Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

NEWFit Brings Wellness, Athletics, Structured Recess To Students in 75 Baltimore City Schools

Kevin Anderson didn’t begin with the goal of starting a nonprofit to bring afterschool athletics, structured recess, and wellness programs to Baltimore City schools that were lacking those programs.

Long before founding NEWFit, a fiscally sponsored project of Strong City, Anderson taught in Baltimore elementary and middle schools. “I was a health teacher, and around my fourth year they started phasing out health teachers,” Anderson recalls. “So I became a P.E. teacher – and around my tenth year, they started phasing out P.E. teachers.”

Anderson wasn’t interested in splitting his time between schools on different sides of the city, so he began thinking about how he could best put his love of wellness, athletics and child development to work on behalf of Baltimore City students. He came up with an idea to “fill the gaps in terms of wellness and athletic programming for elementary and middle schools in the city, because there’s a huge need.”

As a former public school and college athlete himself, Anderson was well aware of all the benefits that children receive from participating in sports: not just improved physical health but intangible values such as character building and teamwork. And yet, when he looked at the Baltimore City Public Schools, he found that options for elementary and middle school students to play sports were extremely limited – the main opportunity being a middle school basketball program capped at 30 teams, whose membership rarely changed.

Anderson took a grassroots approach to developing his program, visiting dozens of city schools to sell individual principals on the value of his idea. Many principals wanted what he was offering, but their staffs were stretched to the limits. So Anderson knew he had to make things as easy as possible for the schools. “We take care of everything – uniforms, transportation, all the logistics, all run through an app,” Anderson explains. “When a school signs up with us, all they have to come up with is a coach.”

As a vendor providing intramural afterschool sports to 75 schools last year, NEWFit has a presence in about half the elementary and middle schools in the city. Another 10 schools use NEWFit’s customized, structured recess program, which emphasizes safety and fairness, communication and conflict resolution skills, positive self-talk, and effective transitioning between activities.

NEWFit offers schools a wide range of afterschool athletic activities that vary by season, much of which can fit seamlessly with a school’s standard, academics-based afterschool program. In addition to staples like basketball, football, soccer, and volleyball, they now offer alternatives such as boxing and yoga, and are working on launching a lacrosse program.

Having younger students play intramurals brings obvious benefits – as well as some less-expected ones. Anderson has seen children’s behavior and attendance improve as a result of the program, but he has heard of potentially hostile situations between groups of youths that were defused when someone recognized a person in the other group who they had competed against. Adults have opportunities to develop themselves as well: A custodian at one school led her basketball team to three championships and is proud of the fact that the kids all call her “coach.”

Anderson points to the fact that 88 percent of NEWFit schools have renewed their contracts with him, and 94 percent sign up for more than one sport. Still, most schools in Baltimore City are financially constrained and can’t afford to meet the needs of all students who want to play. Anderson wants to be able to fully serve those schools, which is a big reason why he signed up with Strong City as a fiscally sponsored project.

“The idea is to be able to provide this to every kid, every school, regardless of financial status,” Anderson says. “Now, with the relationship with Strong City, we can pursue grants, pursue tax-deductible donations, develop a fundraising plan for different streams of revenue so we can say to principals, ‘We have these additional funds to supplement your program, so your kids can have opportunities all year round.” He also looks forward to building relationships with other fiscally sponsored projects whose missions are related to health and wellness.

The “NEW” in NEWFit stands for Nutrition, Exercise, Wellness, and the program’s early years included creativity and wellness-based summer programs, as well as a home economics-style class focused on healthy habits. NEWFit has hosted healthy living/cooking workshops at various schools for both students and staff, and next year will offer a cooking and character class focused on social-emotional components, character building, and leadership development.

Anderson is frank about using physical activities as what he calls a “Trojan horse” for his larger agenda of building character and promoting social and emotional health in younger kids. “My brothers and I, all three of us played sports, and the things we learned transcended sports,” Anderson says. “Diligence, accountability, camaraderie, resilience. … Getting good at a layup is a lot like getting good at conjugating verbs. I feel like, by not giving our kids access to these things, we’re doing them a disservice by not giving them these auxiliary experiences – the life skills that come with sports.”


Strong City’s New ‘Cohort Track’ Better Serves Beginning Fiscally Sponsored Projects

Serving as a fiscal sponsor to more than 120 community-led initiatives is a primary way Strong City carries out its mission of building and strengthening neighborhoods and people. We are about to introduce significant changes to how we integrate new fiscally sponsored projects, which will benefit both the projects and Strong City as a whole.

These changes are designed to better serve fiscally sponsored projects that are newer and have less experience with fundraising and nonprofit operations. Under this new Cohort Track, these projects will be brought into Strong City as a group, twice a year, in spring and fall. We sat down with Samantha Solomon, Strong City’s Business Development Associate, to get a better understanding of this very important aspect of Strong City’s work and why these changes were felt to be necessary.

Q: Strong City’s fiscal sponsorship program has been growing very rapidly in recent years. Why have you decided to change how new projects become part of the Strong City family?

A: We used to have this sense of urgency, that when we had a potential new project we had to get them in the door right now. What we’ve discovered is that projects that are new to the nonprofit world, if they don’t have any guaranteed funding when they first come to Strong City, they generally didn’t bring in any revenue at all for the first six months – and after that, it was generally around $1,000 to $5,000. It turns out that just bringing in projects constantly doesn’t mean those projects are bringing in revenue.

Q: How does inviting in new projects twice a year, in larger groups, address that concern?

A: We were getting feedback from projects that they needed more help – things like fundraising workshops, financial sustainability planning, information about how to apply for specific grants. We didn’t have the staff capacity to do that on an individual basis, with new projects rolling in all the time. So Grants and Development Manager Josh Clement and I developed a business plan that broke the intake process into two tracks. If you basically have no funding, have never done a budget before, and expect under $50,000 in annual revenue, then we bring you in as part of a Cohort Track, twice a year. For the other projects, with more experience and revenue, we will still have the Rolling Track, where they can join us at any time.

Q: How many projects will be included in a Cohort?

A: We anticipate 10 to 15, which is based on how many we can realistically accept at one time.

Q: Is there a significance to the time of year when Cohorts will be formed?

A: Yes, the timing is pretty intentional. We bring on projects in spring and winter, and those two time periods were picked so the spring Cohort will be on board in time for them to apply to the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund, and the winter Cohort will be able to apply for the Summer Funding Collaborative.

Q: What specific supports or benefits will Cohort Track projects receive?

A: We are going to provide the nonprofit management education that projects have been asking for. How do you think about financial sustainability and fundraising? What’s the difference between being funded by donors versus grants, the plusses and minuses – things like that. Every incoming Cohort Track project will receive a six-month curriculum including in-person sessions, workshops, and webinars. (Projects in the Rolling Track are welcome to take part in these too.) Another benefit of coming in together as a group is that project leaders get to meet other people who are being fiscally sponsored, and maybe some of them are doing complementary work and they can form partnerships. Also, the application process is not quite as strenuous – we’re not necessarily asking you to complete a draft budget, because that’s something we’re going to teach you how to do.

Q: How will this affect how Strong City staff who work with projects do their jobs?

A: For one thing, it streamlines training. These projects are all going to need the same things: learn how to be trained on our system, how to read monthly statements, set up contracts, etc., and now we can train all of them on those things all at once. Currently, if you’re a Portfolio Manager and you get two new projects a month, you have to do individual training on everything for those projects, which takes your time away from serving other projects in a way that’s more efficient. And this in turn improves efficiency for the Finance Office staff.

Q: You just used the phrase “Portfolio Manager.” What’s that?

A: Every fiscally sponsored project at Strong City is assigned to one of our four Portfolio Managers. They are every project’s first point of contact inside Strong City – the No. 1 go-to person to help manage your project, and also there to help you think about strategy around fundraising and partnership. They make sure things are properly submitted, help handle grant reporting, help set up contracts with vendors, and help project leaders think strategically if they want to expand.

Q: There’s a lot of talk these days about increasing equity in the nonprofit sector, and Strong City has given quite a bit of thought to this issue. Can you explain the equity implications of having a Cohort Track?

A: Being an expert in what your community needs doesn’t mean you know how to run a nonprofit – nor should it mean that. The basics of being a fiscal sponsor are fairly cut and dried: access to our 501(c)3 status, accounting and insurance support, donor acknowledgement. But not everyone has access to the ins and outs of fundraising and sustainability, and that’s unfair. So it’s important to us that nonprofit management education is something that we should provide. If we’re going to properly support the projects, we need to provide access to these things, so we are empowering community leaders with all the information they need so they can lead their projects with wisdom and understanding of the sector in which they’re working.

Govans Elementary Team Wins Regional LEGO Robotics Competition

The Govans Elementary School Robotics Team won top honors in the FIRST LEGO League regional competition on January 26, taking both First Place in Robot Performance and the Champions Award – the highest award at the competition, recognizing the team’s commitment to core values, excellence, and innovation. The team of 10 students defeated teams from 14 other city schools, earning its way into the state competition on February 23.

“I am so proud of our kids, I could pop,” said Sandi McFadden, Strong City’s Community School Site Coordinator for the Govans school.

Last fall, 10 students from the Govans afterschool program were selected to be on the FIRST LEGO League team, based on their love of STEM and robotics. They practiced weekly to prepare for the regional competition, even giving up their half-days to stay at school and work. The students designed, built and programmed a robot, researched the challenges astronauts face in space,  interviewed an engineer, shared their research with local medical professionals, and learned how to work together as a team and improve their communication skills.

On February 23, the Govans “Dragon Designers” joined 80 teams of students ages 9-14 from all over Maryland in the state competition at UMBC. The teams faced this year’s challenge theme of “Into Orbit” head-on: designing, building, and programming a robot to complete a series of tasks during the Robot Game. They identified a physical or social problem faced by humans during long duration space exploration and proposed an innovative solution. The Govans team created “Medic 2.0,” a pharmaceutical machine, to compound and dispense medications aboard space ships.

Although the Govans team didn’t bring home a trophy from UMBC, it was a fun and amazing experience for young engineers Aniyah, Kaylin, Talia, Khamryn, Journey, Amir, Jaden, Serigne, James and Antwain.

“On the days leading up to the State Championship, you could feel the tension and nerves in each of the Govans team members, but by the morning of the competition all that faded,” said Devon Ritchie, Program Director for LET’S GO Boys and Girls, a nonprofit that developed the Govans Robotics team and also provides STEM curriculum, teacher training, and ongoing support for the afterschool program. “They were enjoying their robotic practice time, meeting students from other teams and celebrating each of the day’s accomplishments with grace. There was a new and deeper level of confidence in each team member by the end of this day.”

The Govans Elementary afterschool program is an initiative of the Baltimore Curriculum Project’s 21st Century Community Learning Center at Govans Elementary.

Progress Report on Strong City’s Anti-Racism Collective Work With the Rev. Eric P. Lee

Strong City Baltimore is engaged in a long-term process toward becoming an organization that is not only non-discriminatory but is actively anti-racist. The Strong City Anti-Racist Collective (ARC) was formed in 2015 with the following Mission Statement: “Strong City Baltimore aspires to operate  as an explicit  anti-racist organization in Baltimore City. This means we are committed to the work of dismantling systemic racism and supporting community-led efforts to build healthy, restorative, and sustainable communities in Baltimore.”

At Strong City, we recognize that the work of becoming an anti-racist organization can never be considered “complete,” because there will always be things to learn and ways to improve.

The Rev. Eric P. Lee, Senior Portfolio Manager and Director of Neighborhood Programs, has a long history working for civil rights and social justice and is one of the leaders of ARC. With the recent observation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday still fresh, and just a few days into Black History Month, we sat down with Reverend Lee to get his perspective on Strong City’s engagement with issues of racism, equity, and justice.

Q: How and why did the ARC process get started?

A: After the Freddie Gray Uprising, staff at Strong City recognized the lack of engagement, internally, about the underlying causes for the unrest. The concern was, for an organization that characterizes its work, its identity, as community-based and sensitive to the institutional barriers that prevented entire communities from achieving a certain quality of life – it was probably a warning bell that we needed to do something different. And so a committee formed to identify opportunities for Strong City to address the issues of racial inequity and social injustice from within a white-privileged organization.

The Rev. Eric P. Lee, Strong City Senior Portfolio Manager and Director of Neighborhood Programs, has been active in the civil rights struggle for decades.

Q: What were seen as the biggest concerns from an internal, institutional point of view?

A: When you looked at the profile of Strong City at that time, the Board was probably 90 percent white, the executive management was probably 85-95 percent white, the staffing was probably close to 75 percent white. So it’s understandable why the underlying issues that led to the Uprising were not at the core of people’s thoughts or discussions or work, as they should be.

Q: What priorities did ARC identify?

A: The committee developed six primary goals for Strong City (see list below). We started doing an internal assessment of who we are: looking at hiring, personnel practices, the Board composition and how it did not represent the people we were serving, and also the work that we were doing – whether it was done through a racial equity lens, which includes our messaging, policies and procedures.

Q: What special challenges have you encountered or discovered in this work?

A: There’s a challenge with our partnerships. As a nonprofit, we depend upon funding opportunities from various philanthropic organizations that may not, quite possibly did not, operate with a racial equity lens. Even worse, they may have operated through a very privileged lens in how they disbursed funds. We can change how we operate as an organization and how we look to better reflect the communities we serve, but then the real challenge becomes: How do we impact our partners externally without compromising the funds that are needed to continue our work?

Q: It sounds like you’re talking about something that goes beyond Strong City – a deep problem with the larger philanthropic/charitable sector.

A: Yes. The philanthropic industry is not sensitive to racial equity. How do you set the policies to deal with issues of structural racism when your board is not impacted by it and may be silent about it? That silence can be more dangerous and harmful to our work than anything.

Q: Are we making progress?

A: To some extent. ARC has been meeting for years as committees, to refine our anti-racist work when it comes to the five goals. My challenge is, for five years we’ve been talking about it, but we haven’t put much teeth into it. The great thing is, at least we’ve been having these conversations, and we’re making some progress. For example, if you look at who’s joining the Board now, we have six members coming on and five are black. So we’ve moved the needle considerably – but we cannot rest on that.

Q: You’re a seasoned veteran of the fight for civil rights, including having served as past President/CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Los Angeles Chapter. How has the struggle against racism changed over the years, in your view?

A: One of the challenges here is age demographics. You have people, like me, who were actively participating in civil rights and remember the protests, Dr. King’s assassination, Malcolm X, the passage of Civil Rights legislation. For those of us who grew up in that, the perspective is different. A lot of the staff here really don’t have type of understanding because they didn’t go through the overt racism and discrimination the country operated in. But in a way, it’s even more dangerous now because a lot of what we’re fighting is more covert. The challenge going forward is being able to put some measure of accountability to address the microaggressions, the institutional/structural racism that’s not overt but subliminal.

Strong City’s ARC goals

Goal: Provide educational opportunities and experiences to staff and board to ensure a) an office culture that values and celebrates diversity and b) an authentic understanding of anti-racism and its impact on organizational mission of strengthening neighborhoods and people. 
Results: Brought in expert speakers at staff meetings such as Elizabeth Nix, Katrina Bell-McDonald, and Keith Merkey; held quarterly “Diversi-Teas” to expose Strong City staff to colleagues who are different; sponsored staff to attend relevant events such screenings of “I Am Not Your Negro” and “Charm City”; circulate monthly announcement of holidays and celebrations relevant to different identity groups; schedule ARC Brown Bag lunches.

Goal: Implement hiring strategies that results in a workforce reflective of the communities Strong City serves. 
Results: Close to half of Operations staff and Program staff now are people of color.

Goal: A Strong City Board of Directors that reflects and understands the community we serve through race, age, gender, religion, ethnicity, status, sexual orientation, and cultural diversity of its membership. 
Results: When the newest group of board members are in place, close to half the board will be African-American – a significant change from a year or two ago. Efforts to diversify the board in other ways are continuing.

Goal: Implement culturally responsive talent management practices to provide career development opportunities for all staff members.
Results: Expanded our job postings to include HBCU’s and other venues that serve a predominantly African-America clientele. Include language that clearly communicates a desire for people of color to apply.

Goal: Develop Strong City internal policy with a racial equity lens.
Results: Updated Strong City mission statement to include language promote racial equity and anti-racism.

Goal: Publicly support external partner organizations policies which explicitly work towards eliminating systemic racism and the negative impacts it has on communities served by Strong City. 
Results: Working closely with Baltimore City Youth Fund in promoting socially and racially equitable grantmaking in Baltimore.

Strong City-backed Greenmount Ave. LINCS plan moves forward

Greenmount Avenue is one of Baltimore’s most important north-south corridors. It once was a thriving hub of commercial activity and civic life – and could be so again, thanks to investments the city is making and the advocacy work of community members and Strong City Baltimore. Greenmount touches several neighborhoods where Strong City has done neighborhood and school-based organizing work – including Harwood, Barclay, and Greenmount West – and is just a mile from our future East Baltimore home at the Hoen Building in Collington Square.

After Strong City suggested corridor planning for Greenmount Avenue, Baltimore City launched the LINCS program (Leveraging Investments in Neighborhood Corridors) in 2015 to revitalize some of the city’s most important traffic corridors, starting with Greenmount. Because of Strong City’s long history of involvement with the Greenmount neighborhoods, we were selected as the lead engagement partner, ensuring that community voices would be heard and that the city agencies implementing LINCS would be responsive to local needs.

Members of Greenmount Avenue neighborhood groups discussed the LINCS plan at a meeting convened by Strong City at St. Matthew’s New Life United Methodist Church.

“Strong City was instrumental in going out to the community, getting people to meetings, and setting priorities,” according to Marshella Wallace from the Baltimore City Planning Department.

Although progress has been incremental so far, the LINCS plan is poised to take a major step forward, with many improvements about to go into effect up and down the 1.5 mile target area between 29th and Eager streets. LINCS neighborhoods were updated on the plan Saturday, February 2, at St. Matthew’s New Life United Methodist Church in Barclay, at a community meeting convened by the Rev. Eric Lee, Strong City’s Director of Neighborhood Programs and a pastor at the church. Officials from the city Planning, Transportation, Housing, and other departments attended the meeting, along with several dozen neighborhood leaders and residents.

As Reni Lawal of the Planning Department explained, “Greenmount Avenue often is viewed as a barrier, not a connector. We want our corridors to be viewed as connectors where people feel comfortable walking along Greenmount, stopping at a store or restaurant. That’s what we want for our neighborhood corridors, but it’s a heavy lift because of so many years of disinvestment and lack of coordination, which we are trying to correct.”

In 2015, the Urban Land Institute-Baltimore (ULI) issued a report outlining the following goals for the LINCS Implementation Strategy on Greenmount Avenue:

The beautiful facade and replaced sidewalk in front of the Greenmount Recreation Center are among the most visible recent improvements along Greenmount Avenue.
  • Create a corridor that is safe and accessible for multiple modes of transit through an improved street design, especially in the Greenmount West section of the corridor.
  • Create strong nodes of commercial uses at key intersections that encourage infill development along the corridor containing a broad range of uses
  • Ensure appropriate land uses are allowed along the Greenmount Avenue corridor and provide design standards for potential development sites
  • Provide the communities along the Greenmount Avenue corridor with a state-of-the-art recreation center that safely connects to MUND Park
  • Improve the appearance of the Greenmount Avenue corridor through streetscape improvements, diligent code enforcement efforts, appropriate sanitation disposal, and education.

On Saturday, Marshella Wallace reviewed some of the completed improvements, including the beautiful new façade and sidewalk replacement project at the Greenmount Recreation Center in Barclay; the sale of underutilized city-owned property at 1812 Greenmount Ave. in Greenmount West to Ernst Valery Investments Corp.; and the lifting of peak hour parking restrictions throughout the LINCS area. Ms. Wallace also noted that the new citywide zoning code generally supports the land use strategies recommended in the ULI report. Other recent improvements include:

  • Traffic signal priority system implemented for buses
  • New bike lanes installed on Preston and Biddle streets
  • Buyer identified for the historic Yellow Bowl Restaurant building
  • DMG grocery store opened at 29th and Barclay streets
  • Better code enforcement to control nuisance locations, littering, and dumping

The following upgrades/improvements are expected to be implemented soon:

Marshella Wallace from the Baltimore City Planning Department and Strong City’s Eric Lee provided updates on the LINCS implementation plan.
  • Improved pedestrian signage, ramps and curb cuts, road striping, crosswalks, and traffic calming throughout the corridor, with a protected mid-block crossing between MUND Park and Greenmount Recreation Center to be completed this spring
  • Upgraded street lighting (conversion to LED lights) and street tree plantings
  • Redevelopment of key intersections, including the northwest and southwest corners of North and Greenmount avenues
  • Create neighborhood garden/park next to the Greenmount Rec Center
  • Moving forward with demolition and acquisition/development of vacant buildings, including city-owned property in the 2600 block of Greenmount

As city officials and Strong City push forward with LINCS, neighborhood leaders are also taking action on their own. A Greenmount West Community Association representative announced the receipt of a small grant for a community project to improve public space on Greenmount between North Avenue and Hoffman Street. They will be working over the summer with MICA and the Baltimore Design School on projects such as decorating benches and painting.

Strong City is working with the Harwood Community Association and local developers to revitalize the small section of the neighborhood located east of Greenmount Avenue. More than 15 properties have been acquired for rehabilitation or demolition, and 10 of them are under rehab. The stakeholders are also working together to rezone properties along Greenmount Avenue for uses desired by the community. The ordinance needed to rezone this small area has a Planning Commission hearing scheduled for February.

The next quarterly meeting for the Greenmount Avenue LINCS Implementation Strategy is Tuesday, March 19, 1 p.m. at the Baltimore City Department of Planning, 417 E. Fayette St., 8th Floor. All who are interested are welcome to attend.