Among the more disturbing images from Baltimore City’s protests in April of 2015 were the number of young men and women directly involved in the rioting and destructive acts that took place. While it was very easy to be critical of these individuals’ behavior, many people saw their actions as a cry for help and revelation that city leaders must pay more attention to the needs of the younger population. As a result, communities across the City began to focus efforts on involving youth in the political process and making sure their issues and concerns are addressed. Now, almost two years removed from the outburst, the focus remains on empowering Baltimore’s youth and being responsive to their needs. Few people have as much experience engaging youth to participate in civic action as Baltimore City 1st District City Councilman Zeke Cohen. With a background as an educator and founder of a nonprofit committed to fostering leadership in youths from underserved communities, Councilman Cohen hopes to bring his expertise to the city council and improve upon the work done since April 2015. In an opportunity to speak with him directly, I was able to learn about his background, passion for empowering and educating youth and how he plans to make his mark on the Baltimore City Council in 2017.
Originally from North Hampton, Massachusetts, Zeke Cohen first came to Baltimore to attend Goucher College. Despite Goucher’s main campus being located in Baltimore County, Councilman Cohen would make the commute from Baltimore City to attend classes each day. Although new to Baltimore, Councilman Cohen quickly became captivated by the City’s culture and energy. Much like his parents, who were community leaders in the North Hampton community, Councilman Cohen wasted no time becoming engaged in social causes both on and off of campus. During his senior year of college, Councilman Cohen served as the student government president and played an instrumental role in reestablishing relationships between Goucher College and Baltimore City communities. Under Councilman Cohen’s leadership, Goucher’s student government association organized a Baltimore City speaker series consisting of notable public officials and community advocates. During the speaker series, both former Mayor Sheila Dixon and former CEO of Baltimore City public schools, Andres Alonso, were invited to address the Goucher community. David Simon, author, and creator of the critically acclaimed HBO television series The Wire also spoke. In addition to his role in bringing prominent figures to speak to Goucher’s campus, Councilman Cohen helped create the Social Justice Grant program. The Social Justice Grant program, which remains in existence, supports community-based projects headed by Goucher college students. However, while Councilman Cohen’s experiences in student government helped develop his leadership abilities, his experiences following graduation are undoubtedly the driving force behind his desire to serve in public office.
After graduating from Goucher College with a degree in Political Science, Councilman Cohen joined Teach for America, a nonprofit organization committed to developing future leaders and advocating for educational equity and excellence. During this time, Councilman Cohen taught in two of Baltimore City’s most violent and poverty stricken areas, the Sandtown-Winchester and Curtis Bay communities. According to Councilman Cohen, his biggest takeaway from teaching in those areas was, “There is not enough emphasis in schools on teaching kids to be self-actualized, active citizens that participate and hold government accountable.” Hoping to play a larger role in changing the living conditions of citizens like the students he taught, Councilman Cohen attended Johns Hopkins University and obtained a Master’s degree in Public Policy with a focus on improving cities. Also, while in graduate school, Councilman Cohen and other teachers founded their own nonprofit, The Intersection. The Intersection teaches civic leadership skills to high school students in East Baltimore. In creating the nonprofit, Councilman Cohen hoped to position young people to facilitate change throughout their own communities. Students from The Intersection have been involved with advocating for reduced gun violence, creating new jobs, and passing the Dream Act. It was through these experiences interacting and empowering students to get involved in the political process that Councilman Cohen developed the desire to run for City Council in Baltimore’s 1st District.
According to Councilman Cohen, Baltimore City faces structural challenges that have to do with institutional power arrangements. Councilman Cohen believes that only by changing the dynamics of power in the City and fostering newer healthier relationships, can the City move in a positive direction. In Councilman Cohen’s opinion, city government is the optimal place for public servants to directly reach their constituents and establish the community- oriented atmosphere that is vital to the City’s success. Pointing out that the first point of contact for concerns in the community is often the City councilperson, Councilman Cohen explained that the Maryland General Assembly and State government did not appeal to him. Instead, speaking on his decision to run for City Council, he stated, “The City Council is where the rubber meets the road. We’ve seen decades and centuries of disinvestment away from some of our most vulnerable populations and especially kids. I signed up and decided to run because I believe we need to change that paradigm and our City government really needs to work for our citizens. We need to empower citizens to step up, be the leaders to create change, and to make sure the resources needed are more thoughtfully allocated.” Thus, to Councilman Cohen, the time has never been better to make fundamental and systematic changes to how the City is governed.
With a younger, and perhaps more progressive City Council just entering office, Councilman Cohen believes the City is at a critical point needing leaders willing to challenge practices of the past. Acknowledging that many of the City’s issues are interconnected, Councilman Cohen plans to staunchly advocate for universal pre-k, youth employment, and a shift away from drug related zero-tolerance polices. In addition, Councilman Cohen plans to work alongside his fellow City Council members to bridge the racial and socioeconomic divides that exist throughout many Baltimore City communities. Speaking of a portion of his own district on Fayette Street, Councilman Cohen explained, “We need to be just as concerned for people living north of Fayette Street as we are those living south of Fayette Street. You’ve seen growth and development happen south of Fayette but you haven’t seen it north of Fayette.” As such, Councilman Cohen will work alongside fellow City Council member Shannon Snead (District 13) to reach solutions that foster growth and eliminate concentrated areas of poverty between the two districts. It is through compromise and teamwork like this that Councilman Cohen hopes the new City Council can point Baltimore in the right direction.
Despite the challenges the new City Council faces, Councilman Cohen’s excitement and enthusiasm couldn’t be more clear. “I love the city. The City gives me life and energy. There’s something about cities; especially Baltimore, that I just find incredibly compelling. I think Baltimore, and in particular, the 1st District, presents an opportunity to right some of the wrongs that we’ve collectively created over the years. It’s an exciting and challenging moment for Baltimore.” Unafraid of the uphill battle that awaits the Council, Councilman Cohen’s positive attitude and willingness to advocate for Baltimore City’s youth will be welcomed in the coming years.
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