Developing bold, community-driven strategies to effect lasting positive change in Baltimore
Diana Morris is the executive director of the Open Society Institute–Baltimore, the only field office for the U.S. Programs of the Open Society Foundation, an international grant-making network founded by philanthropist and investor George Soros. OSI–Baltimore works with local private and public partners, including the city’s community groups and social entrepreneurs, to diminish rates of drug addiction, incarceration, and poor education outcomes in Baltimore. For this interview, Diana spoke with Veronica Cool, Hispanic strategist and OSI–Baltimore board member, about the organization’s history, programs, and ongoing campaigns.
VERONICA COOL: How did you end up as director of OSI–Baltimore?
DIANA MORRIS: I actually started my career at the State Department. I was a legal advisor and I’ve always been interested in the rights of people and justice, but particularly interested also in people worldwide: different cultures, different contexts. So, I was really happy to be assigned the Refugee Bureau as my client. It was the first time that the [United States Refugee Act of 1980] was being interpreted, so I had that responsibility. That was the first time that we, as a country, started to accept refugees regardless of the ideology of the sending country; if there was persecution or a fear of persecution, a person was welcome, and it was no longer limited to people coming from communist countries.
From that, I was able to go to the Ford Foundation and start its refugee and migrant rights program—which now we can see is still an issue that’s highly pertinent, still needs many more creative solutions. I was there, working on that issue globally for about six years, and then had the opportunity to go to East and Southern Africa. And that really a thrilling experience for me because I was able to work much more broadly on human rights. It was also a time when some of countries, like Kenya, were moving from a one-party system to a multi-party system, and there was some real opening up. But all along the way I’ve been able to meet people who are tremendously courageous, and I’ve always appreciated that about philanthropy.
When I came back to the States, I worked first for the Blaustein Philanthropic Group, which works both locally and nationally, and internationally, and that was a good experience, working at a set of family foundations. But the great surprise was that there was an advanced team that came from the Open Society Foundations, which had just a year before started working in the United States. It had long worked in many countries around the world—particularly formerly communist countries in Eastern Europe; Haiti, South Africa—but they had just opened a program in the United States, and decided that they wanted to dig in deep in a particular urban center. There were a number of places under consideration, but luckily Baltimore was chosen and I was asked to open that office. That was about 19 years ago, and we’re still the only field office [in the U.S.], but I think it was a really wonderful choice.
Q. In your own words, can you describe OSI–Baltimore’s mission?
A. The overall mission of the Open Society Institute in Baltimore is to provide people the opportunity to realize their full talents, and to gain social and economic mobility. We know that because of past discrimination, people are really immobilized. We have high rates of poverty; one out of four people in Baltimore unfortunately live below the poverty line. We have neighborhoods that are characterized by concentrated poverty, and they reflect housing discrimination from decades ago.
People living there really are immobilized because of all sorts of barriers: sometimes inadequate schooling; sometimes poor transit; again, substandard housing—they’re kept in place and don’t have the means to sort of move out and get the kind of employment, be the kind of parent or employee they’d like to be. Our role is to really remove those kinds of discriminatory policies and practices that are holding people back, and in turn holding back the entire city and region.
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