Building and Strengthening Neighborhoods and People

‘Strong Voices, Strong City’ concert honors a legacy of faith-based work in Greater Homewood

University Baptist Church in Charles Village, a past member of the Greater Homewood Interfaith Alliance.

Strong City Baltimore CEO Karen D. Stokes likes to say that great things often start in church basements. The first Strong City Neighborhood Institute, back in 2007, was held in one. The organizing work that Strong City did in Remington had its origins in meetings at Guardian Angel Episcopal Church. And for 30 years, the Adult Learning Center has operated out of the basement of our next-door neighbor, University Baptist Church.

Strong City, of course, is a strictly secular institution, but it has longstanding ties to local faith communities. Perhaps the clearest example of this was the deep connection between Strong City (then known as Greater Homewood Community Corporation, or GHCC) and a coalition of churches that was active in the late 1990s and early 2000s as the Greater Homewood Interfaith Alliance (GHIA).

To celebrate Strong City’s 50 years of work in “Greater Homewood” (several dozen neighborhoods near the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus) and to support our current and future endeavors, the Churches of Charles is presenting a special choral fundraiser on Saturday, September 28, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation on University Parkway. The concert, from 4 to 5 p.m., will feature choirs from Cathedral of the Incarnation, First English Lutheran Church, Saints Phillip and James Catholic Church, Second Presbyterian Church, and University Baptist Church. It will be followed by a reception. Buy tickets here

“GHCC was always very important for picking up on things that we at GHIA needed to explore or emphasize, and promote to our congregations. Very often, the information that we gathered to be disseminated to our congregations came from GHCC, which knew where the action was – they were a real player in the Greater Homewood Renaissance and continued to be a player afterward.”

Don Burggraf was pastor of First English Lutheran Church in Guilford for more than 25 years and a Strong City Baltimore board member for a decade, before retiring from both in 2016. He recalls the GHIA growing out of the Greater Homewood Renaissance, an initiative of local anchor institutions to improve education and social conditions in the Greater Homewood area. Education became a primary focus for GHIA, Burggraf says, with projects including “Extra Mile,” which raised thousands of dollars for basic needs like pencils and bathroom supplies; and “Sock It To Me,” which donated more than 1,000 pairs of socks to families that needed them.

GHIA formed in the late 1990s and forged partnerships with about a half-dozen local schools at a time when schools in Greater Homewood were also a heavy focus of Strong City’s work (our advocacy, for example, helped spur the building of a brand new Waverly Elementary/Middle School). So it was natural that GHCC and GHIA would work hand in hand.

“Bill Miller made GHIA a priority,” Don says of Strong City’s former executive director. “Bill, and later Karen Stokes, almost always attended our strategy sessions. I remember Karen saying that she looked at GHIA as an organization that could be a moral anchor for what GHCC was all about.”

He added: “GHCC was always very important for picking up on things that we at GHIA needed to explore or emphasize, and promote to our congregations. Very often, the information that we gathered to be disseminated to our congregations came from GHCC, which knew where the action was – they were a real player in the Greater Homewood Renaissance and continued to be a player afterward.”

Sharon Smith, former pastor of University Baptist Church who now leads the Christian community The Gathering, recalls that GHIA meetings would sometimes draw leaders from more than 20 congregations, with a geographic area ranging from Govans down to North Avenue and over to the Jones Falls Expressway. Others heavily involved in GHIA’s early days included Rev. Dale Dusman of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Father William A. Au of Saints Philip and James Catholic Church, and Bishop Douglas Miles of Koinonia Baptist Church.

Sharon says that GHIA, with help from GHCC, was able to focus the energy and activities of multiple congregations around community involvement. “Bill Miller came to our meetings and was very involved and supportive in letting people know about community needs, and aligning the resources,” she says. “There were things going on in every corner of the neighborhood, but the person on 28th Street didn’t know what the person on 26th Street was doing. We’d have our meetings at different churches and have different speakers, and we’d learn so much about the things people were doing.”

She said that when she and other pastors started talking to local school principals, it was eye-opening because many of the congregations on the Charles Street corridor are relatively affluent. Sharon says about 40 women came to her house for a two-hour meeting with Irma Johnson, principal of Dallas Nicholas Elementary School. “Irma said, ‘I lose my girls to the streets from fifth to sixth grade,” Sharon recalls the principal saying.

Sharon’s daughter, Heather Harvison, was there that night, and the meeting changed her life, inspiring her to devote herself to helping middle-school girls through that difficult period. The program that Heather conceived that evening, the nationally recognized nonprofit Sister’s Circle, has made a difference for hundreds of girls in Baltimore since it launched in 2008.

Bill Miller describes the GHIA-GHCC nexus as a partnership whose benefits flowed in two directions by creating “new connections” on both sides. He points out that the churches’ donations and volunteer involvement in GHCC-supported schools made those schools stronger, and that the churches benefited GHCC by making space available for meetings and community events that were not necessarily GHIA-related.

GHIA also provided links to other organizations that became important to GHCC’s organizing, including Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) and the Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation (GEDCO). Another point of connection: For two years, GHCC placed a VISTA service member with GHIA to work on strengthening the organization.

Bill says he was very impressed with the GHIA members’ commitment to local public schools – not just donating and volunteering, but traveling to Annapolis to lobby state officeholders. He recalls that Baltimore changed school superintendents often during that time, and that GHCC utilized GHIA as a vehicle for reaching those key leaders. “Every time there was a new superintendent, the GHIA invited them to speak and developed a connection for us, which was something we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise,” he says. “In the summer of 1998, they were involved in sponsoring a back-to-school rally on one of hottest summer days ever, and they had the new superintendent with them. They were very important to that strategy.”

Although the GHIA ceased its activities about 10 years ago, some of its spirit lives on in the smaller group Churches of Charles, which holds annual service events and other projects, and is sponsoring the “Strong Voices, Strong City” fundraiser on September 28.

“It was good while it lasted,” Sharon Smith says of the GHIA. “We were able to respond to an issue as a cohesive unit, and that had some influence.”

As Baltimore Corps goes independent, looking back on an extraordinary partnership

Baltimore Corps Fellows from 2018

Many in this city are familiar with the remarkable success of Baltimore Corps, which in just five years has established itself as a powerful force for social change in Baltimore, with a focus on leadership and talent development, especially for communities of color. 

What they may not know is that Strong City has been with Baltimore Corps since its very first steps as the initiative’s fiscal sponsorSince its inception in 2013, Baltimore Corps has operated under Strong City’s 501(c)(3) status and structure, allowing the initiative to be innovative, agile, and well supported in the extremely challenging environment that new nonprofits usually face. At the beginning of July — after six years, thousands of meetings and phone calls, hundreds of grants and contracts, countless emails, and a few late-night beers — Baltimore Corps launched as an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. The process of separation and preparing for independence took about a year. 

During this momentous transition, Strong City and Baltimore Corps are reflecting on what has been an important relationship for both sides. 

I want to thank Strong City Baltimore for six years of partnership,” said Fagan Harris, CEO and President of Baltimore Corps. “Their fiscal sponsorship services proved essential to the success and ongoing development of our organization.”  

“We look back with great satisfaction on this partnership and what it has been able to achieve for Baltimore,” said Karen D. Stokes, CEO of Strong City Baltimore 

“The story of Baltimore Corps’ beginning really shows the best and highest function of fiscal sponsorship, I think,” said Tyson. “At this time, it is so important for established organizations, like Strong City, to ask themselves, ‘how can we do the most good?’ It may be that the most good is done by stepping out of the spotlight and supporting new and dynamic leaders using the knowledge and experience we have gained over 50 years.” 

A Meaningful Impact 

Strong City helped Baltimore Corps launch its first cohort of Fellows within six months of forming; offered strategic program development assistance along with our standard fiscal sponsorship services; and provided innovative infrastructure support, especially around hiring. 

 “The services Strong City provided to Baltimore Corps during its startup phase were critical to our success. With them focused on the operational details like payroll, benefits, general human resource and financial management, our staff could be laserfocused on the core mission, added Baltimore Corps Board Vice Chair Charlene Moore Hayes.

That mission is “to enlist talent to accelerate social innovation in Baltimore and advance a citywide agenda for equity and racial justice.” Baltimore Corps accomplishes that through a suite of interconnected programs: Fellowships, which recruit professionals from inside and outside of Baltimore to help create impact within leading local organizations; Public Allies, an apprenticeship/training program focused on building racial justice and equity in a wide array of sectors; Place for Purpose, which connects talented and mission-driven job seekers to social impact career opportunities; and Mayoral Fellowships, 10-week summer internships for college students in City Hall.  

In addition, the annual Elevation Awards provide grants and personalized support to Baltimoreans of color pioneering novel approaches to strengthening the city; and athe local operating partner for the microloan program Kiva, Baltimore Corps works with small business borrowers throughout the loan process to help them succeed. Throughout all of these programs, Strong City was right there behind the curtain, managing financial and administrative operations and supporting Baltimore Corps leadership. 

Supporting the Vision 

It all started when Baltimore Corps co-founders Fagan Harris and Wes Moore brought their idea for a new kind of social innovation organization to Strong City in late 2013After hashing out the possibilities and going over the business plans, Baltimore Corps came into operation in April 2014 as a fiscally sponsored project – one that would eventually grow to become Strong City’s largest initiative, with an annual budget of more than $3 million. 

Tyson W. Garith, Strong City’s Director of Operations and the chief architect of its fiscal sponsorship program, recalls how, from the very start, this relationship went beyond providing typical fiscal sponsorship services such as auditing, HR, and accepting tax-deductible contributions.  

“This was an early instance of Strong City offering intentional capacity support as part of fiscal sponsorship,” said Tyson, noting that he was able to bring significant experience in program and leadership development from overseeing Strong City’s (since closed) AmeriCorps VISTA program. “[Fagan and I] collaborated really closely in developing and launching the first full year of the program. 

“Within six months of being with Strong City Baltimore, we placed the first class of Baltimore Corps Fellows,” Tyson recalled, noting that in at least one case, Strong City was tapped to legally function as the employer of a Fellow who was working with a city entity. Even though Baltimore Corps was a brand-new initiative, its Fellows were placed with major agencies like the Baltimore City Health Department and top local nonprofits such as Thread. “Without Strong City’s involvement,” Tyson added, it’s hard to imagine how Baltimore Corps would have launched with a class of 10 Fellows – especially with that level of placements – after forming its organization just six months prior.” 

As Baltimore Corps expanded in its second and third years, Strong City innovated to provide HR services in a way that served the burgeoning organization’s needs. There was a growing demand for Baltimore Corps Fellows to fill key roles at the Health Department and other municipal agencies, but a frozen hiring structure made it impossible for city department heads to hire them quickly. In stepped Strong City, which provided employment services to the Fellows on behalf of Baltimore Corps. The unique styling of Strong City’s payroll system made the work of these Fellows possible – to the benefit of not only Baltimore Corps but the entire city, which otherwise would not have gained such dynamic talent. 

The Fellows program has since been immensely successful, recruiting and developing well over 100 leaders in dozens of organizations, growing from nine graduates in Cohort 1 to 40 in Cohort 4. 

One continuing legacy of the partnership between Baltimore Corps and Strong City is the Elevation Awards, which is funded by the T. Rowe Price Foundation and provides local innovators of color with $5,000 to $10,000 grants, personalized support, and an opportunity to showcase their project to prospective funders after the nine-month grant period. Some Elevation Award winners chose to also join Strong City as fiscally sponsored projects. Those current and former projects include MOMCares, Kindred Community Healing, The Board Room, Reflection of Kings, H.O.P.E. Baltimore, Comm+University, and Brown and Healthy.  

Our Place in a Strong City 

Throughout its history of direct programming and fiscal sponsorship, the organization has seen initiatives evolve in countless ways. Many have chosen to remain fiscally sponsored by Strong City indefinitely, while others, like Baltimore Corps, become independent 510(c)(3)s. This was the case, for example, with Experience Corps Baltimore, an intergenerational volunteer tutoring program that was a major Strong City initiative for more than a decade before becoming independent several years ago; and with the Jones Falls Watershed Association, which separated from Strong City and evolved into the environmental nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore. Still other initiatives close their operations entirely due to lack of funding, time, or a variety of other challenging forces in the nonprofit sector.  

“The story of Baltimore Corps’ beginning really shows the best and highest function of fiscal sponsorship, I think,” said Tyson. “At this time, it is so important for established organizations, like Strong City, to ask themselves, ‘how can we do the most good?’ It may be that the most good is done by stepping out of the spotlight and supporting new and dynamic leaders using the knowledge and experience we have gained over 50 years.” 


New Relationships, Expanded Services for City’s Judy Centers

Strong City recently expanded on its already strong relationships with Baltimore’s Judy Centers – early childhood programs housed in a number of Baltimore City Public Schools. Last month, we held an orientation for six Judy Center Coordinators who were either starting a fiscally sponsored project with us or receiving new services.  Strong City now supports Judy Centers at seven elementary schools: Liberty, Arlington, Curtis Bay, Harford Heights, Moravia, Arundel, and Eutaw Marshburn; and one elementary/middle school, Commodore John Rodgers. The relationships with Liberty and Commodore John Rodgers are longstanding ones, while some of the others are more recent.

Sarah Bollard, the Citywide Judy Center Coordinator, explains that, “Judy Centers have the primary mission of ensuring that all children living in their school’s zone will enter kindergarten ready for school. We provide parenting classes, case management support, and connect children to high quality child care, Head Start, and pre-k programming.”

Strong City supports Judy Centers through the fiscal sponsorship of “Friends of” groups at the centers,  helping them to access flexible and responsive human resources, purchasing, and an avenue for fundraising.

Judy Centers with fiscally sponsored projects have more flexibility and choice.

“Judy Centers are a really important part of the resources available to families, and we have found a number of ways where the quality and breadth of that programming can be enhanced through Strong City’s fiscal sponsorship of these ‘Friends of’ groups,” says Tyson W. Garith, Strong City’s Director of Operations. He describes the connection between Strong City and the Judy Centers as a “five-lane highway” because the relationship facilitates the success of the Centers in many different ways – one of which is the ability to do independent fundraising, as Commodore John Rodgers did two years ago after its playground was destroyed by a fire. Judy Centers with fiscally sponsored projects also have more flexibility and choice in where they purchase supplies, which helps Coordinators to do more with their budgets.

Strong City has a long and varied history of supporting public education in Baltimore, including co-founding the Baltimore Education Coalition, serving as lead agency for a number of Community Schools, and focusing on schools in our neighborhood organizing work.  Judy Centers are similar to Community Schools in that both focus on wraparound services, parent engagement, community input, and eliminating barriers to success.

“We have supported schools since the beginning of our organization 50 years ago, and Baltimore City Public Schools is a longstanding partner of ours,” says Strong City CEO Karen D. Stokes.

Judy Centers are funded by the Maryland General Assembly via the Judith B. Hoyer Grant and a small grant from the Baltimore Community Foundation. Of the 54 Judy Centers in Maryland, 11 are in Baltimore City. The Kirwan Commission that is studying statewide education funding recommends significantly expanding Judy Centers in high-poverty areas.

“We would love the opportunity to expand throughout the city,” Sarah Bollard says. “I truly believe that each family in Baltimore deserves these great services, and would love to see an even greater reach throughout Baltimore.”

Judy Center Coordinators attend an orientation session with Strong City Director of Operations Tyson W. Garith (standing).


Strong City Welcomes 8 New Fiscally Sponsored Projects as Part of First ‘Start Up Track’

Strong City recently welcomed eight new fiscally sponsored projects as part of our first-ever “Start Up Track.” The new projects in our 2019 Spring Start Up Track are: ART Inside/Out, Arts + Parks, BLISS Meadows, The Charin Foundation (Take the Lead), ConnectED, Higher Ground Harm Reduction, the Maryland Trans Resilience Conference, and Women With CLASS.

The Start Up Track  improves on Strong City’s former method of bringing in new fiscally sponsored projects that are in their early stages, are led by folks that are new to nonprofit management, and have little or no funding.

Artist and educator Nikia Kigler enjoys working with adults and is drawn to nontraditional educational settings, so perhaps it’s no surprise that her fiscally sponsored project, ART Inside/Out, helps incarcerated people to find their creative side. She says her prison-based arts program “creates a safe space for adults to create art within the walls of the institution, with the hope that they may grow artistically, spiritually, and intellectually through the art-making process.” Nikia currently works with male inmates at the Patuxent Institution and is hoping to expand on that work in the future. An artist and MICA graduate, she got the idea for ART Inside/Out after she began volunteering inside a prison at the suggestion of a friend who was incarcerated. She hopes that Strong City will open doors to funding as well as help her understand the business of how nonprofits work. She wants to eventually develop a curriculum that she can sell online to create a sustainable funding stream.

Arts + Parks, led by Elise Victoria, Justin Nethercut, Terrell Brown, and Jake Balter operates in underserved communities in Baltimore to address the gross disparities in access to green space and public art in urban areas. Working hand in hand with communities, Arts + Parks is committed to using public street art projects and intentional landscaping to bring back meaning, pride, and beauty to forgotten spaces and struggling communities.

BLISS Meadows, led by Atiya Wells and Keiron George, is an initiative to create equitable access to green space through the formation of a 2.5-acre community farm adjoining 7.5 acres of additional open space in Baltimore’s Frankford neighborhood. BLISS stands for Baltimore Living in Sustainable Simplicity. The long-term vision includes farm animals, native plant meadows, food production, children’s activities, demonstration gardens, and environmental education.

The Charin Foundation (Take the Lead), led by Meizona Willis, will develop youth as leaders and bolster the teaching profession in Baltimore City by pairing middle and high school interns in Title 1 schools with mentor teachers, where the interns will train in small-group interventions and learn to tutor younger students. This programming will support students and teachers with affordable individualized learning opportunities and create early job experience for the interns.

Chana Feldman, the leader of ConnectED, says her project combines her skills as an educator with her longstanding interest in supporting Jewish seniors in the Baltimore area. ConnectED aims to bring together young people and older residents in the Jewish community to form relationships based on caring and trust. “Children, young students benefit from developing trusted relationships, and seniors are a good candidate group for this – they really benefit from human connections,” Chana says. As a small organization – just her and her husband – Chana says being part of Strong City will allow ConnectED to apply for grants and other funding they couldn’t otherwise access.

Higher Ground Harm Reduction, led by Christine Rodriguez, proposes to increase the ability of harm reductionists, syringe service programs, community-based naloxone distribution programs, drug users’ unions, and communities of people who use drugs and/or engage in sex work to prepare for, respond to, and recover after disasters, particularly in the event of systems failures. The geographic scope is the United States and Territories, with future potential for tailored aspects of programming to be dedicated locally in Baltimore, where the project is based/founded.

The Maryland Trans Resilience Conference is the first effort in Maryland to create an annual event run by transgender people to address their needs around health and wellness. “The point of the conference is to create a gathering, networking space for trans people in Maryland, and for it to be trans led – because many things for the trans community and not led by trans people,” explained Lee Blinder, one of the project’s leaders. The Conference in its first year will include a focus on health, wellness, legal, social, and emotional issues. The need for this is urgent, said Londyn Smith-De Richelieu, another of the project’s leaders, because “trans people are dying, especially black and brown people in Baltimore.” The other leaders of the project are Dre Cortez, Lily Amara Pastor, and Ngaire Rose Philip.

Women with CLASS (Character, Leadership, Achievement, Strength, Success) is a leadership program that consists of active participation workshops, team building activities, mentor meet-ups, and a closing ceremony. Katia Fortune started the program to address the need for more leadership development for high school-aged students in Baltimore City. Women with CLASS is targeted toward young women (grades 9-12) who live in Baltimore and want to become leaders in society but may struggle with access to leadership programs for various reasons.

Maryland Daily Record: Trump administration chips in $1.6M for Hoen & Co. Lithograph Building

By: Adam Bednar Daily Record Business Writer June 10, 2019

John C. Fleming, U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, says the Hoen & Co. project could help revitalize that section of east Baltimore. (The Daily Record/Adam Bednar)

Bill Struever, CEO of Cross Street Partners, has delivered a litany of adaptive reuses of historic buildings in his 45 year career as a developer. Overhauling the Hoen & Co. Lithograph Building in east Baltimore ranks among the most complicated.

Cross Street Partners, working with collaborators Strong City Baltimore and City Life Community Builders, is converting the east Baltimore industrial property, shuttered since 1981, into a mixed-use project including nonprofit offices and a workforce training center. Redevelopment of the building, which dates back to the 1890s, is expected to cost roughly $29 million.

“This would be up there in terms of complications. I think we had 17 different sources of funds that had to come into this, and we’re still working at it,” Struever said with a laugh. “We’re not done putting all the money together, so it’s a great adventure and not for the faint of heart.”

The U.S. Department of Commerce via its Economic Development Administration can now be counted among the funding sources. The federal agency said Monday it is providing $1.6 million to City Life Community Builders for infrastructure work at the Hoen & Co. complex.

Federal money, which will be matched with $1.1 million in local funds, will be used to build adequate water, storm, sewer and sanitary infrastructure for the project. The commerce department anticipates the overhaul of the complex will create 100 jobs and spur $43 million in private investment.

The 85,000-square-foot Hoen & Co. Lithograph Building complex is slated to open in early 2020 as the Center for Neighborhood Innovation.

Strong City Baltimore will serve as the anchor tenant with its office and Adult Learning Center at the property. Associated Builders and Contractors-Baltimore also plans to run the city’s largest construction workforce training and job placement center.

Neighborhoods around the lithograph building, such as Collington Square, have struggled with disinvestment and vacant properties in recent decades. A host of new investment, in part spurred by growth just to the south surrounding the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus, is offering signs of revitalization for the area.

American Communities Trust is investing $23.5 million to turn the old Eastern Pumping Station into the Baltimore Food Hub a few blocks away. Southern Baptist Church continues pursuing new developments in the area after the completion of the Mary Harvin Center.

John C. Fleming, U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for economic development,  touted the potential to attract additional private investment to east Baltimore because of its location in an opportunity zone. Opportunity zones, created as part of the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, encourage investors to reinvest capital gains in designated struggling census tracts. Maryland has 149 such zones with more than 40 in Baltimore.

The zones offer investors incentives, such as deferring taxes on capital gains until 2026. The top incentive for these investments, made through a qualified opportunity zone fund, come at the 10-year mark. At that point the lender avoids paying capital gains taxes from appreciation on the initial investment.

“Under the opportunity zones you can mitigate, or avoid all together, the taxes on your investment, which not only creates a return on investment for you financially, but also socially. Think of all the great social things we can do with your money that is invested in opportunity zones,” Fleming said.

Critics of the zones say they amount to little more than tax shelters for urban areas already poised to attract investments without any incentives. Activists also argue opportunity zone investments increase potential to displace residents from communities.

Karen Stokes, executive director of the nonprofit Strong City Baltimore, said the Hoen & Co. Lithograph Building represents an opportunity for her 50-year-old organization to bring new life to the neighborhood and maintain east Baltimore’s working-class roots.

Serving as an anchor tenant with the potential for an ownership stake allows Strong City Baltimore to play a role in the neighborhood’s revitalization, she said. The nonprofit, originally the Greater Homewood Community Corp., envisions the area as a place where people working jobs as custodians and nurses aides at Johns Hopkins can buy a home for $125,000 to $160,000. “Our vision is very much about returning this to a working-class neighborhood,” Stokes said.

Despite the complicated finances, Struever remained excited by the potential for the lithograph building complex. Struever, whose adaptive reuse projects range from east Baltimore’s American Brewery building to the Boston Red Sox’s Fenway Park, remaines excited about the Hoen & Co. building’s potential. “This is going to be a rock star among adaptive reuse projects,” Struever said.

Developers, government officials and civic leaders were at the Hoen & Co. Lithograph Building project Monday to announce federal funding. (The Daily Record/Adam Bednar)