The Baltimore Sun
By Christine Zhang
Renee Greene stood in the dining area of Lexington Market, concentrating on the paper questionnaire in her hand. On the second page, she paused.
Better parks, less trash on the streets, fewer vacant homes … I want all of them! Why do I gotta select just one?” she exclaimed.
The 53-year-old Latrobe Homes resident was one of more than a dozen people on a recent afternoon filling out a survey called Blueprint for Baltimore, which seeks to identify the priorities of 10,000 to 12,000 Baltimore residents ahead of the 2020 mayoral election.
About half of the responses are expected to come from in-person outreach efforts like the one at Lexington Market, which was organized by West Baltimore advocacy group No Boundaries Coalition. The rest will come from people who take the survey online by Dec. 7, said Evan Serpick, director of strategic communications at Open Society Institute-Baltimore, which is spearheading the initiative.
OSI-Baltimore has committed $150,000 to fund the survey project in 2019 and 2020, and the T. Rowe Price Foundation will donate $100,000, Serpick said.
The survey asks residents whether they think their neighborhood is a good place to live, and to identify the most important factors that they think would help make it better. Several questions ask Baltimoreans what they would prioritize if they had control of the budget, and which initiatives they would support when it comes to issues like education, housing and public safety.
OSI-Baltimore plans to release a report by January and to hold forums where all declared primary candidates in the mayoral and City Council races will be invited to discuss the results.
“We need some hard information about what people want … something that, frankly, leaders can be held accountable to,” Serpick said.
Community groups are targeting historically under-counted populations by canvassing specific neighborhoods, said Tre Murphy of Black Leaders Organizing for Change, another group helping with the canvassing effort.
If we use traditional methods and traditional tactics, we’re going to miss the hard-to-reach communities,” Murphy said. “So, we want to overemphasize those communities coming in the door.”
The trade-off of such a targeted approach is that the responses can’t be generalized to represent Baltimore as a whole, said Mileah Kromer, director of Goucher College’s Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center. The survey is not a random sample of residents and so may over- or under-represent certain groups.
“When you interpret the results, you should interpret them in terms of what the individual respondents said and not Baltimoreans in general,” she said.
Kromer praised the project’s goal of giving a voice to communities whose members don’t normally respond to surveys and who don’t have the same “access to power” as some people who do.
You might not be able to say ‘this percentage of Baltimoreans think this,’ but you can say ‘we talked to thousands of residents in these areas and this is what they said,’” she explained.
Jose Serrano-McClain, a director at HR&A Advisors, which is consulting on the survey, said the report will be transparent about methodology and the demographics of respondents, including race, age and zip code.
HR&A worked on a similar effort with Portland, Oregon, earlier this year. Findings were presented in September to the City Council and will be incorporated into citywide strategic plans, said Shannon Carney, a performance analyst in that city’s budget office.
Stephanie Smith, assistant director for equity, engagement and communications at Baltimore’s department of planning, said she’s given advice to Serpick on best practices for community outreach. The planning department sponsored the city’s 2019 Sustainability Plan, which incorporated insights from thousands of residents.
Smith said she’s looking forward to seeing the Blueprint survey results.
It gives us another prompt, another opportunity, to make sure we’re hearing what community members want,” she said. “You can never have too much input.”
Lester Davis, a spokesman for mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said he had not had official conversations with OSI-Baltimore about the survey but that “it seems in keeping with the advocacy work that they’ve done.”
Davis pointed to a “very robust and much talked-about” Solutions Summit the organization hosted in 2016, where participants voted on the recommendations they wanted Baltimore’s new mayor and City Council to consider.
“OSI has been engaged in this type of work in a constructive way over the years,” he said.
Many of the survey takers at Lexington Market were surprised somebody was asking for their opinion. Some doubted their input would matter.
“You think this paper right here is going to make a difference?” said Curtis Willis, 59, to lead canvasser Eean Logan.
Willis eventually filled out the survey after a spirited discussion with the 28-year-old No Boundaries Coalition organizer. “I enjoyed talking to him,” Willis said later.
Logan and Murphy said they saw the survey as a starting point for future conversations. In addition to collecting responses, which are anonymous, canvassers asked people to share their contact information separately to be notified about future events, like the No Boundaries Coalition’s Civic Culture Saturdays.
We want to be super intentional about opening up relationships and creating pathways where [hard-to-reach communities] have a direct connection to the political processes that directly impact their lives,” Murphy said.
Whitney Chase, 32, carefully considered each question, while a friend stood to the side.
“Just take it!” the former Baltimore City Schools teacher, who grew up in the East Monument Street area, urged her friend. “Our voices matter.”
Hesitant at first, he finally grabbed a pen and filled it out — adding one of the last responses to that day’s pile.
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McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Learn more about the successful use of community surveys in our previous coverage:
Learn about other means of community outreach: