Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

October News Bites from the Strong City Community

Baltimore Beat led by Lisa Snowden-McCray (right) and Brandon Soderberg (left)

Dance and Bmore Director To Be Honored

CJay Philip, Artistic Director of Dance & Bmore, will be honored as an Arts Advocate at ArtsCentric’s Annual Gala on Sunday, October 20th.


MOMCares Founder Wins Homecoming Hero Award 

Ana Rodney, Founder and Executive Director of MOMCares, was one of five winners of T. Rowe Price’s 2019 Homecoming Hero Awards. Also, Blair Franklin, Executive Director of the Youth Empowered Society (YES) Drop-In Center, was named a semi-finalist.


Strong City In the News

Baltimore Sun column Jacques Kelly wrote a column updating the progress of renovations at the Hoen Building, which will be Strong City’s new home starting in 2020. And Maryland Matters published a column about the four Bank of America Student Leaders who worked at Strong City over the summer.



Small Grants for Census Work Now Being Accepted 

Strong City is partnering with Baltimore City’s Complete Count Committee to ensure maximum awareness of and participation in the 2020 Census. The city is making grants of $500 to $5,000 available to community groups to do Census-related work. Grant applications will be accepted between now and November 20.


Orioles Honor YLKA Director 

Ciera Daniel, Executive Director of the Young King’s Leadership Academy, was honored by the Baltimore Orioles with their Community Hero Award at a recent Orioles game. The Orioles donated $2,500 that will be used for student field trips during the upcoming year.


Strong City Wins Grants for Hoen Building, Organizing Work 

Two recent awards will advance Strong City’s upcoming transition to East Baltimore. A $250,000 Community Catalyst Grant from the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development will help us complete renovations at the Hoen Lithograph Building, where we will be moving at the end of 2019; and a $25,000 Community Builder grant from Bank of America will support community organizing and advancing economic mobility in and around Collington Square.

Baltimore Beat Is Newest Fiscally Sponsored Project 

Strong City is pleased to welcome the independent online news source Baltimore Beat to the fiscal sponsorship community. Led by Lisa Snowden-McCray and Brandon Soderberg, Baltimore Beat is a community-facing, community-accountable media outlet owned and run by journalists that prioritize telling the truth over maintaining access to power.


Strong City Presents Discussion Panel on Neighborhood Change

Neighborhoods are constantly changing. How does Baltimore’s history of redlining and segregation continue to affect housing patterns today? Is gentrification inevitable? And what are people doing to manage change in their communities?

These and other urgent questions will be on the table as Strong City Baltimore presents a panel discussion on “Investment, Disinvestment, and Neighborhood Change in Baltimore,” Saturday, November 2, at Brilliant Baltimore, the combined Light City/Baltimore Book Festival. The event will take place at 2 p.m. at Baltimore’s World Trade Center, 401 E. Pratt St.

“Strong City was founded in 1969, and from the beginning our goal was promoting neighborhood integration and stability in the face of rapid change,” says Strong City CEO Karen D. Stokes. “A half-century later, it’s clear we still need to have these conversations.”

This event is part of Strong City’s yearlong celebration of 50 years of building and strengthening neighborhoods and people in Baltimore. We have assembled a diverse panel of distinguished local writers, activists, and journalists for a forum on one of the most important issues facing our city.

Meet our panelists:

Marisela Gomez, M.D., a Baltimore-based community activist, public health professional, and physician scientist, is the author of the book Race, Class, Power, and Organizing in East Baltimore, published by Lexington Books. She received a B.S. and M.S. from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and a Ph.D., M.D., and M.P.H. from the Johns Hopkins University. She spent 17 years as an activist/researcher or participant/observer in East Baltimore during and after training at the Johns Hopkins Schools of Medicine and Public Health. She is a co-founder and current care-taking council member for Village of Love and Resistance (VOLAR, a Black and Brown-owned collective organizing for community investment and land ownership in East Baltimore) and Baltimore and Beyond Mindfulness Community (BBMC).


Klaus Philipsen, AIA, is a Baltimore architect and author originally from Stuttgart, Germany. In his book Baltimore: Reinventing an Industrial Legacy City (Routledge, 2017), he connects his work as an architect, transportation planner, preservationist and smart-growth advocate to advance an urban agenda that will propel legacy cities such as Baltimore into the 21st century and the “age of cities.” Philipsen also writes frequently about urban issues in his “Community Architect Daily” blog. In 1992, he founded ArchPlan Inc., Philipsen Architects, a design firm with offices in downtown Baltimore that has received design awards and gained special recognition in rehabilitation, adaptive reuse, revitalization, and transit projects.


Elizabeth Nix, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of history at the University of Baltimore, where she chairs the Division of Legal, Ethical and Historical Studies. She was part of the steering committee for the award-winning Baltimore ’68 public history project. With project organizers, she co-edited an anthology entitled Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City (Temple University Press, 2011). She also co-wrote Introduction to Public History: Interpreting the Past, Engaging Audiences with collaborators in California and Indiana. Her work and interviews with her about Baltimore’s history have appeared in SlateTime, CNN, NPR, The Washington Post and The New York Times. This is her 25th year living in Baltimore City.


Lisa Snowden-McCray is the editor of Baltimore Beat, an independent news outlet in Baltimore City and fiscally sponsored project of Strong City Baltimore. Her work has appeared in outlets including The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, Essence magazine, Baltimore City Paper, the Afro-American, Real News Network, Baltimore Brew, Baltimore Fishbowl, and Bmore Art.



The panel will be moderated by China Boak Terrell, CEO of American Communities Trust, where she is overseeing development of the Baltimore Food Hub and working with New Broadway East Community Association to secure the return of traditional business and retail to Broadway East, and to develop Last Mile Park, a one-mile urban ecological and public art trail. An alumna of Johns Hopkins University, the University of Minnesota Law School, and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, she has served as a corporate lawyer; business developer; liaison and advisor to agency heads, elected officials, and corporate leadership team members; and General Counsel for the District of Columbia’s legislative committee on human services. She has led on issues of police legitimacy and tenants’ rights, and is published through Harvard’s Joint Center on Housing Studies on the topic of supportive housing for the homeless.

The panel will take place from 2 to 3 p.m. at the Inspire Stage (Top of the World) on the 27th floor of the World Trade Center. The event is free and open to the public, with no reservation required. More information about this and other Brilliant Baltimore events can be found here.

Strong City’s 15 Millionth Dollar Creates Sensory Thrills at Charm City Night Market

The second annual Charm City Night Market on Saturday, September 21, was a feast for the senses: Colorful lanterns and costumed dancers. Mochi-stuffed waffles and steamed-bun sandwiches. Voices in many languages, and music in many styles – including the eclectic dance beats of popular Baltimore DJ Shawn Smallwood (aka Destrukshawn), who was named “Best Showman” by Baltimore City Paper in 2017.

What Night Market visitors didn’t know, as they enjoyed Smallwood’s distinctive take on traditional Baltimore club music, was that the sounds they were hearing represented a milestone for Strong City Baltimore’s fiscal sponsorship program. Smallwood’s appearance at the Night Market was made possible by the 15 millionth dollar Strong City has paid out through Microix (our online accounts payable system) on behalf of the projects, clients and programs under our umbrella.

“Fiscal sponsorship is serious work, but we’ve also always maintained that it’s fun work as well – and the Charm City Night Market is an embodiment of that,” says Tyson Garith.

A Quick History Lesson

In 2017, Strong City switched from an inefficient paper system to the current online system. The transition was a lot of work, but the result was a more efficient check request process that can be accessed 24/7 and allows leaders to monitor the progress of their requests.

Since then, over 15 million dollars has been distributed at the direction of hundreds of community-based initiatives – like the Chinatown Collective, organizer of the Charm City Night Market – that are accessing funds by partnering with Strong City and utilizing our 501(c)(3) status. This is the practice of fiscal sponsorship.

The Night Market was born out of a desire that founder Stephanie Hsu and other Asian-American Baltimoreans had to celebrate and share a part of this city’s heritage that is often overlooked. The Chinatown Collective got started when Hsu and some friends became curious while walking around the remains of Baltimore’s historic Chinatown, wondering, “What are the stories that have been lost here?” She soon found answers from Kitty Chin, a prominent Chinatown resident from the neighborhood’s mid-20th century heyday, who is currently in her 90s.

Hsu says, “The conversation that bridged all of us together was, ‘What does it mean to be Asian American in a city that conceptualized race in black and white terms? How do we expand the narrative about what Baltimore is? So, this is historic preservation – and also a forward-looking vision of the future of Asian-Americans in Baltimore.”

Hsu says the Chinatown Collective decided to use fiscal sponsorship to fill a knowledge gap. “We’re all volunteers, and our personal expertise might not be in nonprofit management. Having those baseline necessities like finances, the legal things, the capacity for all that has been super helpful to operationalize this grassroots-led effort.”

“Also, being connected to the Strong City Baltimore family of nonprofits doing really cool things across the city lends credibility to our narrative,” she says.

Follow that Dollar!

Accounts payable, paying out the money our initiatives raise and that we hold onto for them, is a huge part of the fiscal sponsorship service. Through Microix, Strong City cuts checks for everything our initiatives need to fulfill their missions, such as office supplies, soccer balls, CharmCards, cans of paint, pizza parties, buses, contractors, T-shirts, vegetable seeds, jump rope beads, and … payments to performers.

You see, that 15 millionth dollar that brought Smallwood to this year’s Night Market, with his unique blend of influences ranging from country to classical, went on a complex journey that involved almost all of Strong City’s operations staff.

Its journey began when the Chinatown Collective applied (using Strong City’s 501(c)(3) status) for a $5,000 grant from the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts’ (BOPA) Creative Baltimore Fund to help with general expenses for the Night Market.

BOPA approved that funding, and our Director of Operations, Tyson W. Garith, signed the grant award as the representative of the organization receiving the funds. When the check for the award arrived in the mail, Gui Mimoun (Special Assistant to Project Services) and Kahlilah Elie (Database Administrator) sorted and coded it so that the money was allocated to the Chinatown Collective and sent it to be deposited it into Strong City’s bank account. Our 10 percent fiscal sponsorship fee (which covers all of the services provided by Strong City) was deducted, and the remainder attributed to the Chinatown Collective’s funding source.

Next, Stephanie Hsu used Microix to request a check be sent to Smallwood to compensate him for providing entertainment at the Night Market. The system sent the request to Accounts Payable Manager Tinishia Montague, who ensured the expense was complete and had the necessary backup documentation to pass muster in our annual audit. Tinishia approved the expense and passed it on to Nichole Mooney, Portfolio Manager for the Chinatown Collective.

Nichole checked the Collective’s general ledger to make sure the initiative had funds available (the answer was yes – that BOPA grant, remember?) and whether the proposed use of the dollar aligned with the organization’s mission. (Spoiler alert: It did!) Nichole approved the request and sent the check request back to Tinishia, adding it to the list of approved expenses.

Next, Tinishia printed the check on special paper stock and handed it to Karen D. Stokes, Strong City’s Chief Executive Officer, who took the stack home and signed each one that evening at her kitchen table. The next morning, Assistant Manager of Operations, Lynette Hodge, placed the check in an envelope, stamped it for mailing, and handed it off to Mr. Best, our letter carrier.

Thus, Strong City’s 15 millionth dollar paid through Microix was sent out into world!

Stronger Together

Shawn Smallwood got involved in this year’s Night Market after Hsu saw him perform a couple of times and reached out. A Baltimore native, Smallwood sees the Night Market as an opportunity to promote the strength and diversity of Asian-American culture in Baltimore.

“We’ve always had Asians and other cultures here in the city, but we don’t always interact with them in positive manner,” he says. Smallwood – whose heritage is Korean and African-American, and who shares a last name with an 18th century governor of Maryland – sees himself as someone who is able to move between different cultures and foster understanding.

Hsu says this year’s Night Market drew about 18,000 visitors to the area in and around Baltimore’s historic Chinatown on Park Avenue, about 50 percent more than attended last year’s inaugural event. The Night Market continues to win accolades; Baltimore Fishbowl recently named it a winner of the online news outlet’s “Baltimost” Award.

Steve Chu, one of the owners of the popular Ekiben restaurant, said, “In Taiwan, night markets [are] a big thing – high energy, very densely packed with vendors and guests. Now, we get to bring that night market vibe to Baltimore. There’s really nothing else like it.”

The nitty gritty of managing nonprofit finances is tedious and complex. But when working to strengthen neighborhoods and people, every step and connection is necessary, because every dollar is a part of something big and magical.

“Fiscal sponsorship is serious work, but we’ve also always maintained that it’s fun work as well – and the Charm City Night Market is an embodiment of that,” says Tyson Garith.

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