Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

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 Cross Street Partners, the project’s lead developer, which is moving from its headquarters in Canton; and City Life Community Builders, a workforce training-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 $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.

With Baltimore Children and Youth Fund Award, Moving History Moves Toward Making a Bigger Impact

Year after year, Breai Mason-Campbell taught African dance to first-graders in Sandtown-Winchester. Year after year, on the first day of school, she would begin by asking the children to tell her what they knew about Africa. And year after year, Mason-Campbell received the same depressing response.

“Always, they would say, ‘Africa is poor and dirty,’” Mason-Campbell recalls. As African-Americans, she says, “What does that say about our self-esteem?” That experience is one of the reasons that her company, Guardian Baltimore, identifies “healing injured identities” as part of its mission, along with “creating a healthy culture” and “preserving community art and wisdom.”

Since 2003, Mason-Campbell has been leading what she describes as a kinetic curriculum for teaching African-American history through dance. Not only has she taught a generation of students the beauty and richness of African and African-American dance styles, but some of those students have been invited to travel and perform in professional settings, including the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016.

Mason-Campbell, who began dancing at Peabody Preparatory at age 5, loved the work she was doing in Sandtown, but she had a dilemma – the problem of “divided purpose.” She wanted to expand her program to more Baltimore City public schools, but she needed a funding strategy that aligned with her values. She didn’t want to have to operate a dance studio that only privileged children could afford to attend.

The solution: Moving History, which Mason-Campbell launched in summer 2018 as a fiscally sponsored project of Strong City Baltimore.

Through this nonprofit initiative, Mason-Campbell’s Afrocentric dance curriculum has come to City Neighbors High School and Henderson-Hopkins School, and she is currently in conversation with four additional schools.

A crucial aspect of Moving History’s approach is developing youth who began as program participants to become educators and leaders in their own right: designing lesson plans, receiving workplace experience, dealing with parents. One Moving History student leader who began learning from Mason-Campbell over a decade ago is now in 11th grade; another has started college. “It’s been really amazing watching the young people grow in their ability to be classroom leaders, to be professionals,” Mason-Campbell says.

Moving History received just under $180,000 this year in the first round of funding from the new Baltimore Children and Youth Fund. With that revenue, Mason-Campbell can employ a full-time staff member to work with student-teachers as the program expands to additional schools around Baltimore, “making this curriculum available to more kids across the city,” she says.

Mason-Campbell says it is important to show students that they have something to contribute and to be proud of – no small thing in a place like Sandtown, where children are typically “on the receiving end,” she says.

“Charity, altruism is important, but we have things to share as well,” Mason-Campbell says. “This program has pointed out to young people, ‘You are the expert in this area. You performed at the National Museum of African American History; you’ve been called to D.C. to teach classes.'”

Too often, Mason-Campbell says, young people of color are told they are a “drain” on society, rather than contributors. Part of her calling is to show the children of Baltimore just how wrong that notion is, by pointing out the immense musical and cultural achievements of African-Americans throughout U.S. history, even in the face of slavery, the Jim Crow era, and ongoing discrimination.

“For me, this has been about being able to share with young people – who would not otherwise know – about the greatness of their past and the greatness they are capable of achieving,” she says.

Youth Fund Award Allows YES to Expand Services

Blair Franklin envisions a day when there is little need for homeless services for Baltimore City youth. As Executive Director of the Youth Empowered Society (YES) Drop-In Center, he leads an organization whose mission statement says it “prevents and eliminates youth homelessness through the synergy of youth and ally partnerships.” That’s the ultimate goal, but for now, Baltimore’s only drop-in program for youth experiencing homelessness is trying to reach more of the city’s 1,600 youth who are unhoused at any given time. YES serves about 300 youth per year, and is struggling to accommodate them in its small rowhouse at 23rd and Charles streets.

YES is not a shelter, but rather a safe space where people ranging in age from 14 to 25 can grab a meal, take a shower, do laundry, connect with a case manager, learn about housing opportunities, participate in job training, learn to navigate the legal system, and more. It is also a place where they can find rest and refuge, companionship with other youth experiencing homelessness, and a staff of both peers and adult allies who are familiar with their challenges. The organization has been a fiscally sponsored project of Strong City for about three years, and in 2018 it was one of nine projects or programs under the Strong City umbrella that won funding from the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund.

“We don’t have enough space for everyone we see every day,” says Franklin, pointing to the need for more room for youth to engage in more activities, as well as quiet areas where someone can work on a resume, for example. Part of the $230,000 award from the BCYF will help them afford a larger space in the same neighborhood, which Franklin noted is a centrally located and LGBTQ-friendly part of the city.

In addition, the BCYF funding will allow YES to expand its services around workforce and leadership development – for example, by making stipends available for youth to attend job training programs. YES partners with employers to open up opportunities for older youth to build skills and find jobs.

“Some of the BCYF funding is going to help us have the capacity to deepen our youth leadership and workforce efforts as well, connecting to things like advocacy, jobs, and flexible housing assistance,” Franklin says. “This will allow us to support young people as they engage in youth leadership opportunities.”

YES was started six years ago by young people who had themselves experienced homelessness and who recognized that Baltimore was lacking “a safe space to access services that also valued their lived experience,” Franklin says. As the organization has evolved, having Strong City as a fiscal sponsor has been beneficial, he says, “largely because we were growing as an organization and needed to increase support around financial management and HR –  a space Strong City was doing work in – so it seemed like a really good partnership.

“Fiscal sponsorship has been incredibly valuable as we have been growing, providing a solid foundation for us to have the kind of back office support that’s needed to do our work,” Franklin says, adding that YES’ long-term goal is to become an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

At YES, advocacy goes hand-in-hand with service. That means building coalitions by forming deep partnerships in the community, as well as lobbying and testifying to ensure that youth homelessness is treated seriously in City Hall and Annapolis. Centering youth voice has always been a priority for YES, one that will be featured even more prominently in the future, Franklin says, as the organization’s “youth leadership work builds an advocacy platform and agenda around the kind of change needed to make homelessness as rare and brief as possible.”

Franklin sees the Youth Fund as a potential turning point for Baltimore’s nonprofit community in terms of how the needs of young people are addressed.

“The fund is a huge deal, because the process by which the fund came into existence – the level of advocacy by community folks to make it happen, and having the selection process go through the community – is really important,” he says. “We’re honored to be named, and it’s a testament to the really awesome community work that has happened here.”


Project Spotlight: Young Poets of Dew More Baltimore Combine Art With Activism — and Bring Home the Prizes

By Mike Cross-Barnet

Is poetry dead? When you think about poets, do you imagine pale young men in 19th century England, bemoaning unrequited love and slowly wasting away from consumption?

If that’s what you think, then Maren Wright-Kerr and the other talented youth of Dew More Baltimore are here to set you straight. Wright-Kerr, Baltimore’s Youth Poet Laureate, and her peers recently took top honors among more than 500 competitors in the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Houston, an experience Wright-Kerr describes as “invigorating.”

Dew More, a fiscally sponsored project of Strong City, is doing plenty to keep the art of poetry alive and well in Baltimore. With its in-school programs, workshops, organizing and advocacy, Dew More celebrates youth voice and encourages young people to embrace art as a vehicle for social change – an approach that Dew More’s Artistic Coordinator Victor Rodgers calls “artivism.”

“The idea is that there is an imperative relation between arts and activism,” Rodgers explains. “We use art to point out things that are not the way they should be – and then point to a solution.”

Dew More formed in 2013 after the disbanding of an earlier organization, Poetry for the People, which sponsored the Baltimore City Youth Poetry Team. One of the things Wright-Kerr likes best about the organization is the way it makes poetry accessible to ordinary people.

“I feel like poetry has a stereotype, where people believe it has to be something that cannot be understood, cannot be entertaining, be funny, make you cry,” she says.

In her own poems, she says, “I like tricking people … presenting poetry in a very entertaining way, so I can hook people in, and afterward I change people’s opinions, but in a sneaky way.” As an example, she points to her poem “White Boy Magic,” which is one of the pieces Dew More’s Brave New Voices team performed in Houston.

The last few years have been good for Dew More, which also won first place at the 2016 Brave New Voices festival in Washington, D.C., and has received a lot of positive media coverage, including a write-up in Teen Vogue. But if Dew More is having a “moment,” so is poetry in general, Rodgers believes. He points to the huge popularity of slam poetry in online platforms such as YouTube, or that fact that PBS recently did a special about how youth are leading a poetry renaissance.

“There was a big article a few years ago saying poetry is dead, that poetry is not relevant anymore,” Rodgers recalls. “In the last few years, it’s kind of turned completely around – the NEA is saying that the popularity of poetry has exploded. New and more diverse narratives are being represented in the literary world.”

Wright-Kerr, who is from Baltimore and attends Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson, is the fourth Youth Poet Laureate, an official Baltimore City government position within the Mayor’s Office. As an ambassador for the arts, she attends events, gives regular performances, and meets different kinds of people all over the city. One of the perks of the job: At the end of her term, a book of her poems will be published.

Wright-Kerr’s mother, a poet and songwriter who runs Dew More’s Maya Baraka Writers Institute, introduced her to poetry slams and summer institute writing sessions. At first, Wright-Kerr says, “I was kind of dragged to it, but then I actually got into it and said, ‘I’m pretty good at this.’ I was an actress first – I was into being on stage and doing storytelling.” Over time, Wright-Kerr realized, “I didn’t have to tell someone else’s story – I could tell my own instead.”

As Dew More grows – it added three new positions recently – Strong City’s fiscal sponsorship allows the organization to stay focused on making art and ensuring the voices of Baltimore youth are heard. “One thing we realized was that navigating the nonprofit waters financially is a big challenge,” Rodgers says. “Having a fiscal sponsor to be the ship navigating those financial storms is not just a good thing to have but, I feel, is essential.”

Moving forward, Dew More is looking to find more ways for youth to take the lead in telling their stories and changing their communities. Their newest initiative, launching Friday, Nov. 9, at Impact Hub, is “SaltPepperKetchup,” which Rodgers describes as a youth-led project where young people can share “whatever it is they’re most passionate about” in an open, noncompetitive environment.

“It’s a way for people to share poems from all over Baltimore – all the schools that Dew More’s in – but without the aspect of competition,” Wright-Kerr says. “We can sit, talk, and eat together in a space that feels safe and comfortable for them.”