An innovative grant program in Baltimore is showing what one citizen and a big idea can do to change a community.
After decades of disinvestment, the city of Baltimore faces overwhelming challenges. Baltimore Corps cuts through pessimism and inaction by focusing efforts at a human scale — enlisting local talent to advance a citywide agenda for equity and racial justice. The organization launched a grassroots initiative called the Elevation Awards. Started in the wake of 2015 protests surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, the program provides planning grants of $10,000 and personalized support to Baltimore City residents who are people of color piloting novel approaches to strengthen Baltimore communities.
From education to prisons, to housing and homelessness, these awardees’ impact goes both wide and deep. They are finding specific solutions that could only have been devised by people already embedded in community life. By providing award winners the proper support, the Elevation Awards are not just allowing original ideas to flourish, but cultivating a new cohort of local leaders and social entrepreneurs.
As the community grapples with the effects of COVID-19, Baltimore Corps is working collectively to engineer a strong public-health response and eventually, to usher in an economic recovery, focusing on staffing critical frontline roles and advocating for the small business community. After our initial visits, we were able to check in on each of these entrepreneurs to see how their work has been affected by COVID-19. You can read their inspirational stories below.
Fagan Harris has devoted his career to finding original, viable solutions to our most urgent public challenges. He co-founded Baltimore Corps in 2013.
Right after the 2015 uprising and Freddie Gray, we started really reflecting on our own work. We thought, are we really doing enough to elevate the assets in our community? So we ended up launching the Elevation Awards.
The theory was pretty simple: What if we went to the most disinvested ZIP codes in West Baltimore? What if we did really grassroots outreach? And what if we had a mobile-friendly app that had three questions:
1. What’s your big idea?
2. Why is it important?
3. What would you do with $10,000 cash?
That’s it. We got almost 500 applications from three ZIP codes in four weeks. It’s mind boggling. And that’s when we were like, oh, we’ve struck a nerve here.
I find our community leaders, in a lot of ways, are shockingly apolitical. At the neighborhood level, all that stuff falls away because you’re just dealing with human beings and human concerns. What they’re talking about goes a step beyond politics; it’s about what are we doing for people?
These are some of my favorite people on planet earth, and I think they deserve the attention more than anybody. There are people like that in neighborhoods and communities all over this country. If you just get your arms around them and invest in them, what they’re capable of is just through the roof.
More Than a Shop supports the outsized role that barbershops play in community life. The program empowers owners to become centers for information, health resources, quality food, and even art.
Being a barber is more than just cutting hair. It’s being dedicated to the community.
The barber shop is the only resource and the only entity in the community that hasn’t been tainted. It’s a haven. The public school system has been tainted, the hospitals, the churches. So people come to the barber shop and ask for resources. I say, we will address the issue.
In this community you have a 48% high school completion. You’re sitting right across the street from the market and it’s a food desert. There are information deserts, health deserts, resource deserts, along with social and economic injustice. How do you address these issues?
What I’m doing now is, I’ve formed a coalition of other barbers around the city. The More Than a Shop initiative partners with other projects and organizations to address these issues, and bring forth a healthier community in scale and culture. We cover all of our ground.
We now are working to collaborate with the hospitals in the city because Baltimore is a hospital-based city. We can partner with them to address the health issues as well.
We’ve used the art as a gateway to expand the mind. We’re bringing art to the community, and community to the art with my Luvs Art program.
We can help the Census Bureau, too. All they want to do is knock on the few doors that look occupied. Do they understand that all of those houses on that block are occupied?
I believe in solutions.
I had a gentleman in my chair. I heard the ruckus. They came in shooting and no particular target; just a random act. I didn’t realize that I had got shot because I was checking with everybody else. I feel something burning in the back of my neck and I felt a warmth. At that moment, I became real angry. This could be real severe, real critical. And my work isn’t done. My work isn’t done. From that moment on, it had a snowball effect. I really have got to move forward with this and get this message out.
I don’t blame the young guy. Because you have got to understand the whole scenario. My question is: how could I have helped you?
You’re supposed to have compassion. It’s more important to be understanding than understood. These days everybody wants to be understood; what about being understanding for somebody else?
I am Baltimore.
More Than a Shop has deepened its work as a community resource since the pandemic by developing its alliance with Kaiser Permanente which collaborates with barbershops to disseminate information about health. A new initiative for Troy is partnering with a local food distribution organization. It distributes the food where the real needs are. “The barber knows who has hunger issues in the community and is connected to the needs through direct and trusted relationships.” The time off has offered perspective to Troy, who, as a community advocate, is dedicated to addressing social wellness starting at home in Baltimore.
93% of teachers believe that social-emotional learning is as important as academic learning. Only 22% of them feel prepared to teach it. Infinite Focus Schools bridges the gap.
I was educated in Baltimore City, and I was in education for about 10 years. At some point, I was promoted to a school-leadership position as the director of climate and culture.
Meditation is a part of my life. It brings peace, understanding. That inner landscape is revolutionary, powerful, transformative. So I said it would be really great if we could do this with our kids. I know that mindfulness is really hot right now, and a lot of different schools are utilizing it, so I did some research on different programs but we couldn’t afford it.
At first, I just wrote a social-emotional curriculum that utilized mindfulness, and then Monday through Thursday, mindfulness volunteers would come in and lead sessions. But then, in November, I had a vision of using technology: simplifying it, making it easy, effective, accessible. So I did a lot of research on the market and found a lot of mindfulness apps, some of them for children. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel.
Infinite Focus Schools. We merge social-emotional learning and mindfulness into one technology platform, and we measure social-emotional learning in real time. We collect mood data, too. For example, if a student is angry or depressed, that data is collected. The teacher gets a notification. We also collect it in aggregate form so you can see, Jennifer is upset 40% of the time; we need an intervention for her. You can look at these data strands and get really specific. The point is to get the appropriate resources and help.
There’s no lesson planning. You don’t have to wait for your school to do it. It’s made by teachers, for teachers. It’s affordable. The teacher has autonomy about how they want to do this program. We’re saying, 10 minutes a day, or a few times a week.
This software is literally an extension of my life. I wake up every day; I meditate; I do my work; before bed, I meditate. I’m not just talking about it, this is my lifestyle. This software is just an extension of how I spend my time.
We caught up with Ashley to understand how things have evolved since COVID-19.
We wanted to support the teachers initially, when everybody’s learning from home. Our product was designed as a technology platform, to be used at home, at school, wherever. Teachers were asking how to manage and maintain the mental and emotional health of their students during this very trying time. They are able to get a quick overview for the entire class and see how their kids are feeling in real time. I noticed that the emotional health tool is being used a lot, where kids would just say, “This is how I’m feeling today.” This habit — of being able to articulate our emotions, and then how to process them in healthy ways — is a learned skill, and something that can be taught from a very young age. We think that you’re automatically supposed to understand how to shift, how to create that space between an event and your reactivity, but that’s a learned behavior. I think it’s as important as academic learning.
Farm to Prison Project is creating an entirely new supply chain to connect urban and small-scale farms to Baltimore’s prisons. Its goal is to provide nutrition for the body and dignity for the soul.
The more I started learning about abolition and the inherent violence of our systems of carcerality, the more I saw how prison, especially in a city like Baltimore, is really at the center of most of the social, political, and economic issues the city is facing. There are specific players that profit off of the prison-industrial complex. I started thinking, “Which one of these industries is most accessible to change?” At the time, there had not been too much work done around food conditions on the inside. In addition, it is very often the same communities that live under food apartheid that are also hyper-incarcerated.
The Farm to Prison Project is an initiative to change food conditions in prisons in order to humanize incarcerated individuals.
What’s on a prison food tray? Mostly carbs and starch. The portions of protein are tiny. Vegetables are mostly canned. Very rarely are there fresh fruits. Many people leave prison with high blood pressure, diabetes, and chronic heart conditions due to the poor quality and nutritional value of the food. People without access to commissary are left hungry for the rest of the day. People stand in long lines and barely have 15 to 20 minutes to actually eat. Food is used, as both as a psychological and physical tool, to dehumanize.
Although we started out thinking we just wanted to increase the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables available in prison, we’ve expanded the scope of our project. The core of our work is using food as a humanization tool, to shift consciousness. Immediately it became clear that we had a multidisciplinary project. We had to understand the intricacies of how food operates inside, from procurement to a fully prepared meal. We had to speak with currently and formerly incarcerated individuals to learn about their experiences, because that ultimately, is the most important opinion of all.
I see myself as setting up the infrastructure to form pipelines between farms to prisons. We engage individuals on the ground that are already doing this work in the community: individuals with direct experience, and organizers around prisons and food justice.
Since we last met, we held dialogue circles and design workshops with currently incarcerated folks around what our pilot project should look like, which was really amazing. When COVID-19 hit, all our momentum took a screeching halt. Prisons are the worst-hit places out of anywhere, and they’re on lockdown, which means that no one can go in or out if you’re not incarcerated or a staff member.
I’m figuring out ways to disseminate the research that I did in February and March around dialogue circles on the inside. Right now it’s important to raise awareness, especially as food conditions have gotten even worse due to COVID-19. I want to transform the data into a comprehensive visual report of why food conditions are so bad; how food is used as a tool for violence and dehumanization by the state; and exploring how to advance the prison-abolitionist vision through the use of food.
Founding JOY Baltimore from a deeply personal place, Lonnie acts as an anchor of support for hundreds of homeless youth navigating the most difficult period of their lives.
JOY stands for Just Our Youth. We are an outreach organization for runaway, homeless, and displaced youth. We focus on the LGBTQ community, but we serve all youth between the ages of 13 and 25. We believe in that holistic approach. If I’m going to help one person, I’m going to help the whole family.
The beauty about my program is, you don’t age out. I’m going to help you because things come up, life happens. And if I can’t directly serve you, I’m going to find who can serve you, and then, I’m going to stay on them about did they get what they need? We get people connected to housing. We offer services if you need your birth certificate. We help them with food, with clothing. I don’t take no for an answer, so anything a young person or an adult needs, I’m out there to get it. It’s not just about helping them, it’s about making sure they are whole.
And the reason why we do this, I, myself, was once homeless. I was down on my luck. I went into a depressed state. I lost a job; was bouncing from place to place. And when I would see other friends of mine, no one believed I was homeless because of the way I presented myself. I slept in a casino, in the bathroom. I slept at the bus station. But because I went in looking nice everyday, no one suspected or thought of anything.
And then, one young lady, who I call my sister, told me that I could come stay with her family. I wound up staying with her for a while until I actually got housed. In October 2018, I moved into my apartment. I was operating and running a nonprofit while homeless. I needed to be taken care of too.
I have 220 applicants. And I’m the only case manager. I want to be able to deliver a kind of service, a five star service, to everybody. Whether you’re homeless, displaced, it doesn’t matter. You need — you deserve — five star service.
We checked in with Lonnie to see how JOY’s work has changed in the last couple of months. This is an update in his words.
We have served over 3,000 people since COVID-19 started. We’ve given out book bags, hygiene supplies, snack boxes, and baby supplies. We are running a five-day-a-week food program. Eight pallets of clothing were donated; my apartment looks like a warehouse.
We’re sponsoring a virtual camp for the summer with an average of 42 kids per day. My goal is to extend it because we know that school is going to be virtual this year.
We also have partnered with a substance-abuse program, where I’m literally overseeing all the LGBTQ affairs for those who are dealing with substance abuse and they’re homeless. I also partnered with another organization which does employment training, and which can help young people find jobs.
I’m a true believer that we can’t get young people to do what we want them to do until we meet their immediate needs first. And if housing is an immediate need, we must figure that out first. If getting them something to eat is an immediate need, we must figure that out first. Because, if I’m hungry and you want to talk, I don’t have nothing to talk about until you feed me.
WATT Kids believes that teaching kids fundamental money-management skills will not only ensure future financial stability but will increase the community’s value too.
Financial literacy is a life skill. Without the education of financial literacy, you just cannot survive. I usually equate it to putting somebody behind the wheel without drivers’ training. You wouldn’t trust them on the road. To get your license, you have to have drivers’ training, drivers’ education. So why would we allow them to open bank accounts, take out student loans, do anything, without teaching them the basics of financial literacy?
WATT Kids is at my heart, and it is a financial literacy program for children. We’re teaching the basics of financial literacy to children, in workbooks, or with hands-on workshops, and camps.
It’s been proven that, without education, the urban community continues to stay in poverty. And so for me, it’s just my own way of aiding the community, another way out; another way to wealth.
I’m working on doing a curriculum that will fit the urban community and reach the way they are. It’s not just about financial literacy. It’s about my community building wealth. The ultimate goal is seeing the community change.
Kids only do what they see. If I never had been shown anything different, than I wouldn’t have been able to be anything different.
We also spoke with Aneka to see what has changed with the COVID-19 pandemic.
I don’t think our work has changed, so much as we honed in. We shifted our audience to work with teens and young adults between 14 and 21, and I find that there’s more benefit there, as they’ll be able to grasp the concepts and really put them in motion.
For the first sessions, I thought it important to show them what has happened to get us to where we are now, as far as the marginalization of the communities that they’re a part of, especially the Black and Brown communities. It’s important for them to know that we come from a background of ancestors who built wealth and were strong in that respect.
I got feedback from one of the individuals and he said that their perception of investing was, “old White men.” They didn’t think that they could invest. I think it’s important for everyone to understand what is attainable and to start to see options. There are ways to build wealth, even if slowly.
What I’m finding is that it doesn’t really matter what your race is. It really matters the class that you’re in; whether or not you get that information because you say, “Well, I didn’t see that.” If you don’t see financial literacy role-modeled, it’s tough to just learn it from scratch.
Baltimore Furniture Bank is building a warehouse of gently used furniture donated by the public, local businesses, and universities. Having transitioned out of homelessness himself, Damien Haussling knows that quality fixtures can make a new place feel like home.
About two decades ago, I had a family tragedy that led to homelessness. I lost a job. I lost a whole lot of stuff. And when I came out of homelessness, I had started to reconnect with society. And I’d created a lot of friends, so when I and my roommate were ready to move into our new house, we had a plethora of people crawling out of the woodwork to offer new furnishings and items for our new place.
During that process, we looked for the Baltimore version of a furniture bank, and I was completely shocked not to find one. So I said, “You know what? I’m going to just start a furniture bank, and this is my next job.” So, that’s the genesis. But it really comes from the fact that I just like making people happy.
Initially Loyola gifted a small garage for us to store things. Word got around, and we probably served 20 to 25 families, even though we aren’t, technically, launched. We will have an online portal, and I continue to connect with case managers and social workers who send referrals.
I’m hoping to hire people that I can pay. Actually, I do pay some people now, like folks who are experiencing homelessness. I’m developing an option for people who have a requirement for community service, in their schooling, or maybe, court ordered.
As of now, we have just finished receiving a new 2,000-piece donation from American University. We were lucky enough to find a space for it in a former furniture store. I always look for quality goods out of respect for the people we’re giving them to. A lot of times people might ask, “What kind of conditions will you take things in?” The definition is dignity condition. Look at the item: would you give that to your sister? Or your mother? I wouldn’t be giving something that I wouldn’t take myself.
We checked in with Damien to see how the Baltimore Furniture Bank has been doing since COVID-19. A few months ago, it got around 500 desks donated, and then schools shut down, so no one needed desks or not that many desks. It had other donation offers, hundreds more desks that they had no room for. It had to keep rejecting items because of a lack of storage. It ended up launching a Facebook campaign when it looked pretty certain that school was going to be at home for the start of the school year. The campaign worked and it found a home for all of the desks. With room to receive more donations, it is ready to grow inventory in a new space that it hopes to move into in the next couple of months. Damien was recently awarded an OSI Baltimore Fellowship, which will allow him to stay focused on the furniture banks and help people turn their places into homes.
Baltimore Health Corps was created to bring hundreds of jobs to the city of Baltimore, as a way to combat both the health and employment crisis that COVID-19 has brought to our city, People hired through Baltimore Health Corps will be placed in full-time jobs with benefits as well as receive free training and career assistance after their position closes. Learn more about this pioneering program on our website: baltimorecorps.org/baltimore-health-corps.
For more information about the Elevation Awards, check out this page.
Explore more from The Justice & Unity Series.
Photos by Barbara Kinney/Emerson Collective