It started with opposing opinions on Facebook. Then an email. Then a phone call.
Monique Washington and Harold Diggs, advocates for the Edmondson Village community in Southwest Baltimore, went back and forth about community outreach. And neither was backing down.
She says he came off as trying to take over her responsibilities as a community association leader. He says he was just voicing his opinion about issues facing the neighborhood.
They agreed to meet in person and at first bickered some more. Once they started listening to each other, they realized they wanted the same things for the community: more collaboration, resources and businesses in the neighborhood.
Now, they work together.
Together Washington and Diggs help run a youth program, Young Successful Leaders, where through molding young people into entrepreneurs they hope they can indirectly tackle entrenched issues — such as crime and underinvestment — that plague not only Edmondson Village, but many other city neighborhoods.
By giving kids something productive to do and teaching them skills they can use in the future, Young Successful Leaders hopes they’ll find innovative ways to invest in themselves and their communities. They are among residents throughout Baltimore doing what they can to ease problems in their communities.
“We take the kids that are going to change the future,” said Diggs, who believes a lack of economic opportunity is part of the reason people rely on the streets to find alternative ways to make money.
He doesn’t condone drug deals or other illicit activities, but he doesn’t judge people who engage in those activities, either.
“When your community doesn’t offer much, sometimes you just create different pathways for yourself to be successful. Some pathways may not be what some people like, but it takes care of them and their family,” Diggs said.
Washington said that all young people can succeed and added, “We gotta set the pathway for the kids that are coming behind us. Our children.”
Diggs and Washington’s deep investment in community was driven by different experiences — Diggs a traumatic one, Washington as part of her upbringing.
Diggs’s outlook changed one night in the 1990s when he finished his normal 10 p.m. work shift early after full-time college classes. He ran into a teenage girl he saw often and offered to walk her home. She declined and was later found dead in a taxicab.
“People ask me, ‘Why do you stay busy?’ and I’m like, I am never going to let somebody down like that again. I could have helped her, but I was so tired I decided not to,” Diggs said.
Washington says her motivation was instilled in her at an early age by her parents, who taught her to help people and “if you can’t help them, you don’t hurt them.”
Outside of the youth program, both can be found doing other community work to help make life better in Edmondson Village.
It’s not uncommon to find Diggs at a fundraiser, a community cleanup, a voter registration event or planning his own events. Some might call it overextending, but Diggs said it is a calling.
Much of Washington’s work comes as head of a community association — what she says is unpaid work that is sometimes underappreciated, but necessary.
She has exposed loitering and illicit activity at a gas station in her community and led efforts to beautify a neighborhood garden that had become overrun by loiterers and overgrown brush. She has worked with police to disrupt violence in her neighborhood — despite her own bad experiences with law enforcement.
Last year, a family member with a two-decade-old drug addiction came home high and attacked her. Police were called and she was zip-tied and put in a paddy wagon without her account of things thoroughly listened to, she said. She was arrested, but charges were later dropped.
The incident distressed her relationship with police, but as head of the community association she has learned to put personal experience aside for the betterment of the community. She encourages neighbors to adopt the “see something, say something” stance because they need to work with police to stop crime, which has worsened since she moved there. She could once sit on her porch at night and only lock the storm door to her home. Now, she doesn’t sit outside after a certain time and even adopted a larger dog for protection.
“I just need for our communities to stop being so comfortable with the norm because all of the crime now has become the norm. And this should not be the norm, especially when you have younger kids,” Washington said.
Washington has also influenced others to help in their neighborhood endeavors and advocate for a better and safer neighborhood.
Charmaine Evans connected with Washington to become more involved in the community. She became a block captain with the association and hopes effort she puts into beautifying the front of her house will encourage others to take pride in their neighborhood.
“I want better and I’m willing to do what’s necessary to make things better,” Evans said.
LaRhonda Butler, another block captain, held a similar role in an association before, but volunteered to work with Washington because she thought this time might be different. She wishes Edmondson Village could return to how her husband remembers it growing up. They live in his childhood home and the trash and the appearance of the neighborhood is disheartening, she says. She keeps gloves and a bag in her car so she can clean up litter as she sees it.
“If you don’t care about where you live, what will you ever care about?” Butler said.
Brandon Clayton, a man who Diggs mentored, helps Young Successful Leaders in its aim to develop 1,000 young entrepreneurs by 2030. Clayton had the idea for Young Successful Leaders in college in 2018 and credits Diggs’s background, mentorship and passion for teaching him the ins and outs of running a nonprofit.
“We both have the same passion and want to add value to the Edmondson Village community and the work that we do, and impact the youth and families that we serve,” Clayton said
On Saturday afternoons, behind an inconspicuous white door in the Edmondson Village Shopping Center, young kids in the program gather to “think tank” business ideas.
During a recent session, the group talked about mission statements, products, and what it takes to run a business. Diggs paced the front of the room with a cheek-to-cheek smile. He asked students what kind of people they should surround themselves with to be successful. They scribbled their answers on long white sheets of paper that hung in the front of the room.
Amber Brawner, 14, who attended the session, heard about the program through word-of-mouth and thought learning how to build a business could be another way to be part of a community, beyond just as a resident, in addition to her aspiration to become a criminal justice lawyer.
“This is the home of the free and the brave. But is it really free, though?” she asked.
At the end of the day, the students shuffled out and Washington and Diggs stayed back to discuss the upcoming week’s appointments and events. Seated at a desk and poring through a calendar on a computer, Washington called out the different commitments. Diggs paused and looked up, as if to take mental notes, before responding.
Their back-and-forth played out like a coordinated game of table tennis, with each wanting the same goal — to uplift a community.