Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

Impact Taskforce: What Was Learned, What Comes Next

In July 2015, three months after the Baltimore Uprising that drew national attention to our city, the Corporation for National and Community Service approached Strong City with the unique opportunity to host a group of AmeriCorps VISTA service members in Baltimore. This goal of this group would be to build capacity and improve the effectiveness of, and connections among, youth programs and services in Baltimore to address youth violence prevention and workforce development, with a focus on the tenets of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

This resulted in the creation of the AmeriCorps VISTA Impact Taskforce, an initiative unlike any other in Strong City’s more than 20-year history as a VISTA sponsor. For the last 18 months, VISTA Program Coordinator Kate McGrain has been the Strong City staff person most closely involved in the work of the Taskforce: identifying its primary partners, recruiting its members, overseeing their work, dealing with challenges that cropped up along the way, evaluating the program, sustaining relationships, and working on next steps.

Now that the Impact Taskforce members have finished their year of service, we asked Kate to spend a few minutes reflecting on why the Taskforce was created, what it accomplished, and what’s next.

Q: How did you decide on an area of focus for the Taskforce?

A: In the initial planning process, I conducted informal interviews with over 30 local community organizations, government agencies, and other interested stakeholders who were serving youth. From these interviews, organizations indicated that they needed increased staffing resources – program development, volunteer management, curriculum development. More even than a desire to receive the support of a full-time volunteer for a year, the partners we met with expressed a desire for increased connectivity.  “We’re doing good work,” they all told us, “but I’m not sure anybody knows what we’re doing, or how they can get involved with us.”  Similarly, many of these groups were interested in getting involved collaboratively with other groups who were working in their sector.  So, this idea of connectivity among youth service providers became a central focus of our Taskforce.

Q: What was Strong City’s response to this need for greater communication and awareness?

A: We identified 15 partner organizations who agreed to engage in a collaborative exercise over the next 12 months. A VISTA member would partner with each individual organization, working toward specific goals unique to each site, and also to bring their lessons learned and their organizational perspectives back to a collaborative group discussion.

Q: Can you give a few concrete examples of how the Taskforce’s work made a difference?

A: Sure! The Taskforce member partnering at the Inner Harbor Project helped develop a year-long leadership curriculum for eighth-graders, and she then leveraged partnerships with fellow VISTA members and Strong City programs to recruit students. Another example: The Taskforce member at Strong City’s Adult Learning Center developed a new volunteer program, the Learner Advocate Program, to provide learners with wrap-around and barrier-removal services, as well as important soft skills through one-on-one relationships with professionals with whom they were matched. In addition, VISTA Taskforce members supported Strong City in leading the community engagement effort of Baltimore’s Participatory Budgeting pilot process for the new City Council-managed youth fund, connecting with over 300 individuals and youth-focused organizations.

Q: Are any of the Taskforce members remaining in service beyond the initial year?

A: We have one member who is doing a second year of VISTA service to continue the work of the Taskforce. Another Taskforce member will be joining the team at Strong City in the coming month as an AmeriCorps VISTA Leader. Several other Taskforce members, although they will not be serving as VISTAs, indicated that their year of Taskforce service was transformative, and that they are committed to continuing to serve and give back to their communities, which is awesome.

Q: Now that the Taskforce’s year of service has ended, what’s the plan for making the work sustainable?

A: Sustainability is all about making sure that the impacts the VISTA members made are put to good use for the long term.  We are closing out the Taskforce right now by documenting their findings on collaboration, synthesizing the data they collected at their individual sites, and maybe most importantly, we will be producing a database and map of all the youth service provider partners with whom the Taskforce interacted. This information will be shared with the existing network of 250 organizations and individuals, as well as an emerging network of stakeholders who are interested in continuing this collaborative conversation, helping to increase the capacity of youth service providers and programs by providing tools and resources to support collaboration.

Q: You mentioned the creation of a map of youth service providers. Can you tell us a little more about that?

A: Yes, the VISTA Impact Taskforce developed an initial map depicting the youth programming services and providers they identified or interacted with during their service year. Moving forward, our goal is to use this map to further foster interconnectivity among programs, organizations, and individuals. The map will be in an accessible format so that organizations will be able to easily access its information and locate similarly focused potential partners, to increase collaboration.  We are also excited that the collaborative stakeholders are interested in pooling their data to increase the breadth of resources represented on the map.

Q: What is Strong City’s role going forward?

A: Strong City has the resource of one full-time staff member and one VISTA member during 2017. We hope that our work will support the development of a shared agenda among youth service providers to identify and connect with one another. While Strong City will serve as a support to this network, we will not be leading the effort; our goal is that our partners become the leaders and decision-makers. Our ideal vision is a dynamic and inclusive network of youth service providers that will identify and help to implement a citywide agenda, and corresponding strategic plan, for youth service providers in Baltimore.

Q: What additional outcomes are envisioned?

A:  We anticipate that the benefits will eventually include less duplication of services, more high-quality programming, and more effective use of funds from donors, philanthropies, and government agencies in supporting youth. We also anticipate increased connectivity among providers of services to the benefit of the youth being served, and to the City of Baltimore as a whole.

Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced as Taskforce coordinator?

A: Collaboration is hard; you’re managing different perspectives, backgrounds, passions, and interests all while keeping the work at the center and moving forward. It takes time to build relationships, to coordinate schedules and often, to let ideas marinate before action can happen. There’s discomfort, ambiguity, and things are changing constantly. But ultimately, that’s how collaboration is successful: Acknowledging the time it takes, seeing the value added by different perspectives, being flexible, and knowing when and how to take next steps.

Q: What was the most rewarding (or surprising) thing for you about leading this program?

A: It has been an honor to connect with and learn from people every day – the VISTA Taskforce members, my coworkers, and most significantly, the incredible network of youth service providers in Baltimore. There is so much good work happening in this city. I am grateful and humbled to be in a position that allows me to meet and connect with the folks doing this important work.

Q: Did anything interesting arise from your recent meeting with people around the city who are doing similar/related work?

A: The group of stakeholders expressed shared interest in working together to continue to connect people and organizations at all levels throughout the city. We’re taking next steps under their guidance.


Coffee, creativity, and community

Andre Mazelin’s goal in life was not to own a coffeehouse. room-1He was happy enough in his job as Operations Director for the Creative Alliance. But when he saw the “for rent” sign on the former Red Emma’s building at the corner of St. Paul and Madison streets in his neighborhood of Mount Vernon, he was intrigued.

“It was a very raw space, but I saw the potential with where it was  a great corner in a great neighborhood,” Mazelin says.

That flash of inspiration is what led to the May opening of the Room, a small space with a whole lot going on: artisan sandwiches and salads for the lunch crowd, exotic coffee blends for caffeine seekers, beer and wine at the bar. Like most coffeehouses these days, there’s wi-fi so you can scan the news or bang out your novel as you look up through the big glass window at  throom-2e passers-by on St. Paul.

Open Monday through Saturday, the Room also offers a catering menu and recently joined the Foodify network, the platform Strong City is using to help connect exemplary, locally owned establishments to catering opportunities at area nonprofits and corporations seeking to support neighborhood enterprises.

Mazelin wants the Room to be a real “community space,” and to that end he has made it available for special events  so far, candle-making workshops and a poetry reading — and also welcomes small-scale gatherings, as space allows (the café seats about 35). He doesn’t have an entertainment license, so live music is not an option right now, but Mazelin’s goal is to make The Room a place for creative people to share their talents.

One way he accomplishes that is by inviting local artists to display their works on the walls, including two permanent pieces: a large, eye-catching ceiling mural by Solely Supreme and a painting of a cityscape with flowers by Matt Muirhead that takes up a large section of the back wall.

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In addition to local artists, Mazelin is using his space to give a boost to local culinary artisans and craftspeople, for example by featuring cookies from Hvmble Vegan Kitchen, coffee from Thread/Red Emma’s, and a variety of local beers. To realize his vision for the bar area, Mazelin turned to the small Baltimore firms Majer Metal Works and Cedar & Cotton.

Mazelin, a native of Jamaica who has been in Baltimore since 2006, says he is happy to do his part to showcase the creative skills of Baltimoreans, whether the medium is baked goods, paintings, or repurposed furniture.

“There’s a lot of talent in Baltimore,” says Mazelin, adding that he enjoys “working with folks to provide a platform for them — an opportunity for them to show what they can do.”

As part of our Community Wealth Building initiative, Strong City is highlighting local businesses that put residents and communities first, valuing equity, inclusion, and sustainability.


Overseas flavor, home-grown opportunity

After the unrest that tore through Baltimore in April 2015, Mohammed Agbodjogbe knew he had to do something to help his adopted home city. Since arriving in Baltimore from Senegal in 1999, Agbodjogbe had focused on building a number of businesses and making nailahs.1a better life for himself and his family. Now, he decided, it was time to give back.

Agbodjogbe had operated a successful convenience store and carry-out in downtown Baltimore, but he had bigger plans. In July, he held the grand opening of Nailah’s, a well-appointed restaurant on York Road, just south of Belvedere Square, featuring authentic Senegalese dishes such as lamb and peanut butter stew or Thiebou Djeun, Senegal’s national dish of fish, tomato sauce, vegetables and rice. At the same time, he is developing a long-vacant property at 400 N. Howard St. where he is opening another restaurant, Nailah’s Kitchen, along with an organic market, three floors of apartments, and housing for a nonprofit he is forming called the ASA Foundation. He is branching out with a food truck as well.

The goal of the ASA Foundation, Agbodjogbe says, will be “to empower youth for better education, and also offer them opportunities where they don’t have access to gangs and drugs.”  Agbodjogbe says he was dismayenailahs.2d to see how the cycle of poverty and addiction was being transmitted from one generation to the next in so many families in the neighborhood. Maybe, he thought, he could do something to help.

“I want to break that cycle,” he says, “give them some guidance, opportunities where they can believe in themselves.”

To that end, Agbodjogbe has pledged to set aside 25 percent of the profits from the two restaurants for his nonprofit foundation, which he expects to be up and running by the end of September. He plans to use the space for after-school programming during the week, and intends to pay local youths to help clean up the neighborhood on weekends. Some teens may be hired to work in the restaurant part-time. And Agbodjogbe has bigger ambitions: to build the foundation up to the point where he can offer scholarships to promising students.nailahs.4

Agbodjogbe says the Howard Street location is almost ready to open, the only holdup being a dispute with BGE over the cost of bringing gas into the building. Meanwhile, he says, the York Road location is doing well, with carry-out orders coming in a steady stream and dine-in business picking up. Many customers at Nailah’s – named for Agbodjogbe’s young daughter, whose beaming face smiles at patrons from a large photo in the dining room – are already familiar with his native country’s food because another Senegalese eatery, Tam Tam, previously occupied the building.

“The neighborhood has been very welcoming,” Agbodjogbe says.

Community wealth building is an approach to economic development that puts residents and communities first, valuing equity, inclusion, and sustainability. For more information about Strong City’s Community Wealth Building initiative, contact Stephanie Geller at sgeller@strongcitybaltimore.org or 410-240-3373.

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Fighting racism is part of our work

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. All of us at Strong City Baltimore are distressed by how violence pervades our society. We are angered by the deaths of black citizens at the hands of police, whether around the corner or across the country. Many people in the neighborhoods where we do our work are hurting, and we honor their grief and pain.

We believe that Baltimore, despite its many challenges, is a strong city. Our mission is to build and strengthen neighborhoods and people throughout Baltimore. However, we know that this cannot happen when the well-being of black citizens is threatened by police brutality and other forms of violence and inequity. We also recognize that the social ills affecting so many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods are rooted in the long history of racism in our city and nation.

When Strong City supports neighborhoods in their efforts to improve education, increase quality of life, and build community wealth, we are working to remedy the grievous harm caused in large part by historical and institutional racism. We pledge to continue educating ourselves about this issue, and to move forward aware of how racism affects the communities we work with and committed to taking steps to make “justice everywhere” a reality.

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There are many free resources available online to help individuals, families, and communities cope during times of trauma. Here are a few that may be useful:

26 Ways to be in the struggle beyond the streets

Color Processing Sheet

Resources for Discussing Police Violence, Race and Racism with Students


Community Wealth Building In Action

Florist committed to local sourcing branches out by joining Foodify

Gertrude Stein declared that “a rose is a rose is a rose.” Ellen Frost might have something to say about that.

The owner of Local Color Flowers will tell you that when it comes to roses – or peonies, zinnias, and lilies – one flower is not necessarily like another. What makes all the difference is where they’re grown. And in most cases, those pretty blooms you bought to please your sweetie or decorate your office came from a long way away. Think Colombia or Kenya.

“The majority of flowers sold in the U.S. – about eighty percent – come from outside the U.S.,” says Frost, a North Baltimore resident who runs Local Color Flowers out of a converted auto shop on Brentwood Avenue in the Abell neighborhood.

Frost and her then-partners started the business in 2008 with a different idea: to only use flowers that were grown within 100 miles of Baltimore, and the closer to home, the better. That means she sells what’s in season. When you order from Local Color for your wedding, you get what Frost’s growers have on hand, which depends on the month and sometimes even the week.

For example, on a recent spring day, Frost’s floral design shop was full of peonies, but in a few short weeks they would be gone, replaced by a profusion of dahlias and hydrangeas. Frost’s customers know that with her, they get a different experience than with most florists. They can’t have tulips year-round, but they know the flowers they get will support local or regional farmers and are delivered with a gentler environmental touch.

“A lot of florists are disconnected from where their flowers come from,” Frost says. “Buying locally is a much different process. It means going to farms, talking to farmers, using what’s seasonal.”

Frost says she is the only florist in Baltimore, and one of very few on the East Coast, to choose exclusively local sourcing. She does not use the popular wire services favored by most florists, and she does not operate a retail store with regular business hours (although she does take orders for single arrangements, with delivery or pick-up by appointment). She says that despite her unusual business model, the approach works because she and her husband and co-owner Eric Moller are willing to spend the time cultivating relationships with farmers and customers who share their values and concerns.

That commitment means supporting new growers in various ways: by offering to buy everything they grow for their first year in business, helping them with crop planning, even offering advice on working with other florists. Frost currently does business with 30 to 35 farms. The closest is 1.8 miles from her store, but many are in the surrounding counties, with some in Pennsylvania and Virginia or on the Eastern Shore. Her most significant Baltimore-based partner is Hillen Homestead near Clifton Park. Frost is hoping to nurture more growers in Baltimore City.

“The goal is always to have the environmental footprint be as small as possible – buying as close to home as we can, and using farming techniques that are low impact to the earth,” she says.

In addition to developing more local growers, Frost is hoping to add more corporate clients to balance her current base of wedding and event-related work – and her business has just moved in an exciting new direction that may well help her get there.

Thanks to Strong City Baltimore’s new Community Wealth Building initiative, this week Local Color Flowers became the first non-food business to join Foodify, a web-based ordering service that allows smaller local businesses to compete with large catering firms for corporate and institutional clients. With over 2,000 registered users, Foodify encourages local purchasing by connecting Baltimore businesses looking for services with more than 100 local restaurants and caterers – and now a flower shop.

“The same people that order food in corporations for meetings, events, etc., are also ordering flowers,” says Eric Bonardi, director of business development in Maryland for Foodify (which also has operations in Virginia, D.C., and Houston). “It’s a natural fit, which is why Ellen and I are going to give this a try. We’re going to get her name out there so businesses in Baltimore are able to buy locally grown flowers from a local florist.”

In different ways, the business models of Local Color Flowers and Foodify both keep money circulating locally and prevent it from leaking out of the community – a major component of Community Wealth Building. Stephanie Geller, Strong City’s Community Wealth Building strategist, encouraged the partnership between Local Color and Foodify.

“Foodify is a good fit for us,” Frost says. “It gives us entrance into places we wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”

For more information about Strong City’s Community Wealth Building initiative, contact Stephanie Geller at sgeller@strongcitybaltimore.org or 410-240-3373.