Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

Strong City Baltimore is getting a new home, but its mission is the same

Originally published in The Baltimore Sun on 12/27/19.

More than 50 years ago, a group of anchor institutions and residents in north-central Baltimore organized with the goal of strengthening the neighborhoods around Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus and stemming white flight. After the 1968 civil unrest, these efforts took on more urgency and led to the creation of a new nonprofit organization, Greater Homewood Community Corporation.

That nonprofit, now called Strong City Baltimore, has shown remarkable staying power — often adapting in response to changing needs but never losing its focus on building and strengthening neighborhoods and people. Now, after a half-century in Charles Village, we are embarking on our biggest change yet as we relocate in the coming days to our new home at the The A. Hoen & Co Lithograph building in East Baltimore’s Collington Square community. This impending move has raised understandable questions about whether Strong City is giving up its work in north-central Baltimore. The answer is a resounding no.

We can have citywide impact without forgetting where we came from.

Read the rest of this Op-Ed by CEO Karen D. Stokes in The Baltimore Sun here.


Press Release: Strong City Baltimore Relocates to Historic Hoen Lithograph Building on East Side

For Immediate Release 

Media Inquiries: Samantha Solomon, ssolomon@strongcitybaltimore.org301-706-0445 

After 50 years in Charles Village, the grassroots nonprofit Strong City Baltimore is opening a new chapter in its history. As of January 6, 2020, the organization well-known for its community building, adult education, and fiscal sponsorship programs will anchor the newly renovated Hoen Lithograph Building in East Baltimore’s Collington Square neighborhood, part of the greater Broadway East area. 

“For five decades, Strong City has found innovative ways to support neighborhoods and their leaders,” said CEO Karen D. Stokes. “We believe we can be a force for good in East Baltimore, not because we have all the answers but because we understand the questions when it comes to neighborhood development. We have a long history of working alongside local residents to help them achieve their vision of positive community change.” 

The abandoned 85,000-square-foot Hoen complex was an eyesore for nearly four decades, after the printing company that owned it went out of business in 1981. The nearly $30 million project involved 18 separate sources of funding to leverage federal New Market Tax Credits. It represents a major economic investment in a section of Baltimore that has suffered from decades of neglect but may now be on the cusp of a renaissance. 

Collington Square neighborhood leader Ella Durant, a member of Strong City’s Board of Directors, recalls visiting the Hoen Building on school outings, when it was thriving and supported hundreds of middle-class jobs for local residents.  

“This is a wonderful neighborhood, but what’s missing has been real investment,” Durant said. “I think this could be the start of a major turnaround for Collington Square.” 

Besides Strong City, the occupants will include Associated Builders and Contractors-Baltimore, which is consolidating its training facilities at the Hoen complex; Cross Street Partners, the project’s lead developer, which is relocating its offices from Canton; and City Life Community Builders, a workforce training-focused nonprofit. 

By bringing activity and investment back to this section of East Baltimore, the Hoen project has transformative potential. The partners in this effort envision a Center for Neighborhood Innovation in the complex, bringing together nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and visionaries in a shared space serving the neighborhood and city with workforce, 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,” Stokes said. “But over the last decade, we have become a truly citywide organization with our Adult Learning Center, educational advocacy work, and more than 100 fiscally sponsored projects.”  

A. Hoen & Co., established in Baltimore in 1835, was the oldest continuously operating lithographer in the United States and one of the most prolific such companies in the world. In its early years, the company specialized in precise cartographic, scientific, and pictorial illustration, producing maps that were influential in westward expansion and setting national boundaries. In the 20th century, its products ranged from world-famous National Geographic Society maps, to baseball cards, to labels for products such as Chunk-E-Nut peanut butter. Hoen occupied the building from 1902 to 1981.  

The Hoen Building renovation was made possible by robust support from the city and state, which together have provided $5.7 million in grants to date (in addition to $3 million in State Historic Tax Credits). Many city and state leaders were forceful advocates for the project, including Maryland Secretary of Housing and Community Development Kenneth C. Holt and Baltimore Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman.

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Strong City Baltimore, founded in 1969, is a grassroots nonprofit whose mission is building and strengthening neighborhoods and people in Baltimore. It believes that Baltimore is strengthened by supporting community-based initiatives and leaders through direct programming and fiscal sponsorship. A full list of direct programs can be found here. A full list of fiscally sponsored projects can be found here. 


Executive Director Jesse Schneiderman Brings New Vision for ALC’s Future in East Baltimore

As the new Executive Director of Strong City Baltimore’s Adult Learning Center, Jesse Schneiderman isn’t going “back to school.” The fact is, he never left. 

Jesse, who grew up in the New York City suburb of New Rochelle, was still in high school when he knew he wanted to be an educator. He studied history at the University of Delaware as a steppingstone to a teaching career, and followed that with an internship in Tel Aviv, Israel, working at the education office of a museum and with a nonprofit that used soccer as a teaching tool. Jesse then moved on to a master’s degree in education at Wilmington University (which is when he met his partner, Megan, who he shares a home with in Upper Fells Point). 

Jesse taught high school civics for two years in New York City before following Megan to Baltimore, where she was accepted into a Hopkins program for nursing students returning from the Peace Corps. He joined the staff of Frederick Douglass High School in West Baltimore teaching history and civics there for five years and taking on a heavy load of extracurricular responsibilities, including student government advisor, debate coach, and director of student activities and school culture and climate. 

Still a student himself, Jesse is currently in the final days of completing his education doctorate in Urban Leadership at Johns Hopkins University, with a dissertation on student sense of belonging. He left Douglass after the 2018-19 school year to focus more intensively on completing his degree. After he saw an ad for the Adult Learning Center, he signed up to become a part-time GED teacher, which gave him an inside look at the operations and atmosphere of the ALC. 

“I realized this was a strong community, a special environment for learners,” Jesse says. “This is a warm place to be – you can feel that when you’re here.” 

Jesse was thinking about what direction his career would take next, when former ALC Director Regina Boyce left earlier this year to focus full-time on her job as a state delegate. He was committed to staying in Baltimore and interested in the local nonprofit sectorbut it had to be the right organization. 

“I was evaluating nonprofits for authenticity of mission,” Jesse explains. “I found Strong City and the ALC to be very true to their mission. They back up what they want to do with what they actually do, so I was excited to apply.” 

Jesse is joining the senior ranks of Strong City’s leadership at a pivotal moment for the organization, which in a few weeks will leave its decades-long home in Charles Village and relocate to the Hoen Lithograph Building in East Baltimore. For the ALC, this means moving out of the basement of University Baptist Church and into a more spacious environment filled with natural light that is handicapped-accessible and has modern classrooms and equipment. 

“Physically, it’s a nicer space. We will have more room to offer stuff, different programming and services,” Jesse says. “And the community there needs what we can offer more than Charles Village does.” 

Jesse has a vision for the ALC as a place that does more than train people in GED preparation and English as a Second Language. He wants it to be “like a Community School for adults,” with wraparound services and programs such as expungement clinics and social and health services. He wants all ALC staff and students trained on using Narcan, for example. 

“Long term, I would like to have a social worker on staff,” he says. “Short term, we are going to create partnerships with organizations to do job and skills training. We are the experts in adult learning, and that means more than teaching GED and ESL.” 

Jesse also sees opportunities to monetize some of the ALC’s services. Free GED and ESL classes for people who need them will continue, of course. But those who are able to pay could fund additional services for those who can’t. “We can be creative in offering classes,” Jesse says. “There’s a huge clientele at Hopkins – we can offer paid English language classes, and this way we can offer more to our learners who need it. We can be both proprietary and mission driven.” 

Jesse has already been making connections with organizations that do job training, anchor institutions such as Hopkins, agencies like the Mayor’s Office of African American Male Engagement, and street-level projects like Ceasefire and Safe Streets. “Long term, I see us as a wraparound center that happens to provide classes. Short term – without the funds to do it fully ourselves – we’ll get as creative as possible with our partners.” 

In his spare time, Jesse enjoys working on various social justice causes, going to the gym, watching TV, and hanging out with his partner and their dog, Waffles. He is also a sports nut – especially soccer, but also basketball, football, and baseball. (He’s a Yankees fan, but this can perhaps be forgiven as his father grew up in the Bronx.) 

A runner, Jesse also plans to buy a bike for the short daily ride from Fells to the Hoen Building in Collington Square. Strong City and the ALC will officially be open for business in the new location on January 6, 2020. 

“I’m really excited about the opportunity to drive this mission in a new place,” he says. “It’s not a chance you often get.” 


NNFS Annual Gathering Reflects Growth and Depth in the Fiscal Sponsorship Industry

From left to right: Asta Petkeviciute from Social Impact Commons, Kim Lillig and Josh Clement from Strong City Baltimore present.

Fiscal sponsors from across the country convened in Philadelphia at the end of October for the National Network of Fiscal Sponsors (NNFS) National Gathering. In this still-burgeoning sector of the nonprofit industry, the Gathering is a vital space for fiscal sponsors to share challenges, find solutions, and advance the work of fiscal sponsorship. This year, the gathering was hosted by Urban Affairs Coalition (UAC), a close partner of Strong City Baltimore’s.

Attendance grew by nearly 50% as compared to last year, with 200 people representing over 70 fiscal sponsors from 19 states, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. And Greg Colvin, “father” of the sector and author of Fiscal Sponsorship 6: Ways to Do it Right (commonly referred to as the fiscal sponsorship bible), promoted the recently updated third edition of the book.

Strong City attended for the fifth year in a row. Seven staff members from the operations and finance departments participated in nearly every workshop.

Strong City was an industry educator this year, leading a workshop on “Financial Success and Fulfilling Your Mission: How fiscal sponsors can more effectively manage their social enterprises in order to meet their mission.” Assistant Director of Operations Kim Lillig and Development Consultant (former Grants Manager) Josh Clement teamed with Asta Petkeviciute from Social Impact Commons and presented how to use research and data as a tool for making strategic decisions about fiscal sponsorship business models.

“We had over 30 [executive and finance directors] in the room asking questions and digging deep into our data,” said Kim. “Two of my favorite phrases I heard this year were: ‘Overhead is necessary, not a necessary evil’ and ‘Effective management happens through agency, not authority.’”

As with previous years, staff noted that fiscal sponsors across the country are struggling with the same challenges, from covering the cost of services to clear communication to effective evaluation.

UAC revealed they raise approximately $1 million every year to cover the cost of their services not met by charging 10% of their projects’ revenue. This is the national average fee for fiscal sponsors, which Strong City also uses.

Industry consultant Andrew Schulman noted in his takeaways that communicating the benefit of fiscal sponsorship, especially to prospective funders, is an ongoing challenge. During the Funding Panel, representatives from across the funding sector continued to push the narrative that the onus was on the fiscal sponsor to better explain the benefits by improving marketing strategies, while not bogging funders down with too many details.

Conversations about program evaluation revealed that nearly all sponsors struggle with collecting effective data due to low response rates, inability to standardize data points to the variety of work done by projects, and a lack of capacity and resources to focus on this need.

Despite the shared challenges, staff also found the Gathering to be stimulating and rejuvenating.

CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia placed fiscal sponsorship in a historical context, dating back to 500 C.E., using the language of commons.

“The main impact of understanding the history and placing fiscal sponsorship in the context of ‘communing’ is to use common language, which is more concerned with pooling of resources than more traditional capitalistic language,” said Josh, who attended the session.

“The idea is that they want the projects to feel like they are joining a movement as compared to purchasing a service, which fundamentally changes the relationship.”

Lynette Hodge, who was recently promoted to Portfolio Manager, found the Leaders of Color session to be a welcoming space where intersectionality and humanity in the workplace amongst staffers of color was discussed.

“The commentary in the room assured me, as a woman of color, that Strong City is doing a lot of the same anti-racist work that many other organizations are, and, in some cases, we have a lot to offer,” said Lynette.

Kenya Pope, Initiative Bookkeeper, found her first Gathering to be a full and rich learning experience where she could speak the unique language of fiscal sponsorship and be understood. As a result of the conference, Kenya is leading efforts to explore a new software that could integrate the multiple financial systems Strong City is currently using.

“One of my takeaways from the conference: With cobbled systems, we as accountants/bookkeepers are pegged to be data processors; but with integrated systems, we can do the data analysis,” said Kenya.

Danielle Conway, Payroll and Human Resources (HR) Associate, was initially unsure what value there would be for her to attend the conference. She found that HR professionals in the fiscal sponsorship sector all face similar challenges and came away confident that the conference had equipped her with new tools and strategies.

“I was also grateful for the experience to network with more experienced professionals in our field who were generous enough to not only share their knowledge but offered themselves as a continuous resource for Strong City,” said Danielle.

Director of Operations Tyson W. Garith, who has been working in fiscal sponsorship for 11 years and is considered one of the top experts in the sector by fiscal sponsorship peers, left the conference with a renewed sense of confidence.

“This year, I think my most exciting learning was an affirmation – Strong City is operating within the best practices of the fiscal sponsorship sector, and any challenges we may face are shared by our fiscal sponsorship colleagues across the country,” said Tyson.

“We’re working in the right direction, and with an excellent network of support and collaboration. I’m so proud to be part of Strong City’s fiscal sponsorship work!”


Karen Stokes on Strong City’s Future at the Hoen Building in East Baltimore

With Strong City’s much-anticipated move to the Hoen Lithograph Building just weeks away, we sat down with CEO Karen D. Stokes to hear from her why the organization is making this move, how it will affect the work Strong City does, and what the future may hold.

Q: This organization has been a fixture in North Central Baltimore for 50 years – most of that time as Greater Homewood Community Corporation, and since 2015 as Strong City Baltimore. Why move now?

A: An effective organization responds to changing needs and conditions. Our commitment to Baltimore and its neighborhoods has never wavered, but Strong City has seen many changes since our founding in 1969. Certain programs we were strongly identified with – Experience Corps and VISTA, for example – are no longer in our portfolio. On the other hand, we now operate two highly successful community and after-school centers. Our biggest change has been going from having a handful of fiscally sponsored projects a decade ago to being the largest fiscal sponsor in Baltimore.

Around the time we changed our name, I began thinking about the future of this organization beyond my tenure as CEO. I wanted to leave a meaningful legacy. We brought many of our founders to meet with the Board of Directors to discuss the future of Strong City. They regretted that they had never found a permanent home for the organization. I also was concerned that we had outgrown our current space, which was not handicapped accessible, and that as renters we were not building value for the future.

The board and I decided that we should own our own building, but the question was: Where? We looked carefully for a place where we would be welcome, and where our physical presence could make a positive difference. We were approached by Bill Struever of Cross Street Partners about the Hoen Building in East Baltimore’s Collington Square. A number of past development attempts there had failed, but Bill and I were both intrigued by the possibilities. Participating on the team that put together the financing package to make this work has been the biggest challenge of my professional life. But we finally closed on the building in January 2019, and we will be moving in this coming January.

Q: What should people know about the Hoen Building?

A: It’s a remarkable structure – actually, series of structures, built over a course of several decades starting in the late 1800s. Strong City’s operations and Adult Learning Center will be in the largest building, and our partners will occupy the rest of the complex. Although we will be tenants at first, if all goes according to plan, after seven years we will have the opportunity to “buy-out” the developer and become the owners, if we raise enough funding via a capital campaign.

The building itself is a gem. For about 80 years, the A. Hoen & Sons Lithograph Building was a manufacturing hub in East Baltimore, employing thousands of workers engaged in lithographic printing techniques. It was a center for this type of work in North America, producing an astonishing variety of printed products, from baseball cards to beautiful maps inserted into National Geographic magazine, to a wide array of advertising signs and labels. Many of the original stone plates used in this printing process were discovered when building renovations started and have been rescued. Sadly, the factory closed in the early 1980s and was abandoned for nearly four decades, becoming an eyesore with broken windows and trees growing through the roof. Cross Street Partners are experts in adaptive reuse of historic buildings, and along with City Life Historic Properties, they have brought this architectural beauty back to life, preserving many original historic features.

Q: You said something a moment ago about wanting to be in “a place where our physical presence could make a positive difference.” What did you mean by that?

A: For the Baltimore ’68 book project, Frankie Gamber wrote an essay pointing out that Strong City’s focus has always been on “where we live.” We were formed in the late 1960s at a time of great racial and social upheaval, but we never were a civil rights organization in the traditional sense. We supported racial equality and integration not as stand-alone issues but as part of a package of values inspired by a deep commitment to North Central Baltimore. Our goal was maintaining “Greater Homewood” as a place with strong and stable neighborhoods. That meant improving schools, supporting neighborhood leaders, offering a mix of housing options, and everything else that makes a neighborhood strong.

The work has not been easy, and progress is imperfect at best. Still, we have made great strides in these neighborhoods over the years, working with many partners. That progress is described in our forthcoming book, Building Blocks: Stories of Neighborhood Transformation From Strong City Baltimore. Now, we hope to achieve something similar in a different area of the city, one that could greatly benefit from our long experience and skills in organizing and asset-based community development. The Hoen Building, reimagined as the Center for Neighborhood Innovation (CNI), can serve as a catalyst for change “north of the tracks” – just blocks from Johns Hopkins Hospital, and yet a world away in terms of neighborhood conditions. Our ultimate hope is to create, with community input, not just a thriving Hoen Building but a revitalized neighborhood with good, affordable housing for Kennedy Krieger and Hopkins lab techs, nurse’s aides, custodians, and office workers, and small businesses springing up to serve both new and legacy residents.

Q: Does this mean you are cutting ties with North Central Baltimore?

A: Absolutely not! We have been citywide for at least a decade, but our roots in North Central Baltimore neighborhoods run deep, and many things will not change as a result of this move. For example, we will continue to operate the 29th Street Community Center in the heart of North Central, and to staff the Margaret Brent, Guilford, and Govans schools with Community School Coordinators. We are actively exploring ways to continue our community building work in the York Road Corridor. We are still the community partner for the Greenmount Avenue LINCS initiative. Our fiscal sponsorship still supports many community associations in this area, and we are the Healthy Neighborhoods administrator for eligible neighborhoods in this part of town. We have many friends and partners in “Greater Homewood,” and those relationships will continue.

Q: How will the people Strong City serves be affected by this change?

A: Many will hardly notice it. We will serve our 90-plus fiscally sponsored and fiscally managed initiatives the same as we always have – but in a more comfortable, professional, and inviting environment. Our staff will have a better working space. And we will be able to bring our traditional neighborhood work – community organizing, blight remediation, supporting businesses, grassroots advocacy – to an area of the city that is new for us.

Q: What about the Adult Learning Center?

A: Our adult learners will probably see the biggest benefits from this move. We are grateful to University Baptist Church for providing the ALC with space for almost 25 years, but the CNI will offer amenities that a church basement just can’t: newly renovated classrooms, lots of natural light, sufficient space, handicapped access, updated computer labs, no more waiting lists. Also, the ALC will share a campus with workforce development partners City Life Community Builders and Associated Builders and Contractors, which could create some synergies for the learners.

Q: Tell us a little more about your new neighborhood.

A: It is literally the “other side of the tracks,” just north of where the Amtrak train right-of-way makes a wide swoop through the Broadway East neighborhood. Collington Square is part of an old story in Baltimore – a familiar example of the neglect and disinvestment seen throughout the city’s “Black Butterfly.” We see many abandoned houses, little economic activity, pockets of drug and gang activity. At the same time, there are considerable assets on which to build, starting with the refurbished Hoen Building itself.

There are five active African-American churches in or near the neighborhood that are interested in the revitalization of the area. Around the corner from Hoen is The Club at Collington Square, a vital after-school and summer camp program that serves 100 local families and was kept open when Strong City took over operating it in 2017. Other neighborhood assets include Collington Square Elementary School, Collington Square Park, and the COR Health Institute. Just a few blocks away are Humanim’s headquarters in the American Brewery Building, beautifully restored by Cross Street Partners; the Baltimore Food Hub, being developed by American Communities Trust at the old Eastern Pumping Station; Dayspring Programs, a residential center that supports women in recovery and their children; and Southern Baptist Church’s Mary Harvin Center. And, of course, we are a short walk from the city’s largest employer, Johns Hopkins Medical Campus. The potential for good things to happen in this neighborhood is huge.