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.”