Zeke Cohen strives to build a “more robust Democracy”

City Councilman Zeke Cohen represents Southeast Baltimore. Photo by Cohen staff

City Councilman Zeke Cohen represents Southeast Baltimore. Photo by Cohen staff

By Taariq Adams
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer

Zeke Cohen didn’t come to the hardscrabble streets of Charm City until he was ready for college but insists “I really grew up in Baltimore.”

“My heart is in Baltimore, I love this city,” said Cohen, who is serving a four-year term on the Baltimore City Council as a Democrat representing District 1. “I love its people. I love the neighborhood. Whatever I do, it’s going to be Baltimore and that’s where my interests lie.”

Cohen was born in Northhampton, Mass., which is known for its academics, arts, music and very liberal politics. The son of a social worker and a psychiatrist, he left home to attend Goucher College, which was first located in Baltimore City before moving to Towson.

Moving from a medium-size city of fewer than 30,000 to a metropolis more than 10 times larger did not bother Cohen one bit. He was inspired by his mother’s stories of marching for Civil Rights, and registering voters during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. He had come, not just to study political science, but to put into practice a lot of what he had learned from his parents.

“Even though I was born in Northampton, I really grew up in Baltimore,” said Cohen whose schedule was so packed with events and obligations that he was only available for a lengthy phone interview with this writer. “Baltimore adopted me I would say at the age of 18 when I went off for college.”

In his senior year at Goucher, Cohen said he became Student Government president and focused on reconnecting that college community with Baltimore City. He created the Social Justice Grant Program, which continues today to fund student-led, community-based projects in Baltimore.

After college, Cohen joined Teach For America and taught middle school students in Baltimore.

“It was probably the two most challenging but amazing years of my life, being a teacher in West and South Baltimore,” he said. “I saw first-hand the deep inequality that children in the city grow up with. Everything from housing and security, lead paint, violence, trauma, and you can see when you are teaching in Downtown or in Curtis Bay.”

Cohen said he learned first-hand “why the academic achievement gap exists and it’s not because our students in Baltimore are any less smart than anyone else.” The educational inequalities exist because “we have not built the conditions in which they can thrive,” he explained.

Cohen at the 4th Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators. Photo by Cohen staff

Cohen at the 4th Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators. Photo by Cohen staff

One of the highlights of Cohen’s career as an educator came after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005. He said he took a group of eighth graders on a service trip to New Orleans three years later. First, he said there was culture shock because many of the students had never left Baltimore. Second, the students rallied to build homes that were destroyed by the hurricane.

After Teach For America, Cohen earned a master’s degree in public policy from Johns Hopkins University and later founded The Intersection, a non-profit community activism program that teaches college readiness and civic leadership skills to inner city high school students. The teens also are encouraged to become active in city improvements.

The program won Cohen kudos from the community.

“I believe the founding of The Intersection has been very helpful in addressing youth who have potential to go on to do bigger and better things and he gives them a pathway,” Kim Trueheart, a popular community activist, said over the phone. “He gives them an enlightened perspective; he allows them to learn and give that to their community.”

Two significant laws have passed as a result of their efforts: The Maryland Dream Act and The Maryland Firearm Safety Act. The Dream Act has helped thousands of undocumented students to access higher education in the state. The Firearm Safety Act bans certain weapons and ammunitions.

As an elected member of the Baltimore City Council, Cohen, who is now married, cannot be directly involved with the group. But he insisted in the interview that he wants to continue to build a better and more robust Democracy. Cohen serves as chairperson of the City Council’s Education and Youth Committee.

“We’re still actively engaged in a third initiative called Baltimore Rising which is about creating a deeper level of citizenship for people throughout our city,” said Cohen. “We’ve done a lot of work around listening to our young people and making sure they have a seat at the table, but that is what I hope to do throughout my career.”

Trueheart said that when the city government is spending money on children, she expects Cohen’s committee to hold hearings that allow parents, residents and community leaders to speak on, review, and provide feedback on those initiatives. Cohen has taken the committee hearing out into the public to ensure that any issue about children and youth are aired in the community, she said.

Ulysses Archie Jr., co-founder of Baltimore Gift Economy, said he is pleased with other actions of Cohen. He pointed to one of Cohen’s past accomplishments in December 2016, when a contract was changed between the Maryland Transit Administration and city schools. That change negatively impacted Baltimore school students who depended on special transportation passes. The change denied the students’ rides after 6 p.m., said Archie.

“Transportation was halted for the elementary school students,” said Archie, explaining that Cohen’s solution was to make the “issue really about after school programing and not charter schools. So he made a campaign related to after school programs and not related to transportation.”

Cohen, who remembers his mother’s stories, the challenges of teaching in the inner city and the middle school trip to build homes after Katrina, points to the need for unity.

“Every day I wake up and I get to hear the crimes reports of violence, I get calls from teachers in schools who don’t have heat, we have some deep challenges and it’s going to take every single one of us to fix it,” Cohen said. “That’s fundamentally what I believe and that’s what I hope to accomplish. I hope to unite part of our city that had not been united up to this point.”

“When our young people are safe, secure, and connected to caring adults, and able to earn income and able to grow and learn, they thrive,” he said.

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