Lead photography: Vandalog
One hundred men and women are gathered inside a lecture hall at Baltimore’s esteemed Johns Hopkins’ University early on a Saturday morning, and though they range in age, race, class and gender, they all have one thing in common.
They’re all here to learn how to be social entrepreneurs.
From wannabes to seasoned vets, the room is filled with social entrepreneurs like Steven Nutt, a cyber security professional who just received funding from the Warnock Foundation for his food donation app, Are You Going to Eat That, and Andrew Foster, who received funding from the same foundation last spring to develop Baltimore Pooch Camp, a program he launched to help both at-risk youth and shelter dogs.
A woman named Gladys wants to start a program for disadvantaged youth. The woman next to her, Kimberly, hopes to do the same.
Darius Graham, the director of Hopkins’ Social Innovation Lab, is hosting the bootcamp, a taste of the Lab’s social enterprise incubator, in hopes of drumming up interest and fostering talent while keeping a community of innovators connected.
“This is an opportunity for you to share with us, with each other and with the speakers what your experience has been so far as an entrepreneur or changemaker in this city,” he said.
Social entrepreneurs, community organizers and artists in Baltimore have been galvanized by the uprising that ignited three miles Southwest of this lecture hall in the spring of 2015, sparked by the death of Freddie Gray whilst in police custody in the spring of 2015.
Poet and entrepreneur Brion Gill remembers her reaction to the live news coverage that day.
“Baltimore’s about to explode.”
In a way, the city did. But the brutal injustice that was Freddie Gray’s murder did not happen in a vacuum. Gill herself has seen how systemic injustice impacts low-income people of color – especially youth. The poet used to be a teacher at Eager Street Academy, a school for teens who have been charged as adults and are subsequently housed in the city’s detention center.
Now, Gill runs Free Verse, a poetry workshop for Baltimore youth that bolsters creative expression and initiates dialogue about race.
Zeke Cohen, an entrepreneur and candidate for Baltimore City Council, used to be a teacher, too, at a school in the neighborhood where Freddie Gray grew up. Students at the school, which he likened to a prison without heat or air conditioning, were unable to drink water from the lead pipes. They had to walk past “liquor stores and heroin dealers” to get to class – if they could even make it to class.
That’s why Cohen and a handful of his fellow educators collectively launched a nonprofit called The Intersection, to teach high school students civic leadership and community organizing. The nine students in the pilot program went on to register 100 people to vote, build a community garden to address fresh food crises, lobby for inclusive immigration legislation, document neighborhood blight and host a mayoral forum.
“I have come to truly believe that if we’re going to change our city, state and country, it will have to come from young people,” said Cohen. “If you think about movements that have happened in our country, it’s often the youth, young people, who start the movement.”
Cohen, is now running for City Council as the candidate who will work across sectors, silos, districts – just about any boundary – to create real equity in Baltimore. That will mean working closely with the city’s social entrepreneurs. For example, Cohen vowed to hire an ambassador from Baltimore Corps, a fellowship for social changemakers in the city.
Brian Gerardo, founder of Baltimore Dance Crew Project, was one of the first Baltimore Corps fellows. Like Cohen and Gill, Gerardo was a teacher before becoming a social entrepreneur.
“There are so many entrepreneurs here in the city who have found needs, and I think a lot of us are from education backgrounds. People see education as being a very big need,” he said. “The work we’re doing is never easy, especially for people of color.”
Baltimore Dance Crew Project takes a multi-pronged approach to youth development by using hip hop dance to strengthen the relationships across generations. Students are not only engaging in dance, they’re forging relationships with older dancers who maintain careers outside of dance. Plus, the crew itself is a very necessary support network.
“The average mentorship relationship only lasts five months. That’s not a long time to build a lasting relationship,” said Gerardo. “When I was a teacher here in the city, I myself was having a hard time building relationships with my students beyond my classroom. Having that positive relationship changes the school environment.”
Gerardo said the uprising has magnified the social impact work being done in Baltimore. The urgency has always been there, he said, but there has been an uptick in donations and volunteer power.
Sammy Hoi, the impact-impassioned president of Maryland Institute College of Art, said he feels there’s been a heightened sense of urgency since the uprising – a sense that the city has to create equity “as soon as possible.”
But the galvanization of the social impact community is undeniable, said Hoi.
“Baltimore has a culture of fragmentation, meaning we can be a lot better at coming together for a common agenda. Post-Freddie Gray, there’s a great sense of awareness that we need to come together,” he said. “There’s no lack of good will but the actual synergy is very much a work in progress.”
Hoi is trying to expedite that progress by reframing MICA’s activities and programming, making them mission-based and inclusive while “translating Baltimore’s rich creative capital into a vibrant and equitable creative economy.” In other words, MICA’s students and program staff are partnering with grassroots organizations to bring arts education to underserved neighborhoods like Freddie Gray’s West Baltimore community.
There, a conscious collective of grassroots organizations, anchor institutions, social entrepreneurs, investors and artists called Innovation Village have banded together to invest in their own community, which has largely been subjected to generational marginalization.
“We’re hyper-focused on making sure there’s access to food, health, housing and education, and using technology as an enabler to be created in how those services are delivered,” said chairman Richard May. Earlier this summer, Innovation Village announced a free public wifi initiative in partnership with public-private collaborative OneBaltimore and an upcoming incubator for social entrepreneurs.
You cannot pelt a pebble in Charm City without hitting someone working on, around or within close proximity to a social project or social entrepreneur. And, odds are, they’ll be working with youth.
Back at Johns Hopkins, Graham is instructing the room of nascent social entrepreneurs to communicate with one another.
“Always know who else is doing the kind of work you’re doing. You’re going to want to talk to them and learn what is and isn’t working,” he said. “View them as competition or collaborators – either way, find people doing similar work and ask them questions.”
Gill, Gerardo, Hoi and fellow Baltimore changemakers Meryam Bouadjemi, Shawn Burnett and Cadeatra Harvey will have a chance to do exactly that this month. All six are fellows of the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators. In Salzburg, the fellows will share best practices with international leaders in the space and bring back lessons on how to improve the city’s cultural ecosystem.
If the uprising was the explosion Gill initially perceived it to be, the city’s social entrepreneurs, artists and community organizers are ready to raise a phoenix from the ashes.