The Black Education and Empowerment Forum (BEEF) hosted Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen on Feb. 8. BEEF is a student-run program organized by the Black Student Union (BSU) that invites guest speakers to campus.
Senior Kwame Alston, the president of BSU, discussed the purpose of BEEF.
“BEEF has existed since the BSU was founded,” Alston said. “It’s a way for the BSU to bring in a guest speaker to talk to our general student body members and show them how they can become active politically.”
Councilman Cohen, who currently represents District 1, started his career as a teacher at the school Freddie Gray attended in West Baltimore. This school, Cohen said, resembled a prison more than a school — the students dealt with lead poisoning, insufficient funding and extreme temperatures.
As the chair of the Education and Youth Committee, Cohen is working to gain funding for better public education in the City, including rebuilding outdated schools.
“Our schools are the oldest schools in the state,” he said.
Cohen also emphasized the need to connect with young people. Instead of holding the Committee meetings in City Hall like other organizations do, Cohen holds meetings in schools and rec centers.
“If we want to build a better democracy, we have to do it in relationship to people, and not just behind the walls of City Hall,” he said.
Cohen spoke briefly about the history of political and racial injustices in Baltimore and how those histories curated a segregated city. He discussed the City’s former steel industry and how when the factories went under, many people were left without an income, and consequently drug and crime rates went up.
Cohen noted that minorities in these situations are often shortchanged for reasons rooted in white supremacy and segregation. For example, he said that housing segregation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1917, yet many community associations in Baltimore created racist housing covenants.
“The people of Roland Park decided that if you are Jewish or black, you can’t live here,” Cohen said. “That practice continued into the ‘40s, when we had redlining.”
Redlining further increased racial divides because banks would not allow African Americans to take out mortgages on their homes. Residents in predominantly black neighborhoods had to pay for their homes by means of contract lenders, where if a single payment was late, residents lost all equity in their house and were evicted. These areas soon became very poor and received little government funding.
Cohen discussed how even now, government funding is being cut from programs intended to improve these areas, including after school programs for children. He emphasized a need for public transportation to and from these events.
“Baltimore’s public transit is woefully inadequate for a 21st century city,” he said.
In the past, Cohen explained, Baltimore students were allowed to ride the city bus for free to get to and from school, as the school district did not provide school buses. Students, with a bus pass, were able to ride the city bus from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
However, these hours were cut to 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. due to lack of funds, according to officials. Cohen, however, stated that it was probably due to the fact that the buses did not want to have youths boarding at night after having received many complaints from passengers.
Cohen argued that taking away these two hours of free transit deterred kids from participating in after school activities or working an after school job.
He reached out to the community for input on how to solve this problem, and one student suggested hosting a bake sale to raise the funds required to pay for the added two hours of student bus time. Students ultimately raised thousands of dollars through the sale.
Cohen said that in addition to raising money, this bake sale was supposed to be a wake up call for people in power to hear the concerns of those they are representing.
On that note, Cohen called for the audience to voice their ideas and to stand up for their political beliefs.
Alston discussed how Cohen’s talk, which stressed the importance of student ideas and initiative, dealt with BEEF’s theme of political activism.
“Students see so much going on at the national level that they forget that there’s small government working, where we can get involved and make some change,” Alston said.
BSU Vice President Chisom Okereke said that she knew she wanted to invite Cohen to speak after he gave a lecture for a public health course that she took.
“I really thought that his message and the passion behind this message was something that would really resonate with the student body,” Okereke said.
The next BEEF event is still in its planning phase, but Okereke said that the BSU is currently reaching out to potential speakers.
“We’re looking for any speaker that would portray a message of action,” she said.