Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

Fiscally sponsored project spotlight: AZIZA/PE&CE

By Mike Cross-Barnet

When AZIZA/PE&CE received the award for “Project to Watch” at Strong City Baltimore’s 11th annual Neighborhood Institute on April 14th, a lot of people learned its intriguing name for the first time. If founder Saran Fossett has her way, many more will soon be hearing about the organization she runs with Shawn Lemmon, a multifaceted mentoring program for young people with a focus on fashion, entrepreneurship, and health.

AZIZA/PE&CE, a fiscally sponsored project of Strong City, received a grant from the Baltimore Mayor’s Office last year that allowed it to expand from two high schools to its current presence in four – three in Baltimore City and one in Anne Arundel County. Fossett’s goal is to more than double than number to 10 additional schools by September. If that sounds like a bold plan, to Fossett it represents just the beginning of what she believes she can achieve.

“I want this program everywhere,” she says. “We want to impact youth at a significant level.”

Fossett started AZIZA  – her daughter’s middle name, it means “precious, gorgeous, powerful” in Swahili – back in 2008, when she quit her 19-year career with the Baltimore City schools to be more available to her daughter. Working in the schools, she had seen a lot of girls who needed help navigating those treacherous teen years, and she felt she had something to offer them. She joined forces in 2011 with Lemmon’s PE&CE (Positive Energy & Cultivating Excellence) organization, and AZIZA/PE&CE was born.

AZIZA/PE&CE fuses Fossett’s 30 years of experience as a professional model with Lemmon’s skill set and background as an athlete to create a unique program that exposes teenagers – most, but not all of them, girls – to opportunities related to the fashion industry and entrepreneurship. Fossett is the big-picture visionary, while Lemmon takes her ideas and translates them into a classroom setting. “I talk about issues, and she comes up with these incredible lesson plans,” Fossett says.

The organization’s big annual event is a fashion show/fundraiser in March that the youth begin organizing in October, featuring fashions by professional designers. There is also a summer camp and an annual youth leadership conference (the most recent one, with a social media focus, was titled “Be Who You Post To Be”). Along the way, the students learn life skills and engage in conversations about overcoming the challenges they face every day, from food deserts, to financial literacy, to systemic racism.

AZIZA/PE&CE’s mission is an ambitious one: to use “fashion, fitness, arts, music, mentoring, entertainment, and education to develop social, emotional, cultural, life, and critical thinking skills in youth ages 12-24.” Fossett says she is able to expose her young people to such a variety of experiences by calling on her large network of contacts in industries ranging from fashion and business to music and art. For example, through a partnership she has forged with AsanaRoots in Station North, her teens learn how practicing yoga can help to improve their health.

Some of the youth are inspired by their experience with AZIZA/PE&CE to pursue careers in fashion or related industries like cosmetology, while others are learning a set of skills – Fossett calls them “leadership development and character development” – that can be applied to nearly any career they decide to pursue.

AZIZA/PE&CE is currently reaching about 100 students at Arundel, Forest Park, Edmondson, and Frederick Douglass high schools; they also have activities at off-site locations including Druid Heights community center and Impact Hub Baltimore. In addition to working with more students in more schools, Fossett would like the program to have its own permanent home: a space that “engages and stimulates them, inspires them to be great.” And when Fossett says she would like her program to be “everywhere,” she really means everywhere – envisioning a future where AZIZA/PE&CE’s programming can be transmitted online for use in schools, churches, and community centers all over Baltimore and beyond.

That kind of big thinking seems second nature for Fossett, who has kept the organization going for a decade now, depending for much of that time on her own resources, the help of friends and family, and the generosity of the many people and organizations she has forged relationships with. “The key is to connect to people doing what they love, to help you do what you love,” she says.

AZIZA/PE&CE signed on with Strong City as a fiscally sponsored project in 2013, and Fossett says the relationship has enabled her organization to grow and flourish. “Strong City has been amazing,” Fossett says. “They have helped me with structure, understanding, and so much more. There are my lifeline.”


Keeping it positive and inclusive at Remington’s sweet spot

By Robyn Githui

Sweet 27 has been a staple in the Remington neighborhood for over eight years. When I arrived at the café on West 27th Street, the bright orange and yellow exterior stood out in this otherwise residential area. Over the years, the funky exterior colors have changed, but the overall atmosphere has not. Although Sweet 27 is mainly known for its eclectic, gluten-free menu, its employee-friendly practices and community-first philosophy also set it apart.

Sweet 27’s dedication to employees and community is a reflection of its history. Sweet 27 started out as Meet 27 under former owner Richard D’Souza, who started the restaurant, as well as an adjoining bakery/café that share’s the restaurant’s name, to help meet the needs of people with dietary restrictions. All of the food is gluten-free, and many items on the menu are soy and dairy-free as well, making it one of the most diet-inclusive establishments in the city.

When I first met Suraj Bhatt, the current owner of Sweet 27, he was warm, welcoming, and in the midst of running the business’ day-to-day operations. When Bhatt first started working as a cashier at Sweet 27, he did not know that he would become a partner and eventual owner of one of Baltimore’s most interesting restaurants in less than a decade. Like D’Souza, Bhatt allows his employees to try and take on different roles in the business, like one server who is learning how to do some of the managerial work. He also encourages his workers to perfect their skills outside of work, through school and nearby English classes at Strong City Baltimore’s Adult Learning Center. Following in D’Souza’s footsteps, Bhatt supports his employees by giving them the time and opportunities to grow. He understands that many of his employees won’t work with him forever, and that is OK. Bhatt’s employee-friendly business model has attracted a lot of attention, and Sweet 27 will be recognized in Civic Works’ upcoming Good Business Works initiative, which highlights local businesses for their commitment to high-quality workforce practices.

During my time at the café, Bhatt greeted all of the customers who came in and expressed an enormous amount of gratitude for the Remington community, which he credits for the establishment’s success. Sweet 27 is known for its easygoing atmosphere, but it has gone through its share of challenges, including the change in ownership. Despite this, Bhatt focuses on positivity and insists that “Everything goes in a circle.” The customers and employees support Sweet 27, so Sweet 27 supports and helps uplift them. It’s mutually beneficial, and everyone benefits from their place in the community.

Sweet 27 supports its community in a couple of ways. Sweet 27 hosts fundraisers as a fun way to help people and build community. (It has hosted Strong City Baltimore fundraisers in the past, including a recent one to benefit the 29th Street Community Center.) It’s not always easy for smaller, local businesses to donate money, but Bhatt recognizes that the community fuels his business and that it is important to give back in some way. Anyone is welcome to inquire about having a fundraiser at the eatery.

Another way that Sweet 27 supports its community is by championing cultural awareness and inclusivity, through its menu and its values. Last year, Sweet 27, along with a few other Baltimore-area restaurants, participated in “A Day Without Immigrants.”  The day was a part of the broader movement demanding fair and inclusive immigration policies. The decision to close was a collective one. Many of Sweet 27’s employees and customers are immigrants, and they were inspired to participate as a way to show solidarity and support for immigrant rights.

Strong City Baltimore’s neighborhood work embraces community wealth building, an approach to economic development that puts residents and communities first, valuing equity, inclusion, and sustainability. One way that that we support community wealth building in Baltimore is by spotlighting exemplary businesses that are making their communities better. For more information about Strong City’s community wealth building philosophy, click here.


Strong City Baltimore supports immigrants and refugees

Encouraging fear and hatred of immigrants goes against everything Strong City Baltimore stands for. Our mission is building and strengthening neighborhoods and people in Baltimore. Immigrants make our nation and our city stronger. Refugees are among the world’s most vulnerable populations; refusing to help them when we can is heartless. Facts and history demonstrate that we have little to fear from newcomers to our shores, and a great deal to be gained from their presence here.

This issue is personal for us. At Strong City’s Adult Learning Center, we are blessed to welcome immigrants from many lands who have sought our help leaning English and achieving their dreams. The fact is, only a few generations separate most of us from a wrenching farewell to an ancestral homeland: sometimes bound in chains, sometimes fleeing danger, sometimes with no money but full of hope for a new life.

For three hundred years, Baltimore has been at the center of the U.S. immigration story. Sometimes called “the other Ellis Island,” Baltimore in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the second-leading port of entry to the U.S. Over the decades, 1.2 million Europeans disembarked near Fort McHenry, and about 15 percent of them settled here. Germans and Irish were the largest groups, but Baltimore also welcomed thousands of Italians, Lithuanians, Poles, Czechs, Greeks, and Jews from across Europe – and later on, Koreans, Africans, Mexicans, and Salvadorans.

No matter your race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or immigration status, Strong City Baltimore welcomes you. We stand with and support every immigrant, refugee, and asylum seeker trying to make a better life in Baltimore, and we reject all efforts to whip up fear of newcomers or turn vulnerable people into scapegoats for our problems. This nation, and this city, are better than that.


GHCC Staff Spotlight: Teddy Edouard

The GHCC Blog Team recently caught up with Gusman “Teddy” Edouard , Assistant Director of GHCC’s Adult Learning Center. Teddy was recently awarded a COABE Scholarship Award from the Maryland Association of Adult Community and Continuing Education.

Teddy Gusman (left) with GHCC's Deputy Directory, Todd Elliott (right).

Teddy Edouard (left) with GHCC’s Deputy Director, Todd Elliott (right).

Congratulations on your scholarship award!  Can you tell us about your position and your primary responsibilities at the Adult Learning Center?

As the Assistant Director of the Adult Learning Center, in a nutshell, I teach English and Civics class twice a week, coordinate the English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes, assist with scheduling the ALC classes, and act as a resource person for the ALC instructors. I also plan, develop, and organize professional development for the teaching team, in collaboration with the Adult Basic Education Instructional Specialist. Furthermore, I lead the learner outreach process and help with class registration and preparation. Lastly, I contribute to the program evaluation and improvement.

What did you do before coming to the ALC?

Before joining the ALC I worked as an ESOL instructor and trainer in a variety of contexts, but my immediate previous position was a Cross-Border Program Coordinator at Plan International, where I used local US Embassies’ grant money to create the first Bi-National English Camp for teachers and high school students from Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

What a great background. Can you tell us what you like best about your job at the Adult Learning Center?

The best thing about what I do on daily basis is putting my passion into action. I really enjoy the fact that at the ALC we work together like a navy seal team; we train together, have each other’s backs, and we share one mission — providing quality learner-centered instruction to promote literacy and help foreign-born residents improve their English language skills. In other words, we put the learners at the center of our day-to-day practices and decisions. I really enjoy being part of an effective and efficient team that puts people first. On top of that, my job is very satisfying. It has allowed me to contribute to making Baltimore a Strong City by serving both natives of Baltimore and immigrants from all over the world. And seeing learners’ progress and achievements always makes my day.

What do you find most challenging about your job at the ALC?

I believe education is the silver bullet that can transforms Baltimore city; however, life’s challenges and distractions make it difficult for lots of folks to take advantage of our free classes and achieve their educational goals. That being said, students’ retention has been one of the biggest challenges I face in my line of work. That is, keeping learners engaged and motivated is what the ALC teachers work to do day-by-day. And part of my job is to help alleviate the impact of learners’ attrition on the performance of our program as a whole through the betterment of our professional development sessions and the quality of classroom instruction, using technologies to create real and authentic learning opportunities.

What do you plan to do with the scholarship award you are receiving?

My scholarship award will go toward covering expenses related to courses I take at Purdue University, such as Instructional Design and Technology. In addition, the fund will cover my subscription to a scientific journal in Instructional Design.

That’s terrific!  What do you think are the greatest challenges facing the growth of Adult Education in Baltimore City?

The top challenge is funding. Adult education providers in Baltimore do not have the necessary funding to effectively meet the needs of the adult learners, nor can they afford to hire full-time teachers and purchase the appropriate 21st century technologies that can facilitate students’ access to the indispensable skills necessary for quality jobs. This is unfortunate because whether we like it or not, parents’ education level has a big impact on their children’s educational achievement. That is to say, investing in adult education is the right thing to do if we want to also strengthen the K-12 system, which in turn will lead to improved high school graduation rates.

You give so much passion and energy to your job. What do you like to do in your time away from work?

I like spending time with my family, hanging out with my friends, and reading about the new trends in ESOL and Instructional Design. I take pleasure in working on small projects around my house. Lastly, I enjoy riding my bike around Lake Montebello and at Druid Hill Park.

Thank you, Teddy, for sharing your work and vision for adult learning with us. And congratulations on your award!


Sponsor Spotlight: UPD Consulting

The GHCC Blog Team recently caught up with Douglass Austin of UPD Consulting to talk about the benefits of city living, understanding community needs, and the importance of good beer and strong neighborhoods. 

Can you please tell us a bit about UPD Consulting? 

UPD Consulting is a Baltimore-based, minority-owned public sector management consulting firm that helps public sector agencies including local governments, school districts, state education agencies, and non-profits, transform into organizations that manage performance for better outcomes.

Douglass Austin of UPD Consulting (photo credit: Literary Lots)

Douglass Austin of UPD Consulting (photo credit: Literary Lots)

Cool! What do you love most about working in Baltimore? 

We’re city people. Most of our Baltimore-based staff live in the city. And most of our staff around the country also live in cities, not the surrounding suburbs. When we looked for a new building, our main constraint was it be in Baltimore City. I think that’s one of the reasons we relate so well to our clients who are typically urban governments or school systems. We like being a part of a neighborhood, being able to walk to get lunch or after-work cocktails. The fact that we’re now part of an older Baltimore community with lots of different things going on—instead of a sterile business park—is very appealing.

We agree wholeheartedly! So why did you choose to sponsor the 1st Annual Oktoberfest Fundraiser to support the 29th Street Community Center? 

It was kind of a no-brainer for us. We want to be a supportive and contributing member of this community, and we have sought out ways to help make this a stronger neighborhood (like the pro bono project we did for Margaret Brent Elementary/Middles School). And then there’s the beer. We’re BIG beer fans at UPD. Two of our staff members—including our Office Manager—are serious home brewers. And really good beer is featured at our own “First Thursday” happy hours we host for staff, family and friends. So, when the opportunity arose to sponsor the 29th Street Community Center’s Oktoberfest, we couldn’t say no!

Can you tell us more about that pro bono project with Margaret Brent?

We are proud of our connection to Margaret Brent,which is across the street from us. When we moved in, we decided we should try to do something “neighborly” as our introduction to the street, so instead of selling our used furniture when we outfitted our new space, we donated it to the school. That led to conversations about what we do—a lot of which has to do with schools and school district performance. And that led to a longer-term pro bono project to help the school get community input on their new principal selection process.  We held sessions where the community members gave input on the strengths and weaknesses of the school, key focus areas, and important qualities for a new principal.

You also serve as an Advisory Board member to GHCC – what is your motivation to serve in this role?

Again, it has to do with wanting to stay connected to our neighborhood and to important work that is happening in the city. When I worked for the city’s Housing Department, I was enmeshed in community development work almost every day. But most of UPD’s consulting work is in other cities around the country, so participating on GHCC’s Advisory Board is one way I can stay connected to what’s happening here in my own city.

Thank you, Doug, and UPD Consulting, for sponsoring the 1st Annual Oktoberfest and for being a great example of a community-minded business! 

Registration for Winter/Spring Programming at the 29th Street Community Center is open! You can find our program line-up here and register here