared for the worst, I'm hopeful that we can get to the other side. But I think we have to take this period and realize that we are living through a historic moment and we have an opportunity on the back end of this to really redefine a different future.

Tom Hall: And Dr. Sauls in the last few minutes we have I do want to talk about the Chesapeake Connect trips. As I mentioned at the top of the episode today you did go on the 2019 trip to Nashville. You talked about your opportunities to have casual and formal conversations with Johnny Olszewski Jr. for example. Speak in general about the importance of these trips and those relationship building opportunities to the work you're doing with the community foundation.

Shanaysha Sauls: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, what was so fantastic about the trip is that you had civic leaders from six jurisdictions that identified in some way that they cared about the future of Baltimore. So from Carroll County, Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, Hartford County, Baltimore County and Howard County. And so, I will say that in my three years at BCF I've actually never been at a proverbial table like that where it was all of the jurisdictions united by one identity that was greater Baltimore and that was incredibly powerful. And we're talking about civic leaders that are leaders in their own right and key decision-makers across a variety of sectors.

And so whether I am breaking bread with the person who is the president of the county council in Carroll County or chatting with County Executive Johnny Olszewski about regionalism or speaking with the then chief of staff of the Anne Arundel County executive about, he was actually talking about music because he's actually quite an interesting person. There were some informal bonds and formal bonds to the extent that once the pandemic hit we were actually able to leverage those relationships very quickly to understand in various parts of the region where the needs were the greatest. And I see that carrying forward moving on.

I would say the other thing just beyond the people is that one of the things that I learned in that one national trip, I think if there was a theme to that trip it was the question is how did Nashville become a city that was in their words dead in the water, dying, losing population, losing interest, no tourism to becoming an it city with an appealing brand. And it was really through a collective visioning strategy where everyone came together and asked themselves the question, "Why do people come to Nashville? Why do they stay in Nashville? And how can we all rally behind that and get a piece of it?" And that is a powerful question and set of answers and I think there's a lot to learn and to grow from Baltimore because I think we have twice as many if not three times as many assets than Nashville despite the fact that I had a great time there.

Tom Hall: Indeed Nashville is a great place to visit to be sure. And Senate President Ferguson, talk a little bit about the importance of the trips that you've made with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council to Cleveland and New Orleans. How are they continuing to inform your work in the Maryland Senate?

Bill Ferguson: Yes. So I was fortunate enough to be able to do two of the three. Cleveland was our first one and New Orleans was the second. I missed the Nashville one but it was for the reason we were in the final throes of the senate president's race and I was elected by the democratic caucus while the trip was in Nashville. So I was sad to miss it but it was for a good purpose. And I will say these have been some of the most enjoyable and thought provoking trips that I have been able to be a part of as a public servant. I think there's one thing to read articles and review books and stories or listen to podcasts, it's a whole other thing to go to another region and experience it with other leaders from our region and talk through, "Why would this work? Why wouldn't it work? Maybe this is great in one area and not."

In Cleveland we saw the Healthline bus rapid transit system which has had an enormously positive impact and it's something that has really impacted my thought about transportation and the opportunities in the Baltimore region. And then in the New Orleans trip that's actually when I met for the first time well then Chief Harrison but then soon became Commissioner Harrison and we were able to spend two hours with him. And when I came back to Baltimore I said, "I think this is the guy that has to be the person that leads us out of this crime issue in the city." And lo and behold, we were able to attract him here.

So, I think that's a directly positive impact but the experience itself seeing other regions meeting with their regional leaders amongst Baltimore regional leaders there is no substitute. And I think when the Baltimore Metropolitan Council decided to put this together it was a risk and I think it was a risk well-taken because it's been a really incredible trip each time. I was really sad to miss the Nashville one but look forward to doing it again when we can safely.

Tom Hall: Well, I very much appreciate both of your being with us today and sharing your perspective. Senator Bill Ferguson is the president of the Maryland Senate. He's also represented the senate on the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's board since 2016. Senator, good luck with the session this year, I appreciate it. Thanks so much.

Bill Ferguson: Thank you. Stay safe.

Tom Hall: And Dr. Shanaysha Sauls is the president and CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation, a supporter of Chesapeake Connect. Dr. Sauls thank you very much for your time and good luck in this challenging year. I appreciate it.

Shanaysha Sauls: Thank you.

Tom Hall: The Chesapeake Connect podcast is produced by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council with assistance from WYPR. The Baltimore Metropolitan Council works collaboratively with our region's elected executives to identify mutual interests and develop collaborative strategies, plans, and programs that will improve our quality of life and economic vitality. BMCs member jurisdictions include Baltimore city and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carol, Hartford, Howard, and Queen Anne's counties. For more information, please visit baltometro.org. Our producer is Mark Gunnery and on our next episode of Chesapeake Connect we'll talk about police reform and accountability with Baltimore County Police Chief, Melissa Hyatt and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. Until then, I'm Tom Hall. Thanks for connecting.

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