Ten years ago, a television commercial aired simultaneously on all of the TV stations in Baltimore. It was paid for by the private dollars of principled Baltimore business leaders. It began with the words of a little boy.
"My grandmother says we're all part of one big fire. I don't know if that's true, but I know there's a fire inside me."
So began our very public campaign to awaken Baltimore's truer sense of self — to tap the fire inside — and to call upon the power of that spirit to confront the violence of drugs and drug addiction that was killing 300 to 350 of our young men every year — and increasingly, our children.
That jarring and disturbing commercial signaled the very public start of Baltimore's campaign — of Baltimore's fight — to "Believe."
You see, the day the campaign launched, Baltimore held the tragic distinction of being at or near the top of all the wrong lists: most violent, most addicted and most rapidly abandoned major city in America.
Since that day, Baltimore has changed. Over the last 10 years, Baltimore has now achieved the biggest overall reduction of crime in any major city in America — bigger than New York or Los Angeles. Under the leadership of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore, for the first time in more than three decades, reduced homicides last year to fewer than 200. Drug overdose deaths have been driven down to all-time lows. Juvenile shootings have been driven down 70 percent since 2007.
Today, our Baltimore City Public Schools are posting their highest graduation rate — with an unprecedented 20-percentage-point gain in four years — and second-lowest dropout rate since we began keeping records.
Today, Baltimore's population decline has slowed to a rate not seen since the 1950s. And notwithstanding these difficult recessionary years, Baltimore is rebuilding again, neighborhood by neighborhood, from the inside out.
These successes were not easily won. Too many Baltimore City police officers gave their lives for the hope of that safer city in which we called upon one another to "Believe." And we are by no means done.
But together, we are moving in the right direction. And to the cynical birds in the rafters who would like to dismiss Baltimore's achievements across three mayoral administrations as merely part of a national trend, think again. If you think smarter policing, better drug treatment options, youth interventions and sufficient public funding don't matter, just look at Newark, Trenton or other cities where crime is rising.
Thinking back, it is hard to explain to young, new homeowners in growing neighborhoods like Canton, Bolton Hill or Woodberry just how badly we had allowed white apathy and black acceptance to destroy our belief in one another; how badly we had allowed our collective culture of cynicism to keep us from even trying. All the "smart" people knew, "It's just Baltimore — there's nothing you can do about it."
After years of shrugging our shoulders at the addiction and violence, our city came together in the "Believe" campaign to admit we had a problem; together, we started doing something about it.
Thanks to President Bill Clinton and Maryland's congressional delegation, we put 200 more police officers on our streets. Thanks to the City Council, we started paying them a lot better. Thanks to Gov. Parris Glendening, we did what Mayor Kurt Schmoke had been urging and doubled funding for drug treatment. Church leaders helped us recruit hundreds of volunteers to serve as mentors to city kids. And you know what? All that stuff actually works.
Baltimore embraced that stark, white and black call to "Believe." It took on a life of its own. Street vendors found people willing to buy and wear "Believe" T-shirts. People placed bumper stickers on their cars. "Believe" trash cans rolled into once-forgotten neighborhoods. The "Believe"-mobile, sponsored by M&T Bank, toured the city and set up a lighted sound stage for neighborhood kids to play concerts while police closed down the streets to the drug trade and opened them to the good people.
But the beginning of that campaign was not a feel-good moment. There was nothing happy about that opening ad. The ad ended with that little boy's sister being gunned down on an innocent errand to the corner store, her young body lying lifeless in a pool of blood.
I got a lot of calls from civic boosters and business leaders asking, "Why on earth did you run those ads?"
Ten safer years later, I recall that we ran them for one reason: to challenge one another to "Believe" — in ourselves, and in the fact that we are still the people who Frederick Douglass and John Unitas loved. To "Believe" that together, we can make our city a safer place, a better place for kids to grow up.
So that our work together might be worthy of their sacrifice, Baltimore, I ask it once again.