Former NAACP President Ben Jealous Raises $1M Fund to Support Out-of-Work Baltimoreans

Ben Jealous, former NAACP president and Maryland gubernatorial candidate, has launched a new relief fund aimed at supporting Baltimore-area workers that are struggling or have lost their jobs amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

After calling on friends and contacts he's made throughout his experiences in the business and political spheres, Jealous has raised more than $1 million through donations for the Maime & Jerome Todd Relief Fund, named for Jealous' grandparents. Initially, the fund will distribute $550,000 to four organizations that provide support to workers in Baltimore’s restaurant and hospitality industry.

The first organizations to receive funding include: Food With a Focus, a food distribution program serving vulnerable Baltimore communities; Casa de Maryland, an organization that provides support and advocacy for local Latino and immigrant populations; Keys Development, a community wellness and social services organization; and the Education and Support Relief Fund of Unite Here Local 7, a union affiliate representing hotel, gaming and food service workers throughout the state.

Unite Here will receive the largest initial sum, of $250,000. The organization reported that about 95% of Baltimore's unionized hotel and restaurant employees have been laid off in the past 10 weeks due to coronavirus. The other three organizations will each receive $100,000.

Jealous said a phone call in March from his longtime friend Roxie Herbekian, president of Unite Here Local 7, spurred him to try and raise the relief funds. Herbekian was in a "panic," Jealous recalled, because she knew a large majority of her union's local members would be impacted by coronavirus-related shutdowns.

"We started to see, within a matter of weeks, thousands of hospitality workers, restaurant workers, food service workers, event workers, casino workers being laid off," Herbekian said. "[These are] folks who under normal circumstances are often just living paycheck to paycheck."

Jealous couldn't help but think about how his maternal grandfather, who had moved to Baltimore early in the Great Depression, relied on his union job as a dishwasher to help support his family through another extremely difficult time in the nation's economic history.

"To hear more than 90% of the unionized hotel and restaurant employees were preparing to file for unemployment just shook me to my core," Jealous said. "Because I knew without that job, without that union job as a dishwasher, the bottom could have fallen out for my mom’s family and everything could have turned out very, very differently."

Jealous said he was inspired to help and sent an email to dozens of contacts he has developed throughout his career, mentioning how important union jobs had been in his own family's history, with that hope that many of them would want to help as well. Donations started coming in from folks from all over, from Maryland to California, ranging in size from $2.50 to much larger sums. Jealous said it has been one of the most "humbling and affirming" experiences of his life to see so many of his friends and colleagues step up and be willing to help however they can.

Herbekian said her organization will use the grant from the Maime & Jerome Todd Relief Fund to provide direct assistance to both union and non-union hospitality workers in Baltimore who are facing difficulty supporting themselves and their families amid the ongoing crisis. She noted that the sudden loss of income due to Covid-19 came just as hospitality workers were gearing up for "the really busy season." All of the folks who rely on earning their money from increased tourism, or at conventions and baseball games in the spring and summer, could potentially suffer several more weeks or months of losses.

"Given that our industry depends on travels and depends on people being in close quarters, it may not come back very quickly. So we are very very grateful for this financial assistance," Herbekian said. "This money will go a long way to help people keep afloat."

This article originally appeared in the Baltimore Business Journal on May 28, 2020