“My starting point for everything I do is social justice,” says Robbyn Lewis, one of three state delegates representing Maryland’s 46th District. For her, “social justice” means advocating for public health and criminal justice reform and building a green community that everyone can enjoy. Home to great wealth and great poverty, the 46th includes Harbor East as well as Cherry Hill and Curtis Bay, and is the whitest legislative district in the city—60 percent. Lewis is the district’s first delegate of color.
A public health professional, Lewis works for the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange; she’s also a respected community leader in greening, sustainability, and transit. She made a name for herself in political circles as an outspoken advocate for the Baltimore Red Line light rail project, which would have been the city’s largest public works investment in generations. “When [the Governor canceled] that,” she says, “he denied our people 10,000 jobs and billions of dollars in economic vitality.”
Lewis found herself on a political fast track around last Thanksgiving, when members of the 46th district delegation approached her to ask if she’d fill the House vacancy. Within little more than a month she went from planting trees in Patterson Park to fielding more than a hundred constituent emails a day from her office in Annapolis. The learning curve has been significant. As she puts it, “There was no time to sit around and read the manual.”
During the legislative session that ran from January into April, one of Lewis’s biggest priorities included the City’s public school funding crisis, which she feels can be solved long term with legislation. Other top priorities for her included a statewide ban on fracking, paid sick leave, renewable energy, and a statewide ban on Styrofoam. The opioid crisis remains on her agenda, as does an affordable prescription drug initiative and jobs for Baltimore.
As a member of the Environment and Transportation Committee, Lewis walks the walk: She has chosen not to own a car, one of only two legislators in Annapolis to do so.
Her passion is broad—she wants to make sure that Baltimore is fair. Development might be one of the solutions, but it should be done right. “I believe that thoughtful, equitable development that improves the lives of folks already living here, attracts new residents, and meets the bottom line is possible,” she says.
A pastor’s daughter from Pennsylvania, Tamika Jancewicz has nothing but love for the congregation she calls home—Amazing Grace Lutheran, in East Baltimore. “The songs we sing here are the spirituals I grew up with,” she says.
What she loves about Amazing Grace is its commitment to look beyond individual faith and salvation toward the community. The church, for example, hosts an array of ministries aimed at helping members of the surrounding McElderry Park neighborhood, including a “client choice” food pantry, after school program for kids, wellness center, and community garden.
Jancewicz believes that her work is out there in the world. Currently enrolled in Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, she will be doing an internship and part-time school for the next two years before she’s ordained as a pastor and waits to be called to a congregation.
“We need to be in the margins, where people are suffering,” she says.
Her journey through seminary as a woman of color has been trying at times, especially when it means pointing out unintentional micro-aggressions. “One example that happens to me often,” says Jancewicz, “is this underhanded compliment I get about how ‘well-spoken’ I am.”
She says her call is the realm of social justice, specifically overcoming racism—and that involves reconciliation, dialogue, and healing. “We must tell the truth,” she says, “even if that means living in tension.”
“We talk about how we need to reconcile, how to be a voice in the Christian world,” she says. “Sometimes that’s hard.”
These days, Jancewicz is working on “For Collard Girls,” a podcast and platform for women of color in ministry to share their experiences. What comes through in her sermons is support for people who need to be heard. Listening is divine, she tells us. Her form of resistance: helping people of color to uplift their stories.
Before last November’s presidential election, Elizabeth Alex, regional director of the Baltimore branch of CASA de Maryland, an advocacy-and-assistance organization, was working on behalf of immigrants by focusing on legislation.
Post-election, she is in what she calls a “defensive posture.”
The city’s Latino immigrant community is heavily clustered in Southeast Baltimore, in neighborhoods like Patterson Park and Highlandtown. With President Trump’s executive orders and the subsequent surges of activity by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a big part of what Alex does these days is to organize family safety workshops and know-your-rights workshops for people living in those neighborhoods.
“There’s a lot of extra trauma right now,” she says.
She’s also organizing bystander trainings, which teach allies how to support immigrants in their community, and she’s helping to build a sanctuary network, which pairs immigrant parishes with non-immigrant parishes that are geographically close to each other.
Referring to the role of churches in the providing sanctuary—they have harbored slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad and Jews hiding from Nazis—Alex says, “Historically, churches played a role in harboring, and historically, ICE would not enter churches [to make arrests]. We’ll see if that continues to be the case.”
Alex, who is the granddaughter of Greek immigrants and a two-time Peace Corps veteran, finds inspiration in what she calls “first responders”—teachers, pastors, neighbors—who respond to hate crimes and bullying by offering their support.
The current political climate is creating emotional turmoil in the immigrant community, she says, noting, “This is especially stressful for young people.” But the network of concerned citizens and allies is stepping up with childcare, transportation, paperwork and so on.
Recently, Alex accompanied two women to their ICE appointment in the federal building. “It’s scary to go by yourself,” she says. “But this time they had someone there for them.”