Baltimore Sun

From ‘squeegee workers’ to Baltimore ambassador­s

- By Matt McDermott Matt McDermott (mmcdermott@harveyagen­ is a Baltimore native, former city high school teacher and president of The Harvey Agency.

You don’t have to peer too hard through a suds-swept windshield to see the metaphor that inhabits every squeegee worker’s corner. The windshield as a symbol of the forces that divide us. A window that turns us into spectators of the haves and have-nots. A portal that illuminate­s the uncomforta­ble reality of failed families, schools and social policy — at 50 miles an hour, if you’re lucky enough to get the green lights at President Street.

The windshield is also a nagging reminder of Baltimore’s imaginatio­n gap. For such a quirky town, creative problem-solving in the civic sense is surprising­ly rare. Maybe because it’s hard.

It’s uncertain. And it’s often a political liability. The leadership in Baltimore, in particular, comes up short too often when it comes time to apply a little creativity to long-term problems. They employ the same methods they’ve used for years to stem population loss, improve education and boost revenue. Usually with the same results.

We can think better than that, Baltimore.

That’s why I was delighted to hear about the recent job fair initiative to give squeegee kids an alternativ­e to the streets. Props to Faith Leach, deputy mayor for Equity, Health and Human Services, who spearheade­d the effort.

For once, an approach that recognizes our kids’ reality. It identifies the essential need for most kids: making a daily living with instant funds and no bureaucrac­y. The initiative has a long game, too, connecting kids to wraparound services like mental health, education, community and job-readiness resources. It truly addresses the now and the later.

But we should never stop trying to fill the imaginatio­n gap.

In advertisin­g, your message is only as good as your understand­ing of the emotional and rational motivators that move your consumers to act or to buy.

As someone who’s been in the ad world for a hot second, I’ve made a living unearthing those deeper needs. It’s more than money that lures our kids to the intersecti­ons. It’s the ability to rightfully claim their humanity. They seek autonomy: making their own hours. They seek belonging: working alongside their friends.

Deputy Mayor Leach’s program has cracked the cash code (and, more importantl­y, the systemic challenges). But we’re not quite there yet.

Our kids have been poster children for Baltimore’s ills. It’s time they were seen as ambassador­s of Baltimore’s beauty.

At the intersecti­ons they inhabit, former squeegee workers have the ability to put their gregarious­ness to work; I have yet to meet a shy squeegee kid. I’ve spent time talking to them over donuts and pizza. They’re funny as hell and hustle like the devil.

We can’t waste that.

Invite our kids to be Baltimore’s welcome party. They already post up at most major arteries into the city. Recruit them to work that same real estate as city ambassador­s, wearing branded t-shirts, waving signs. Greet motorists and passersby as they come in. Wave. Smile. Chat. Have fun.

Rechannel that energy with the same perks. As corner ambassador­s, they can continue to hang with their friends. Continue to make their own hours. Continue to get paid daily.

Logistical­ly, it doesn’t have to be complicate­d. Encourage our ambassador­s to download a street team management app that allows them to clock in and out when they want and stay accountabl­e through opt-in GPS tracking. When they clock out (and the GPS concurs), their daily funds are delivered to their CashApp.

Why stop there? Let them lean into their hustle. Reward those who motorists and passersby recognize for being exceptiona­lly charming or helpful. Allow ambassador­s to earn bonuses for positive mentions on social media. And, ultimately, give them a chance to own their own narrative, to flip some of the unfair perception­s that have dogged them.

In the end: safer corners, fewer altercatio­ns, less fear, more smiles. And maybe Charm City reclaims a sliver of its shine.

 ?? RICHARDSON/BALTIMORE SUN KEVIN ?? A squeegee worker cleans the windshield of a car on President Street on July 8.
RICHARDSON/BALTIMORE SUN KEVIN A squeegee worker cleans the windshield of a car on President Street on July 8.

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