In the wake of Baltimore burning, a question: What Would Our Leaders Do (WWOLD)?

Tom Watkins is president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority ( and served as state superintendent of schools and state mental health director. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter at @tdwatkins88 Tom Watkins is president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority ( and served as state superintendent of schools and state mental health director. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter at @tdwatkins88

Like many Americans, I have been watching as our country’s communities combust and boil over – with one injustice after another. Recently, protests over injustice led to riots as looting and burning erupted in West Baltimore, Maryland. It was ugly, destructive and sadly predictable.

The underbelly of urban America was again on display – the good, the bad, and the ugly again televised for all the world to see. Since West Baltimore erupted, protests and violence have cascaded into other communities across the country.

There are many communities across America with a heavy underbrush of poverty: poor housing options, people with little education or jobs, a pervasive lack of opportunity, and disenfranchised youth who are readily combustible when injustice reaches a tipping point.

We know who has the legal authority to lead, but who has the moral authority and community following to do so? We watched the missteps and miscalculations of leaders at multiple levels and were in awe of ordinary citizens emerging as true leaders.

Every neighborhood has natural leaders who emerge when the need is greatest. In West Baltimore, many ordinary citizens stepped forward to help clean up, to ask for a peaceful protest, and to get people off the streets when curfew time hit. These citizens must be recognized, nurtured and appreciated in West Baltimore and in neighborhoods across America.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has contingency plans to implement if and when a terrorist attack or disturbance erupts. Where are the plans to help prevent social eruptions before they explode?

As I watched the news in Baltimore, I wondered if like in Detroit in 1967, the ignition of problems in one community would leapfrog to others? Could it happen here? Clearly, the dry tinder of urban decay and lack of engagement and hope prevent far too many from entering the "River of Opportunity" that Gov. Snyder spoke of in his State of the State Address.

WWOLD – What Would Our local and state Leaders Do if similar disturbances crept into our communities or erupted with a spark of injustice?

Better still, WWOLD prior to our city erupting in an ugly disturbance and flames? Are there preventative plans in place to take the steam out of communities’ grievances prior to an explosion? Is there a little jigglier, like the one on top of my grandma's old pressure cooker, to keep the kettle from exploding?

The Day After

Imagine: It is the day after an uprising in our community. Who would call the community leaders, in the broadest sense of the word, together and what plan would they devise to address the real grievances?

We should not wait for an explosion to develop a plan. Who will call a pre-emptive gathering together to devise strategies to minimize the tragedy that unfolded in West Baltimore?

Who are the formal and informal leaders, be they political, governmental, neighborhood, civic, social, labor, clergy, foundation, business, media, folks from Main Street and the "streets"?

Is the list of leaders current, comprehensive and inclusive?

We know whose responsibility it is to mobilize the police and National Guard ‒ who mobilizes the social stability guard?

Whose responsibility is it to mobilize a community stabilization team?

Once this group is pulled together, how much time is needed to introduce the "players" or do they already have a working relationship and trust that enable an action plan to be quickly agreed upon and implemented?

Wouldn't it be just as valuable to pull this coalition together, as it is to gather police and Homeland Security to analysis the current social current in our community and consider preemptive, preventative strikes to address the seeds of potential social unrest?

We could question how we are using existing resources to meet community needs and redirect silo programs to create the "river of opportunity" that places people over programs and attempts to prevent internal threats to the security and stability of our communities.

Where is the plan to preempt social frustration, disgust and injustice?

We need to organize listening tours in the neighborhoods across America seeking ideas to improve quality of life and to combat the many challenges that still exist in communities that look like a catastrophic natural disaster hit and there has been no rescue efforts undertaken. Politicians and professionals may think they know the problems and solutions, but do they?

By asking citizens to come together and share their thoughts a responsive indigenous plan could emerge. There is a need for hope and action.

No plan can preempt social frustration, disgust, distrust and injustice. Yet we must acknowledge the sedimentary build-up of anger and frustration and walk side-by-side with our fellow citizens toward a more just society.

Compassion, kindness and indigenous leadership snuffed out the flames in West Baltimore. This is a solid foundation on which to build.

There is much work we need to do to rebuild America ‒ one block and neighborhood at a time. The consequences of not doing so were on display in West Baltimore.

It is not an ideal or rhetorical question. But What WOULD Our Leaders Do? And what will YOU do?

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J Jacob
Tue, 05/05/2015 - 10:30am
Tom Watkins has some thoughtful points. I suggest he become familiar with New Detroit an organization created after the 1968 riots to bridge the gap between our diverse community leaders. Today New Detroit's board of directors is a diverse mix of leaders from both the business community and nonprofits offering an opportunity to share our common interest of a diverse and vibrant community. The organization works to identify and eliminate racial disparities in the region by building economic equity, social justice and racial understanding.
Tue, 05/05/2015 - 10:41am
Thanks, Tom, We need to simultaneously work vigorously to dramatically reduce the conditions that lead to frustration, hunger, lack of quality jobs & education, and prepare for problems. Both are important, not just one or the other.
James Bauer
Tue, 05/05/2015 - 12:43pm
I am skeptical that a lasting solution is possible in our existing society with the liberal/conservative hate filled divide and people desires focus on power/money.
Tom Watkins
Tue, 05/05/2015 - 1:33pm
J-- I am very aware of ND, their history and the important work they have done and currently do under the leadership of Their Pres, Shirley Stancato. My question is broader than our largest city -- but across the state and country.-- How do we weigh in on ways that add value and makes a difference? That is the conservation I would like see take place. Clearly, what we are not doing in ways that have addressed the issues across the country. Thanks for the feedback.
Tue, 05/05/2015 - 4:38pm
My problem is that we don't seem to have any solutions that work. I am sure that ND has helped but we have spent billions on the poverty issue over 50 years and I don't think we have made any progress at all. Oh sure, there are a few special schools in poverty stricken neighborhoods that have made a difference in education for a few in Detroit, Chicago, New York City, etc. but have they really made an impact on the bigger numbers? Crime numbers seem to have come down a bit with a lot of effort. But the poverty numbers are still as large as ever if not growing. The frustration is still as great as ever. We desperately need a model that works so we can really make progress on this issue. CES
Tue, 05/05/2015 - 7:14pm
Two words - Full Employment
Tue, 05/05/2015 - 11:40pm
Tom......The one thing that bothers me is the lack of not holding people accountable. What I mean by that is the constant blame game that is played from those in the inner city directing their angst at one political party while giving those that they choose to represent them a past. Far too many accept the promises/lies that come out of the mouth of those who say that they have their best interests at heart; but do they really. Once the question is answered with regard to how is it that those in the inner city perpetually find themselves playing 'catch up', then you will have your answer to the WWOLD question. That means that it would be a level playing field and everyone would be getting treated the same. Then again; it all starts with people being the change that they want to see in the world.
Wed, 05/06/2015 - 2:28am
It seems Mr. Watkins is only interested in what is procliamed by the violent, he ignores all of those who face injustice and make their lives without turning to violence. Mr. Watkins doesn’t wonder about how and why people succeed without the violence while facing injustices and barriers to their success . Poor education seems to be a core cause of the problems to Mr. Watkins and yet he never questions why people fail to learn, fail to develop necessary knowledge and skills that can raise them out of poverty. He only wants good for all, but he only seems to want it provide others. That has been the mindset for over fifty years in Detroit and look what has achieved. Leaders are about coalescing what individuals want to do, about articulating the hopes of those around them, of facilitating the individuals’ actions. Until the individuals are willing to sacrifice for change and for their future there is nothing leaders (true leaders not the fast buck loud mouth politicians) can do. We should all step back and accept each other as individuals, look for the common problems and injustices we face and help each other address, focus not on who we are look but on what we do and what we can do. When in our minds we separate others into categories based on who they are barriers are created that prevent individual success, that prevent change, that prevent our different results.
Wed, 05/06/2015 - 11:23am
It is absolutely true that "...every city or every house divided against itself shall not stand". This MUST be the place we start to look; the places that cause division and why. This story is not a Baltimore issue it is an issue that is woven into the fabric of America. Change comes when we, as individuals and collectively, peer into the place that is both the closest AND the hardest place to look – INTERNAL. That ME place. True, deep, real change does not happen overnight. It CAN happen when we consistently have REAL, unencumbered dialogue (void of the blame game) and attach practical action. WE don’t tell the NAKED TRUTH about America and how she came to be. We don’t talk about how we continue to pass our divisions from generation to generation and how our past really does impact our future. We must get to the place where we pick it all the way apart. “Did THIS happen? YES. Did THIS cause THAT? YES. How can we fix THIS?” should be the route conversations for those of us who TRULY DESIRE real change. True dialogue for true change. We keep going after the spider web while neglecting the spider.
Wed, 05/06/2015 - 5:52pm
Compare Detroit and Baltimore on the demographic site Detroit has more poverty and more public assistance. It could happen at any time. Our national leaders choose poverty over opportunity again and again.
Barbara Murray
Thu, 05/07/2015 - 5:58pm
Raise the minimum wage ... job creation ... a focused commitment to rebuilding the middle class ... in Michigan: eliminate term limits in the state legislature ...
Thu, 05/07/2015 - 7:20pm
Barbara, How does term limits prevent the Lesgislature from doing their business? What special knowledge and skills do people need to be effective legislators? What do the Lesgilators learn in office that they can't learn before taking office? What is the expertise that legislators have that voters don't have? Was Proposal 1 written by legislators or staff, were the voter unable to understand what was written and make an educated choice when voting?
Thu, 05/07/2015 - 7:22pm
Barbara, Who should be creating new jobs? Why should the hire more people? Do you have any added expectations for workers that would would be covered by a raise in the minimum wage?
Eric Brown
Sat, 05/09/2015 - 10:16am
Barbara: And raising the minimum wage, eliminating term limits, creating jobs and rebuilding the middle class would do exactly what to prevent another incident like the foolishness that happened recently in Baltimore? I find it interesting that none of your suggestions spoke to the REAL root cause of the problem: 1) Education 2) Crime 3) Lack of respect for human life And to say that eliminating term limits is a problem is ridiculous. Not only am I a staunch proponent of term limits, but I feel that the position should be part-time. In EVERY city where there has been turmoil, the common denominator is the failing by those who have been elected to serve/represent the electorate/citizens. These issues just did not pop up and now everyone wants to treat the situation in a vacuum. The problem is that so many choose to continue to be reactive instead of continuously being proactive in handling the issues that face them on a daily basis. I guess that it is easier to excuse away what is not being done than to accept the failure at so many levels. Until people make a concerted effort to want to do better and stop with the blaming and playing of the victim card; then expecting the best will become the norm. Baltimore can't be just about race when half the officers involved look like the majority race in that city. FAILURE at so many levels is why we have Baltimore's and Ferguson's.
Jennifer Wallace
Tue, 05/26/2015 - 9:58am
Clearly the first person to comment about New Detroit is not aware of the depth of knowledge and respect TomWatkins has for the citizens of Detroit as well as the children not only in Michigan, but around the world. Believe me when I assure you that Tom is well aware of New Detroit which has been in existence for many years. As well as most existing community based organizations. Tom is asking us what are WE doing to address our challenges now. What are WE as individuals willing to do and going to do? The time is now! The sense of need and urgency is now!! What are WE going to do about it!!? ~Together WE Can Make A Difference ~The TIP Lady