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November 30, 2021

Residents react to the loss of SMEAC

By Peter Sicher | November 11, 2009

In the wake of the recent closure of the Save Middle East Action Committee (SMEAC), some residents in the Middle East Baltimore area that the organization served are embittered.

But despite SMEAC's internal conflicts and its resulting disbandment, members of the community hope that a new organization can serve their interests.

According to Donald Gresham, the former president of SMEAC, the organization closed because the "community's need has changed."

SMEAC was created eight years ago to protect the interests and provide a voice for residents in Middle East Baltimore, the area affected by the redevelopment around the Hopkins Medical Institute.

The organization often had a tense relationship with the East Baltimore Development Initiative (EBDI), the nonprofit partnership of parties invested in the project. University President Ronald Daniels serves on the EBDI board.

While he did not directly address why the organization was disbanded, Gresham felt that "because of the limitations of SMEAC, we could not go forward."

Last week, SMEAC sent out a flier to the community announcing its closure.

"As the saying goes 'All good things must come to an end.' SMEAC, as it originallybegan, has run its course and it is now time to say good-bye," the flier stated.

But for some residents who were unhappy with SMEAC leadership over the past few years, the organization was far from a good thing.

"Their leadership had become corrupt and instead of evolving. . . they decided to flier the residents with what many of us see as a nicely worded 'abandonment' letter," Nia Redmond, a lifelong Middle East resident, wrote in an e-mail to The News-Letter.

Redmond felt that SMEAC board members were not providing financial transparency to area residents.

She also saw a split between the views of board members - many of whom have moved out of the community - and the community residents still living in the development area.

"Leadership became indifferent to allowing remaining residents to participate in a democratic process that would have evolved leadership," she wrote.

Redmond claimed that SMEAC's board refused to allow elections to be held for new officers.

"Most of the board were relocated residents who never came into the neighborhood, only attending board meetings that were closed to the residents. Residents had expected new officer elections to take place this summer, however they were told that the entire board was going on vacation until September," she wrote.

"Residents were thinking elections would happen soon. Instead, without any public meeting, these folks simply put fliers up around the neighborhood informing us they were closing forever."

SMEAC Board Members Leslie Williams, Pamela Jordan, Charlotte Johnson and Shrene Burnett could not be reached for comment. Board Members Sonny Williams and Leslie Lewis declined to comment.

Board Member Betty Robinson would not comment because she claimed that SMEAC's closure was not yet public.

Gresham said that many in the community are unhappy about the closure of the organization.

"They're not liking it. They're not liking it at all," he said.

Larry Cooper, a lifelong resident of the Middle East neighborhood, said he was not surprised by the closure of SMEAC.

"I anticipated it . . . the people that were running the organization were corrupt. They weren't doing anything that was constructive," he said.

"I hope something better comes along. If you have the same people that were running SMEAC [however], I don't want to have anything to do with it."

Gresham said that he intends to continue working for the community and hopes to create a new organization that could better fit the changed needs of the neighborhood. "We are going to go forward," he said. "We're just not going to use SMEAC's name." Gresham believes that any new organization will need to do more than simply advocate for the community.

"SMEAC was fighting for House-for-a-House and advocating for residents. I'm not saying that is going to stop. What I'm saying is that in addition to that we need to be a service organization. SMEAC was not able to fulfill that obligation," he said.

Gresham sees the role of a service organization as helping people on a more individual level.

"If, for example, they wanted us to help them figure the House-for-a-House program, maybe . . . [we would be] able to do the paperwork with them," he said.

Gresham was unsure when the organization he plans to create will be up and running, but is confident that the community will still continue to have a voice.

"I don't think [the disbanding of SMEAC] will hold up the progress of what we need to do. I think the people want an organization. We need an organization," he said.

Redmond would support the creation of a new organization to serve residents in the Middle East Baltimore, but said they would "learn from the mistakes of SMEAC" and create a group composed of those living in the area.

These residents would include those currently living in homes, residences on the preservation blocks and those living in the development units.

It would also be open to those returning homeowners who were displaced from the area during the first phase of development, as well as "new residents who will buy into this new neighborhood," Redmond said.

She hopes that in a new organization, "Residents will hopefully operate under a democratic process."

"This may be a good time for a new organization to be founded to address how things have changed and how residents now would like things to be in the future . . . I do hope that another organization is born out of SMEAC," Elizabeth Barbrush, an artist who worked in the area, wrote in an e-mail to The News-Letter.

Barbrush got to know the community through her work with Art on Purpose, where she created a book of photographs documenting the community. She felt that because the conditions in the neighborhood changed so much during SMEAC's eight years of activity, a new organization might be better able to serve the community.

Both Gresham and Barbush felt that SMEAC made great strides in assisting the residents.

"We got a lot accomplished. [We made sure] that EBDI was able hear from the community, that the community was able to express its concerns," Gresham said. "What SMEAC did best was act as a strong voice for the community's residents . . . SMEAC motivated people to speak up and have their feelings known and respected. They were successful at engaging residents to work together and take stake in their own environment, showing the residents that they can make a difference in their own futures," Barbush wrote.

"Their monthly meetings were also a venue for residents to gather and learn more about the ever changing circumstances in their community. I learned from many of the interviews I did with community members that without SMEAC they would have been even more in the dark about the development process. The meetings also gave residents a place to have their voices heard."

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