Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

Summer brings longer days, more kids, nonstop activity at The Club

Vanessa Williams can spare a moment – but just a moment – to let you know how things are going at The Club at Collington Square, the Strong City-run youth development program in East Baltimore where she serves as director.

You can forgive her for feeling a bit harried. During the school year, things are busy enough for her, with about 92 students (The Club calls them “scholars”) attending enriching after-school weekdays from 3 to 6:30 p.m. But from June 25th to August 12th, the program day expands to about 142 scholars and a day that lasts from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Somehow, Ms. Vanessa gets it all done with her regular year-round staff (mostly young men and women from the local community), plus a couple of additional summer employees and a group of teens from the Baltimore City YouthWorks program.

To address the problem of “summer slide,” Club scholars participate in academics every day, but also a wide range of activities including arts and crafts, drumming, dance, free verse, karate, team sports, fitness, nutrition and cooking. There’s a weekly swim excursion and other trips planned, including one to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

This year, The Club has seen a significant increase in middle school students in the summer program, and has responded with a more developed program for them focusing on community service, mentoring younger kids, and looking ahead to high school and college (including visits to the Coppin State and Morgan State campuses).

“The joy of it is really seeing them come in the morning with smiles on their faces and wanting to be here,” Ms. Vanessa says. “The challenge is making it work when we don’t have a lot of space. We had to turn away some people as well – that always breaks

my heart, saying no. We could easily have 200 kids in here, based on the demand.”

Also challenging is the fact that many of the scholars face issues related to poverty and problems in their home lives. So, in addition to all the difficulties of running a summer camp in a cramped space, staff have to be “present to their needs,” Ms. Vanessa says. “I had a little fourth-grader here, he was in tears and rightfully so, because of some issues going on in his home,” she recalls. “The challenge is, with this many kids, to know who needs what and when they need it.”

The Club, which Strong City took over from Episcopal Community Services of Maryland last year, is facing a budget shortfall. You can help by making a donation here.


School’s out — but not for Guilford Community School Coordinator Annie Weber

What does a community school coordinator do when school’s out for the summer? Plenty. Just ask Annie Weber, CSC at Guilford Elementary/Middle School and one of the newest Strong City staff members.

Annie began her job on June 4, and she’s been learning that although the school year is now over, a community school coordinator’s work never is. CSCs function as a school’s connective tissue: helping families locate resources ranging from food assistance to social services; nurturing school/community partnerships; and promoting parent engagement with the school. Many of those things continue to happen right through the summer months.

On a recent day, for example, Annie went to a coordinating meeting for the York Road Partnership, community associations, and the Loyola Center for Community Service and Justice. Then she worked on recruiting students for the BELL Summer Learning program. She was also working on end-

of-year reporting for the Family League of Baltimore (which helps fund her position), as well as getting ready for a school-supply drive.

“I’ve been going to a lot of meetings,” Annie says, ticking off some of them: Family League, 21st Century Schools Program, Bmore for Healthy Babies. “I do a little bit of everything.”

A Baltimore County native, Annie has landed back in the Baltimore area after an adventurous several years, including three separate stays in Uganda: as a junior at Gettysburg College studying post-conflict transformation; the summer after graduation after winning grants to run a girls’ health program; and before starting graduate school in social work at the University of Maryland, on a fellowship with the nonprofit Bicycles Against Poverty.

Annie was a social work intern at Guilford this past year, working with former Community School Coordinator Lauren Linn, which she says “definitely helped my transition” to taking over the position. She focused on “macro” social work at UM – program development, management, policy advocacy – and enjoys the community schools job because it combines administrative responsibilities and hands-on work with families.

One special issue at Guilford is that the school is slated to close. Starting in 2021, students from Guilford and Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle are scheduled to begin attending a newly built school under the 21st Century Schools program (a $1 billion school construction plan for Baltimore City that Strong City was heavily involved in advocating for through the Baltimore Education Coalition). The closing plan is leading enrollment at Guilford to drop, and making family engagement more challenging.

When she does have a little down time, Annie works on getting her room together and thinking about one of the biggest tasks awaiting her: Guilford’s biannual community needs assessment, which will translate into an action plan featuring six goals that will guide her work for the upcoming academic year.

“I’m trying to get organized, because I know I won’t have time during the school year,” she says with a smile.


“Surrounded by peace” — a summer camp focused on building a conflict-free world

Young campers exchange a “Peace Camp handshake.”

It’s Monday morning on a warm July day, and the A/C is out of commission. You might expect a group of several dozen kids – ages 6 to 13 – gathered upstairs at the 29th Street Community Center to be a bit cranky or restless, possibly both. Yet, as they are called to gather in a circle along with a half-dozen adults at 9:30 a.m., the mood in the room is a mixture of controlled excitement and something approaching serenity.

“OK, I want you to get into groups of three with someone wearing the same color as you!” calls out the energetic woman in charge of this gathering. “Now, talk in your groups about one fun thing you did this weekend.” A few minutes later, she calls the group back to attention: “Who would like to show us and your partner your Peace Camp handshake?”

Welcome to Peace Camp, the main program of By Peaceful Means, a fiscally sponsored project of Strong City Baltimore founded by longtime community activist Ralph Moore and directed by Nawal Rajeh, who was guiding the group of campers in the meeting circle – a ritual that kicks off summer camp for each day of the three-week session. After the gathering circle, campers head off to outdoor play, literacy-oriented projects such as journaling, or other activities.

Each morning begins with a gathering circle.

Peaceful problem solving and conflict resolution are at the heart of Peace Camp’s approach to youth development, and each week a new “peace hero” is celebrated. Past heroes have included Nelson Mandela, Myanmar’s Ang San Suu Kyi, and Tererai Trent (the Zimbabwean woman whose life story was featured in the book Half the Sky). This week, instead of a single peace hero, they are focusing on the activists of the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition to learning about peace heroes, campers are encouraged to speak up and advocate for themselves on issues ranging from school funding to keeping city pools open.

“The idea is that peace is integrated into everything we do – it’s not some separate thing we learn about,” says Rajeh, a community organizer and former teacher who brought the Peace Camp concept to Baltimore over a decade ago after taking part in a similar camp in Pennsylvania.

A centerpiece of Peace Camp is what Moore and Rajeh call “Peace Studios,” mixed-age groupings two days a week where the youngsters are empowered to choose from a variety of activities ranging from computer coding to cooking to photography to “telling your story” through poetry, video, or other media. “They are learning all sorts of skills that lend themselves to a more peaceful world,” Rajeh says.

Taleah Edwards, 16, who uses the name Aeon, started as a camper back in 2015 and has been coming

Aeon, 16, began as a camper and is now a YouthWorks junior counselor.

back to Peace Camp as a junior counselor Youth Worker every year since; this year she is teaching yoga. Aeon, a Barclay Elementary/Middle School graduate and rising junior at Baltimore City College High School, says what makes Peace Camp a special place is that “We try to teach the kids to be proud of who they are, and that things can be solved in a better way [than fighting].”

That message seems to be getting across for campers like Zacharia Grovogui, who at age 8 has already been attending Peace Camp for several years. He says he likes the camp because he can choose which studio activity to do – his favorite is coding. Also, he says, “We learn about famous people. We learned about Tererai Trent, who buried her dreams, and they came true. She visualized it, and my mom always tells me to visualize things.” Jerni Dajer, 6, enjoys the mindfulness exercises, explaining, “You need to close your eyes and keep your brain wide awake.” Her favorite things about camp? “I love to eat, and I love to play outside!”

Longtime community activist Ralph Moore is a founder of By Peaceful Means.

Ralph Moore recalls that when Peace Camp first came to the Community Center – shortly after the building was reopened under Strong City Baltimore’s operation – some of the campers, from the Barclay School next door, were known for not getting along with each other. Within days, the tensions between those kids had vanished.

“This camp is needed more than ever,” says Moore, a Baltimore native who grew up in Sandtown-Winchester and ran the community center at St. Frances Academy, where Peace Camp began in 2006 and where a second three-week camp session will be held later this summer. “Everything is telling kids to fight: video games, movies, TV. Somewhere, something has to tell them it’s OK to use words instead of fists, it’s OK to be peacemakers in your homes, churches, neighborhoods, communities.”

The connection with Strong City began in 2012, when By Peaceful Means needed a new fiscal sponsor, and Moore naturally turned to the organization he knew had done good community-based work for decades. “I’d known of Greater Homewood for about 40 years,” Moore recalls, using Strong City’s former name. (Moore received Strong City’s Volunteer of the Year award in 2017, recognizing his lifetime of service in many capacities.)

Leaving the circle and heading off for morning activities.

On Monday of the last week of camp, as students and teachers gather in the circle, they talk about what’s ahead for the week – closing ceremony on Wednesday, family meal on Thursday, field trip to go swimming on Friday. Before the group disperses to their classrooms, Rajeh asks everyone to “think of one positive thought for your day” and then asks them to “Freeze!” – a mindfulness exercise in which the kids spend about 30 seconds in quiet reflection and meditation. They then conclude with a call-and-response that summarize the Peace Camp philosophy:

“I am covered in peace. Surrounded by peace. Peace protects me. Peace supports me. Peace is in me. Peace to all human beings.”


ALC achiever Joyce Bates an inspiration to her kids — and her mom

When Strong City’s Adult Learning Center holds its annual Achievement Night on Tuesday, June 12th, you can count on Joyce Bates being there. She passed all four sections of the GED last year – in fact, she’s had her diploma since August. But she says she wouldn’t miss the chance to return to the ALC and celebrate along with the other adult learners who’ve reached educational milestones since last year’s Achievement Night.

For the past 25 years, Bates, 43, has worked hard in health care and raised five children. When she found herself out of work last year, she decided to take the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream and finish her high school education. Bates believed in the importance of education and pushed her own kids hard; all of them finished school, and the youngest is a college junior. But after having her first daughter at age 15 and her second daughter the following year, Bates dropped out of high school at 17 and became a nursing assistant.

“My children are grown – I pushed them all through school,” Bates said. “So I thought, ‘Let me go now.’ I wanted to go back and see what I can do.” She started taking classes at the ALC in January 2017, and began taking GED subject tests that March. Just five months later, she had passed all four sections. “I never knew I would get my GED so fast,” she said.

This wasn’t Bates’ first attempt to further her education. She tried a different school a few years ago, but it didn’t work out. This time, she went onlineand started searching for facilities in Baltimore offering free GED preparation, which soon led her to the ALC. Bates found that she was already strong in reading but was definitely going to need a refresher in math.

“I enjoyed school a lot,” Bates said. “Cathleen [O’Neal] is the best ever – she makes it so easy for you, explains it very well. I never had a teacher like that in my life.”

ALC Assistant Director Cathleen O’Neal says the mission of the ALC is to empower adults to meet their goals, which they do by “meeting learners where they are and tailoring instruction and support services to their needs.” The ALC serves 600 learners a year and has been doing it for 29 years.

The ALC believes that Adult Education is the backbone of workforce development. Though Baltimore has a number of workforce training programs, many residents lack a sufficient educational functioning or English speaking level to qualify for the programs without completing adult education classes first. With six full-time employees, 22 part-time instructors, and 50 volunteers, the ALC gives learners the opportunity to increase their skills and self-confidence, making them more eligible for jobs with family-sustaining wages, better equipped to support their children’s academic development, and more civically engaged.

When Joyce Bates and her fellow learners are celebrated at next week’s Achievement Night, her kids will be there cheering her on. So will someone else who was so inspired by what Bates accomplished, she decided to sign up for classes at the ALC: her mother. Bates has become something of an evangelist for going back to school. “My mother is going now, my aunt is going in September, and an older coworker of my is going too,” she says.

Bates, who lives in the Pen Lucy neighborhood, plans to continue her education in the fall at Baltimore City Community College. She’s not certain what career path she wants to pursue but thinks she’ll continue in the health professions, perhaps exploring a longtime interest in mental health. “I’m thinking about psychiatry,” she says. “I’d like to go all the way through, become a doctor.”


Strong City Staff Spotlight: Barclay Community Builder Farajii Muhammad

By Mike Cross-Barnet

Baltimore native Farajii Muhammad has founded a youth-run, youth-serving nonprofit; become a local media personality, first with a weekly and now with a WEAA daily radio show; spoken and presented workshops at national events; and worked with youth at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). And he’s just getting started – he’s only 39.

Muhammad’s newest role: Barclay Community Builder for Strong City Baltimore.

After the many hats he’s worn, what attracted Muhammad to the work of grass-roots organizing in a Central Baltimore neighborhood that has seen better days but is now on a path to stability and prosperity? To hear him tell it, the Barclay job fits seamlessly into a life that has been devoted to community improvement.

At AFSC, Muhammad was working on big issues, such as police brutality, economic dislocation, and environmental injustice. What he felt lacking was the thing that Strong City has always emphasized in its work: a sense of place, a commitment to making concrete improvements in specific neighborhoods.

“I wanted to get rooted – create change that I could see,” Muhammad says. “It’s very hard to create change when you’re not rooted in a specific community. I thought, this will be a great place to get my feet wet in this work, do the real community organizing that I’ve been wanting to do.”

Strong City has longstanding ties to the Barclay neighborhood. By the late 1990s, the nonprofit (then called Greater Homewood Community Corporation), had established a network of 16 block clubs, which eventually evolved into the Barclay Leadership Council. Later, Strong City assisted with the formation of the Barclay Midway Old Goucher Coalition (BMOG), which was officially launched in the summer of 2003, with Connie Ross as co-chair.

The relationship grew again in 2006, when Telesis Corp., a mission-driven real estate development company based in Washington, D.C., was selected by Baltimore Housing and the community to lead the revitalization of Barclay and its neighboring community of Old Goucher. Telesis, working hand in hand with the BMOG Coalition, developed a plan to transform Barclay into a stable, mixed-income neighborhood with quality open spaces, community facilities, and employment opportunities. Because Strong City had established itself as a reliable partner through its prior organizing efforts in Barclay, it was selected by BMOG and Telesis to serve as the nonprofit to staff community building efforts for this unprecedented redevelopment project. That eventually led, in 2011, to the creation of a new Strong City staff position, Barclay Community Builder, funded by Telesis — a position that seeks to build neighborhood leadership, welcome new neighbors, and connect them with needed services and opportunities to serve. Telesis leadership understands the need to not only build homes but to develop those human connections that make a community strong.

Since Muhammad took over last fall from Lottie Sneed, who retired after four years as Barclay Community Builder, he has been focused on strengthening the two local resident groups: BMOG, which has been focused primarily on housing and development; and the Leadership Council, which has more of the features of a traditional neighborhood association. He wants to help the community make those organizations more diverse and multi-generational – bringing in younger members with technological and administrative skills to relieve the burden on Connie Ross, who has been the driving force behind BMOG for many years, and breathing new life into the BLC, which he says is attracting young people in their 30s, a good sign for the future.

“Having these resident-based entities has reinvigorated community involvement in Barclay,” Muhammad says. “What Ms. Lottie was doing, she put in place the foundation for that. I wanted to build on that.”

Beyond that, a lot of what Muhammad does in Barclay is good, old-fashioned community organizing: knocking on doors, talking to people, mapping assets by learning where the neighborhood’s strengths and talents lie. While one part of the work is organizational, the other part is very much focused on individual human development: providing services such as helping with resume writing at the Nate Tatum Center, or holding an expungement clinic to help people remove barriers to employment. Muhammad is also carrying on Lottie Sneed’s work in supporting community activities, such as the upcoming Day in the Park, which will be held Saturday, July 14 in Calvert Street Park. But he is trying to evolve some of the events and activities so that neighborhood residents have more of a role in organizing and running them.

When Muhammad looks around Barclay, he sees a community rapidly changing, and bursting with activity. The Greenmount Recreation Center just unveiled its beautiful new façade, created by local artist Andy Dahl. A dilapidated building next door was torn down in February, and residents are hoping to establish a community garden in that spot. Across from the Nate Tatum/North Barclay Green Community Center at Barclay and 20th streets, bulldozers are currently leveling the ground for what will be a new, Telesis-developed park.

Meanwhile, the third phase of the Telesis housing redevelopment is under way. Around the city, advocates including Strong City have pointed out problems with the city’s weak inclusionary housing law and are pushing for developers to include more units for low-income residents. But in Barclay, with very little attention, 200 affordable homes for low- and moderate-income households have been added over the past several years. An additional 200 affordable and market-rate homes and 10,000 square feet of community and retail space are either under construction or in the immediate pipeline.

That’s in line with what Barclay residents told developers and city planners they wanted: a mixed-income community welcoming to people of diverse ages, races, and income levels, with strong housing options, a lively retail scene, and a good overall quality of life. Farajii Muhammad is well-positioned to help that become a reality – after all, he lives in Barclay himself. The decision to move to the neighborhood was grounded in Muhammad’s belief that those who are closest to the challenges are closest to their solutions.

“I’m the connector,” Muhammad says. “I get great pleasure out of building relationships, creating opportunities. And I’m not speaking as an outsider – I’m speaking from a resident’s perspective.”