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.”