Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

Neighborhood Institute Coming to BCCC in March 2020 With Theme of ‘Building Civic Power’

Audience at 2017 Neighborhood Institute opening remarks.

Neighborhood Institute is back! Strong City Baltimore’s signature annual event is returning in spring 2020 with a new venue, new partners, and a special focus on civic engagement through participation in the electoral process, the Census, and public service. The annual skill-building and networking conference for neighborhood leaders, nonprofit professionals, and activists will be organized around a theme of “Building Civic Power.”

The 12th annual Neighborhood Institute will be held on Saturday, March 28, 2020, at Baltimore City Community College, an exciting new space for this event. Strong City is moving in January 2020 to the Hoen Building in East Baltimore, but we are a citywide organization, and this partnership with one of West Baltimore’s most important institutions reinforces our commitment to the whole city. The venue is also conveniently located just a few blocks from the Mondawmin transit hub.

“In 2020, Baltimore residents have a special opportunity to build power within the institutions of our democracy by engaging with the Census, encouraging registration and voting, and promoting good governance.”

“We are pleased to bring Neighborhood Institute to West Baltimore and look forward to a fruitful partnership with Baltimore City Community College, which shares our goal of building and strengthening neighborhoods and people,” says Strong City CEO Karen D. Stokes.

For the first time at Neighborhood Institute, Strong City is joining forces with other civic-minded local organizations in response to the special opportunities presented in 2020 by major national and local elections and the decennial Census. Neighborhood Institute will include presentations and discussions curated by the Baltimore Planning Department’s Census team, OSI-Baltimore, and Strong City fiscally sponsored projects such as Baltimore Votes and Step Up Maryland.

“Neighborhood Institute is always about civic engagement,” says Mike Cross-Barnet, Strong City’s Communications and Special Projects Coordinator and an organizer of Neighborhood Institute. “In 2020, Baltimore residents have a special opportunity to build power within the institutions of our democracy by engaging with the Census, encouraging registration and voting, and promoting good governance.”

Although some things are new this time, Neighborhood Institute will maintain its familiar structure of workshops led mainly by community members and organized into various “tracks.” As in the past, these tracks will be formed organically, based on the response to our request for proposals, which will be going out next month. In past years, we have presented tracks on themes including Nonprofit Management, Neighborhood Revitalization, Skill Building for Community Leaders, Greening, and Fundraising and Grant Writing. We hope to bring back some of our most popular presenters, but there will be plenty of spots for new workshops, too.

The first Neighborhood Institute was launched in 2007 in a church basement, with a handful of workshops and about 60 people in attendance. The event now draws 350 to 400 participants for a full day of workshops and conversations, and includes breakfast and lunch. It is Strong City’s biggest annual event and has become an indispensable training and networking conference for local community leaders. Check for updates on Strong City’s social media. Or, sign up for our newsletter below to get alerts straight to your inbox!

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We don’t need legislation to crack down on anonymous owners of Baltimore’s vacant property

By Peter Duvall
Originally published in The Baltimore Sun on September 3, 2019

A well-intentioned bill introduced by Baltimore City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett would require owners of vacant properties to post a sign on the building including the name, address, phone number and email of the owner or record, “managing operator,” or head of any business that owns the property. Any property in default or foreclosure would have to include the name, address and phone number of all creditors or lien holders. This bill correctly seeks to find and identify the owners of vacant houses and hold them accountable. However, an even better solution exists – in a law that is already on the city’s books.

More than a decade ago, the city enacted its current property registration statute. However, the statute appears never to have been fully enforced. Based on my 15 years of experience in this area, when the community complains about a problem rental property or vacant property, the property usually turns out to be unregistered. The statute also makes it difficult for the public to gain access to owner contact information for properties that are properly registered.

The city’s practice of not seeking out unregistered properties was a minor annoyance until last year, when the city implemented rental property licensing for single-family and two-unit rentals. Expanded rental licensing raises the stakes for nonregistration because property owners who fail to register now also avoid the need for inspection and licensing (at least in the short run).

Under a provision in last year’s ordinance, the owners of unlicensed properties may eventually run into problems enforcing their leases in Rent Court. Unless or until that happens, they avoid spending their time and money on compliance. The current policy is quite unfair to those who comply with the registration and licensing requirements because their noncompliant competitors currently face no consequences for skirting the law.

At Strong City, we have some experience in this area. The strategic code enforcement program that I have overseen for a decade helped reduce the number of vacant houses in a group of central Baltimore communities by over 70 percent – from 732 to 218 – between 2009 and 2019. Our methods, developed and refined over many years, are considered a model for how the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and communities can work together to reduce blight. But no single initiative is sufficient to tackle this problem; the magnitude of the vacant-house issue in Baltimore requires the use of a variety of tools.

Before passing new laws, the city should begin the process of identifying unregistered properties. The first step might be for DHCD to send letters to all owners of unregistered residential properties that do not have Homestead status (a voluntary registry of resident homeowners that creates eligibility for the Homestead Tax Credit). Property owners would be able to respond that their property is owner-occupied or nonresidential, which if true would end the enforcement process. The owner could also respond that he or she is beginning the registration process. If there is no response from the owner, DHCD could issue a failure to register citation. (All non-owner-occupied residential properties – including vacant properties – are required to register, though unoccupied properties are not required to be licensed.)

The City Council bill gets at some of the same issues, but not as systematically. Strong City understands the proposed legislation’s goal of making it easier to identify the owners of vacant properties. We believe the same objective could be achieved by changing the rental registration statute to allow the city to release the owner’s contact information for registered vacant properties. The fines collected from property owners who fail to register would more than pay for an effective enforcement effort.

One very real concern about fully implementing the existing registration and licensing ordinances is that many currently unregistered properties are unsafe. Instead of doing the repairs required to bring properties into safe condition, owners may decide to ease out the tenants without a formal eviction process. We suggest the licensing requirement be phased in over more than a year to allow ample time for rental properties that are discovered during the registration implementation process to become fully compliant with the property licensing requirements. Of course, houses that are clearly unsafe need fast action to cure major safety issues.

The bottom line is that DHCD already has powerful tools at its disposal that it has thus far not used. The impulse to publicly shame negligent property owners is certainly understandable, but the existing property registration statute could be used much more effectively to address multiple underlying problems.

Peter Duvall is the community revitalization coordinator for Strong City Baltimore. His email is

Effect on Strong City of Ransomware Attack and Proactive Audit of Associated Black Charities

Daffodils in front of row houses. Photo by Avi Werde.

Baltimore City and its nonprofit and philanthropic sectors have been challenged by several chaotic events over the past six months. The most significant of these have been the ransomware attack on the City’s information technology systems, an audit of Associated Black Charities’ management of the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund (BCYF), and impactful changes in Baltimore City’s political leadership 

The ransomware attack is causing a substantial delay in the normal operation of city contract and payment systems, among many other problemsAnd the BCYF audit is further delaying the processing of about $5 million in grant payments (which were already behind) to Baltimore’s communities 

Many of our fiscally sponsored projects, fiscally managed clients, and direct programs receive funding through contracts and grants with Baltimore City and/or were awarded funding through the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund. 

Strong City Baltimore’s daytoday operations have been acutely impacted in the wake of these challenges, which have also affected our initiatives and their community partners.  

Daily, our staff are working with extremely delayed processing of city contracts, increased scrutiny of reports required to facilitate payment to Strong City and its initiatives, and a sixmonth lag in payments for work already completed.  

Fortunately, Strong City’s fiscal sponsorship and management structures have cushioned some of the impact of these delays until only recently. Other organizations operating with reimbursable funding from Baltimore City started to feel the impacts of these challenges in April 2019, whereas Strong City’s initiatives have mostly continued with business as usual.  

Now, Strong City is straining to maintain the cushion, and our initiatives have begun to feel some of the adverse effects.  The situation necessitates Strong City staff spend large amounts of time to overcome the city’s reactions to these crises – working with the city and funders to verify and re-verify that invoices and reporting are complete and accurate, following up on delayed payments, and interfacing with city leadership to ensure accountability on contract and payment approval timelines. It has prevented our staff from focusing on day-to-day operations and has delayed our yearend close and audit.  

We are working with Baltimore City, Associated Black Charities, BCYF leadership, initiative leaders, and other organizational partners to get these matters resolved as quickly as possible so we can return to our standard operations. We are also implementing new policies and procedures that will help us resume business as usual and be better prepared to address similar challenges in the future.   

We hope that while these struggles continue to take their toll on Baltimore, Strong City, and our beloved communities, we can rely on the patience and trust of initiative leaders, vendors, and other stakeholders. Thank you for your continued support at this time. 

Baltimore is strong and so are we. 

Media Inquiries: 

Samantha Solomon
Digital Media and Communications Manager
(410) 397-0582 

Initiative and Partner Inquiries: 

Tyson W. Garith
Director of Operations
(410) 261-3509 

Reflections from our summer Student Leaders

From left to right: Sha-Shonna Rogers, Zion Olibris, Laya Neelakandan, and Faith Ngundi

This summer Strong City is hosting four Bank of America Student Leaders. Our leaders are from local high schools and join 220 other students around the country in a paid, eight-week internship that includes professional development and a Student Leader Summit in Washington, D.C. With summer coming to a close, we asked the leaders to reflect on their time at Strong City. Read their words.

Sha-Shonna Rogers, Events

First, I would like to thank Bank of America-Student Leaders for this amazing opportunity to be able to partake in this internship at Strong City Baltimore. I would also like to thank Strong City Baltimore for allowing me in their space, as well as my fellow student leaders.

Throughout my time at Strong City, I have learned many things about event planning. In the beginning of my internship, when I found out that I was going to be working in the Events planning department, I was excited because I had prior experience in event planning. In the first week, I learned the basics of researching what it takes to host an event, such as venues, and then put that information in a spreadsheet. After that assignment, I caught the hang of making spreadsheets, and they became my “right hand man” along with my amazing supervisor, Ms. Dana. And, although I spent most of time on creating spreadsheets and researching, I have also seen the in-depth process of event planning that I did not know about before. For example, starting to plan for an event many months in advance and thinking about all the what-ifs. Before this internship, I had always procrastinated with planning events because I frequently  thought any event could be thrown together quickly as long as the right tools were in place. However, this internship has shown me differently and has opened my mind to different ways to plan events. I also really enjoyed seeing the different positions and roles within a nonprofit organization, like Strong City.

I really enjoyed this internship and everything that I have learned from it.

Zion Olibris, Development

My time working at Strong City Baltimore has been one of my most enriching life experiences. I have learned a wide variety of new skills and information about nonprofits that I will be able to take with me and use for the rest of my life. I have been tasked with many things, ranging from grant prospecting, to correcting errors in data entry, all the way to working on a social media campaign for the 50th anniversary.

I feel that Strong City was the best possible nonprofit to intern for because it practices fiscal sponsorship. This not only expanded my knowledge about Strong City as a nonprofit, but also allowed for me to look at the many other nonprofits that they sponsor. I learned about the different types of nonprofits that exist and how they do their work and sustain themselves. The giving nature and the helpful environment at Strong City has helped me to adapt to life at a nonprofit and expand my desire to help a wider network of people. It was inspirational to visit The Club at Collington Square, a program of Strong City, with the other student leaders. Seeing the work that the people there put in to give kids a place to go after school and during the summer showed me how important it is to educate and keep kids safe in a neighborhood that isn’t the best.

Overall, my experience at Strong City has changed my view of the way that nonprofits can affect the communities that they reside in. Though the nonprofit sector requires a lot of hard work and dedication, the impact that they have on the communities that they serve makes it worthwhile.

Laya Neelakandan, Adult Learning Center

Interning at the Adult Learning Center (ALC) this summer has been a transformative experience for me. Through the various assignments I have been given, I have learned a lot about adult education, the learners themselves, and how the nonprofit world works. I have had the privilege to see the impact literacy can have on adults, as well as their infectious joy for learning. I have learned their names, their stories, and their likes and dislikes, having had conversations ranging from the Industrial Revolution to subjects as whimsical as magic. I have enjoyed learning more about how the ALC operates, secures grants, and structures classes. My assignments have included designing a PowerPoint presentation about the ALC, making registration flyers for the fall, entering data about the learners into Excel sheets, and filing their papers. I have been able to experience every aspect of the nonprofit program.

The most rewarding part of my experience has been the people–my amazingly selfless supervisors and the incredibly kind people next door at the main office. And, of course, the learners, on whom I have seen the classes make a tangible impact.

As my internship comes to a close, I know almost all of the morning learners, and seeing their progression from addition to algebra and improving English skills has been truly gratifying. Learning how this nonprofit works has been an amazing experience, and I will definitely bring this knowledge with me as I prepare to enter the real world.

I am immensely grateful to the ALC, Strong City Baltimore, and Bank of America for this meaningful experience and for making my summer one that I will never forget.

Faith Ngundi, Project Services

This summer, I have had the distinct privilege of working at Strong City Baltimore, a nonprofit organization that has boosted my capacity to effect real-world change, as it does for so many in Baltimore. One main responsibility guided all of the wide-ranging tasks I completed: help improve communications between Strong City and its initiatives.

Before I could fulfill this responsibility, I needed to understand the essence of Strong City Baltimore. I met my supervisor, Director of Operations Tyson Garith, who introduced me to the concept of fiscal sponsorship through the book Fiscal Sponsorship: 6 Ways to Do it Right by Gregory L. Colvin. This was the foundation on which my understanding of the role and benefits of fiscal sponsorship was built. Following this introduction, I was encouraged to sit in on a meeting with project leaders to discuss an upcoming event. I grew to appreciate the organization’s role as capacity-builders that support valuable and enriching community work.

Over the past 7 weeks, I have accomplished numerous communications-related tasks, including: analyzing the weekly Resource Email to all initiatives, reviewing initiatives’ web presence, sending staff emails, joining meetings, conferencing with project leaders, and updating resource pages. I helped kickstart a project through Listen4Good, a program that guides organizations in executing a client feedback process to improve social relations. Under Assistant Director of Operations Kim Lillig’s direction, I created a staff survey, client survey, and Strong City feedback process timeline. Although I have thoroughly enjoyed much of my work here, this assignment was the most exciting.

To say my time at Strong City has been a teaching experience would be an understatement. I have learned, I have empathized, I have connected; but most of all, I have been challenged as both an employee and as a person, an experience for which I am extremely grateful.

‘Strong Voices, Strong City’ concert honors a legacy of faith-based work in Greater Homewood

University Baptist Church in Charles Village, a past member of the Greater Homewood Interfaith Alliance.

Strong City Baltimore CEO Karen D. Stokes likes to say that great things often start in church basements. The first Strong City Neighborhood Institute, back in 2007, was held in one. The organizing work that Strong City did in Remington had its origins in meetings at Guardian Angel Episcopal Church. And for 30 years, the Adult Learning Center has operated out of the basement of our next-door neighbor, University Baptist Church.

Strong City, of course, is a strictly secular institution, but it has longstanding ties to local faith communities. Perhaps the clearest example of this was the deep connection between Strong City (then known as Greater Homewood Community Corporation, or GHCC) and a coalition of churches that was active in the late 1990s and early 2000s as the Greater Homewood Interfaith Alliance (GHIA).

To celebrate Strong City’s 50 years of work in “Greater Homewood” (several dozen neighborhoods near the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus) and to support our current and future endeavors, the Churches of Charles is presenting a special choral fundraiser on Saturday, September 28, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation on University Parkway. The concert, from 4 to 5 p.m., will feature choirs from Cathedral of the Incarnation, First English Lutheran Church, Saints Phillip and James Catholic Church, Second Presbyterian Church, and University Baptist Church. It will be followed by a reception. Buy tickets here

“GHCC was always very important for picking up on things that we at GHIA needed to explore or emphasize, and promote to our congregations. Very often, the information that we gathered to be disseminated to our congregations came from GHCC, which knew where the action was – they were a real player in the Greater Homewood Renaissance and continued to be a player afterward.”

Don Burggraf was pastor of First English Lutheran Church in Guilford for more than 25 years and a Strong City Baltimore board member for a decade, before retiring from both in 2016. He recalls the GHIA growing out of the Greater Homewood Renaissance, an initiative of local anchor institutions to improve education and social conditions in the Greater Homewood area. Education became a primary focus for GHIA, Burggraf says, with projects including “Extra Mile,” which raised thousands of dollars for basic needs like pencils and bathroom supplies; and “Sock It To Me,” which donated more than 1,000 pairs of socks to families that needed them.

GHIA formed in the late 1990s and forged partnerships with about a half-dozen local schools at a time when schools in Greater Homewood were also a heavy focus of Strong City’s work (our advocacy, for example, helped spur the building of a brand new Waverly Elementary/Middle School). So it was natural that GHCC and GHIA would work hand in hand.

“Bill Miller made GHIA a priority,” Don says of Strong City’s former executive director. “Bill, and later Karen Stokes, almost always attended our strategy sessions. I remember Karen saying that she looked at GHIA as an organization that could be a moral anchor for what GHCC was all about.”

He added: “GHCC was always very important for picking up on things that we at GHIA needed to explore or emphasize, and promote to our congregations. Very often, the information that we gathered to be disseminated to our congregations came from GHCC, which knew where the action was – they were a real player in the Greater Homewood Renaissance and continued to be a player afterward.”

Sharon Smith, former pastor of University Baptist Church who now leads the Christian community The Gathering, recalls that GHIA meetings would sometimes draw leaders from more than 20 congregations, with a geographic area ranging from Govans down to North Avenue and over to the Jones Falls Expressway. Others heavily involved in GHIA’s early days included Rev. Dale Dusman of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Father William A. Au of Saints Philip and James Catholic Church, and Bishop Douglas Miles of Koinonia Baptist Church.

Sharon says that GHIA, with help from GHCC, was able to focus the energy and activities of multiple congregations around community involvement. “Bill Miller came to our meetings and was very involved and supportive in letting people know about community needs, and aligning the resources,” she says. “There were things going on in every corner of the neighborhood, but the person on 28th Street didn’t know what the person on 26th Street was doing. We’d have our meetings at different churches and have different speakers, and we’d learn so much about the things people were doing.”

She said that when she and other pastors started talking to local school principals, it was eye-opening because many of the congregations on the Charles Street corridor are relatively affluent. Sharon says about 40 women came to her house for a two-hour meeting with Irma Johnson, principal of Dallas Nicholas Elementary School. “Irma said, ‘I lose my girls to the streets from fifth to sixth grade,” Sharon recalls the principal saying.

Sharon’s daughter, Heather Harvison, was there that night, and the meeting changed her life, inspiring her to devote herself to helping middle-school girls through that difficult period. The program that Heather conceived that evening, the nationally recognized nonprofit Sister’s Circle, has made a difference for hundreds of girls in Baltimore since it launched in 2008.

Bill Miller describes the GHIA-GHCC nexus as a partnership whose benefits flowed in two directions by creating “new connections” on both sides. He points out that the churches’ donations and volunteer involvement in GHCC-supported schools made those schools stronger, and that the churches benefited GHCC by making space available for meetings and community events that were not necessarily GHIA-related.

GHIA also provided links to other organizations that became important to GHCC’s organizing, including Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) and the Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation (GEDCO). Another point of connection: For two years, GHCC placed a VISTA service member with GHIA to work on strengthening the organization.

Bill says he was very impressed with the GHIA members’ commitment to local public schools – not just donating and volunteering, but traveling to Annapolis to lobby state officeholders. He recalls that Baltimore changed school superintendents often during that time, and that GHCC utilized GHIA as a vehicle for reaching those key leaders. “Every time there was a new superintendent, the GHIA invited them to speak and developed a connection for us, which was something we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise,” he says. “In the summer of 1998, they were involved in sponsoring a back-to-school rally on one of hottest summer days ever, and they had the new superintendent with them. They were very important to that strategy.”

Although the GHIA ceased its activities about 10 years ago, some of its spirit lives on in the smaller group Churches of Charles, which holds annual service events and other projects, and is sponsoring the “Strong Voices, Strong City” fundraiser on September 28.

“It was good while it lasted,” Sharon Smith says of the GHIA. “We were able to respond to an issue as a cohesive unit, and that had some influence.”