Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

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.

Hoen Deal Closes — Strong City Is Moving to East Baltimore

Efforts to revitalize once-thriving East Baltimore took a big step forward this week with the completion of financial arrangements to renovate the Hoen Lithograph Building in the Collington Square neighborhood. When work is completed in early 2020, the Hoen Building will house anchor tenant Strong City Baltimore, the nonprofit partner in this renovation and, it is hoped, eventual owner of the property. Other major tenants will include Associated Builders and Contractors — Baltimore, which will operate a regional training center there; Cross Street Partners, the project’s lead developer, which is moving from its headquarters in Canton; and City Life Community Builders, a workforce and housing-focused nonprofit.

The 85,000-square-foot Hoen Building has been abandoned for nearly four decades. This week’s financial closing marks the end of a years-long process that required the developers to assemble at least 11 sources of funding and represents a major economic investment in a section of Baltimore that has suffered from decades of neglect and disinvestment — but which is now on the cusp of a renaissance. The nearly $30 million Hoen project joins other development efforts in the area north of Johns Hopkins Hospital such as the human services nonprofit Humanim in the former American Brewery building, culinary incubator Baltimore Food Hub at the old Eastern Pumping Station, and the East Baltimore Revitalization Initiaitve (EBRI) plan spearheaded by Southern Baptist Church. Around the corner from the Hoen Building on Mura Street is The Club at Collington Square, a vital afterschool and summer camp program serving over 100 neighborhood children and operated by Strong City.

The building was occupied by A. Hoen & Co. Lithographers from 1902 to 1981, and has been abandoned since.

Georgia Smith, Chair of Strong City’s Board of Directors, says the organization’s relocation to East Baltimore reflects its commitment to “building and strengthening neighborhoods and people” going back a half-century. “There are wonderful community partners there with which we can work and support,” Smith says. “We have several programs, including our Adult Learning Center, which can offer needed services to neighborhood residents. The building itself was in need of renovation and very symbolic of the revitalizing work that we do every day with neighborhoods. The Board thought the move to the Hoen was a great way to combine our logistical need for space with the very essence of our mission.”

At its height, the Hoen Building supported thousands of jobs in a lively neighborhood of blue-collar and middle-class homes, shops, and eateries, but by the time it was shuttered, Collington Square was in sharp decline. The rebirth of the Hoen Building, by bringing activity and investment back to this section of East Baltimore, has the potential to transform the neighborhood. Strong City envisions a Center for Neighborhood Innovation at the Hoen Building, bringing together nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and visionaries in a shared space that serves the neighborhood and city with resources including workforce development, educational, and retail endeavors, as well as coworking space for nonprofits and entrepreneurs.

“For most of our 50 years, we were focused on stabilizing and strengthening neighborhoods in north-central Baltimore,” says Strong City CEO Karen D. Stokes. “But over the last decade, we have become a truly citywide organization. With our fiscal sponsorship program, VISTA program, Adult Learning Center, and educational advocacy work, Strong City touches every neighborhood of Baltimore. This move demonstrates our deep commitment to the city, especially to areas that have suffered from disinvestment and historically racist policies. And with a larger space, we will be able to increase resource sharing and capacity building with the more than 115 initiatives we support through fiscal sponsorship and fiscal management. ”

When Cross Street Partners and Strong City broke ground on the project in April 2018, the Rev. Dr. H. Walden Wilson of nearby Israel Baptist Church noted, “We can do more together than we can separately.” For 50 years, this has been our core belief at Strong City Baltimore, where forming partnerships based on trust, respect, and a shared vision has always been the key to our successful neighborhood revitalization efforts.

Strong City’s Karen D. Stokes and Cross Street Partners’ Adam Rhoades-Brown at the Hoen Building.

The restoration of the Hoen Building would not be possible without the strong support of the city and state, which together provided $2.8 million in grants (in addition to $3 million in State Historic Tax Credits). Many city and state leaders have been forceful advocates for this project. Strong City especially wishes to thank Maryland Secretary of Housing and Community Development Kenneth C. Holt, Baltimore Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman, Mayor Catherine Pugh’s office, the Baltimore City Council, and the 45th District state delegation.

Q&A with Danielle Torain of the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund

Strong City: How did the idea for the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund come about?

Danielle Torain: In 2015, the Youth Fund was proposed following the Baltimore Uprising, and in 2016 it was voted into establishment. The Uprising was a moment that shed light on the issue of a lack of equity and access, on the community level, to a range of resources. The issue was, how do you get more capital to community-based groups and populations of young people who are historically marginalized, in parts of the city that are off the radar? It’s about being able to partner with folks on ground, to understand who’s doing good work. It’s about exploring ways of embedding equity in the way we operate in the philanthropic sector. And answering the question: Once you know where those community leaders are, how do you build their institutional capacity?

The inclusive nature of the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund is not by accident. It is a result of deliberate intention by Baltimore City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young; our fiscal agent, Associated Black Charities; and community partners such as Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. These folks wanted to upend grantmaking as we know it and ensure funding for groups who are doing the crucial work of changing the community.

SC: What is your role as interim director of grantmaking and technical assistance for the Youth Fund?

DT: I oversee the portions of the team that are focused on grantmaking strategy and the delivery of technical assistance to the grantees. My counterpart, Kera Ritter, is focused on the administrative and operational parts of the fund – finance, grants and contracting administration, IT vendors.

SC: How did you get involved in this work?

DT: I was working at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and had come into partnership with a network of young adult organizers who were advocating for a Youth Fund. At Casey, we were talking about West Baltimore, how we knew there were grassroots groups that were doing amazing work there but never had the opportunity to be invested in. So there was an informal collaboration of organizers and professionals in the philanthropic space, saying this is really important, we’ve got to explore new models. We tested out different models over time – one of them being the Youth Fund.

SC: What has been the role of local fiscal sponsors such as Strong City and Fusion Partnerships in getting the Youth Fund off the ground?

DT: Arguably, the work of the Youth Fund wouldn’t even be possible in the first year without the work of fiscal sponsors. Not being a 501(c)(3) is traditionally a huge barrier, and on top of that, this is public capital – there’s all kinds of requirements based on the fact that these are taxpayer dollars. And in some cases you have groups that might not want to operate under a formal 501(c)(3), and probably shouldn’t. By partnering with a fiscal sponsor, they can operate in a more fluid way, and in addition to accessing funding, fiscal sponsors may provide advisement on how to get started and grow over time. So, we really needed good partners in the fiscal sponsor domain to reach a lot of those real grassroots organizations. The capacity building aspect became really important; you can’t be talking about financial capital without talking about the technical things that are needed at the community level. That’s where Strong City Baltimore, Fusion Partnerships, and others come into play.

SC: What will be different as the Youth Fund looks toward the future?

DT: In the first year, we were building the plane while flying it. The first year was very much about establishing a starting point for the fund and learning from that starting point. Looking at who applied, who was awarded, and where there were gaps will inform the second year. Year Two will be about learning from Year One – looking at youth populations that were underrepresented in the first round, and structuring the next RFP to figure out how to bring them into connection with the fund.

We are also thinking more about the types of supports needed to help more organizations get through this process. In Year Two, you’ll see a more targeted approach, and you’ll also see more pro-active technical support. This time we had very limited time for applicant support sessions, things like helping folks find a fiscal sponsor. We will start much earlier to offer community-based support so they have time to get through the process. In 2019, we look forward to continuing to connect the dots, work with more institutions, and I think you’ll see some really exciting partnerships and collaborations.

SC: Any additional lessons learned?

DT: There’s so much we learned about how to communicate with different networks when you’re talking about equity. For some, in-person convening is the best way. We also hear a real need for facilitating connections among people who do good work but have no idea about the great organizations that already exist: where they can access resources to help them, who they can collaborate with. In Baltimore, information flow is a big challenge at every level – lots of folks are not networked. Over time, we might see less duplication of efforts, more collaboration, more synergy. It’s about maximizing the resources we have available.

SC: How would you describe the overall goal and mission of the Youth Fund?

DT: This is all about improving outcomes for Baltimore’s children and young people by applying an equity lens to philanthropy. It’s about adding a layer of local capacity that’s currently underdeveloped. The fund contributes to reaching that goal by exploring strategies to fund community leaders and organizations that are typically marginalized – reaching some of the hardest-to-reach youth populations. And by getting them connected to opportunities they want for themselves, all of us will be better off.