b's 6th annual 10 people to watch under 30

, and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
b's sixth annual 10 people to watch under 30: Meet the game-changers making Baltimore a better place.

Every year we are in awe when we compile our 10 people to watch under 30 edition.

Past honorees have included community activists, directors of arts districts and powerful businessmen and businesswomen.

They have always been inventive, strong, unafraid of challenged — and devoted to making the city a better place.

And this year is no exception. Our class of 2015 raps about social injustice, empowers young women and farms in the middle of a torn neighborhood. They are helping to run their family's winery, shaping the real estate landscape fo the city and showing children that a pen can be more powerful than a bullet.

We are still in awe, and proud to call the following men and women this year's 10 people to watch under 30.

Al Rogers Jr., rapper

Hang around Al Rogers Jr. even briefly and you will hear the word "swooz" often. The 25-year-old says it when he hangs up the phone, punctuates sentences with it and even prints the word he and his cousins made up years ago on his clothes.

Just don't call it a catchphrase. It's more like a way of life.

"It means everything good in this world," Rogers said. "Like when somebody wakes up and they believe they can conquer any of their struggles. They feel like they can give back and relieve some of the issues of their peers, their family, whatever it might be. That's the feeling of being swoozy."

Rogers wants to bring that feeling to the masses through his eclectic form of rap. One listen of his impressive debut project, 2013's "Almost," and it is obvious Rogers believes in standing out stylistically rather than chasing any trends.

Rogers, who lives in Charles Village and grew up in East Baltimore, accomplishes this simply by opening his mouth.

His voice is a unique instrument that can croak one moment and rise with power the next.

"When I'm passionate about something, and I'm very passionate about my music, I think my octaves change a bit," said Rogers, who starting out writing poetry and first put his words to a beat rapping over the 2006 Lupe Fiasco song, "The Cool." "I'm a fan of jazz. … I kind of use that idea to swing my voice from left to right and up and down."

His insatiable appetite for music of all kinds grew from perusing thrift shops. He would see vinyl records with intriguing cover art, write the artists' names down and then research when he got home. Rogers loves Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and has a tattoo of John Lennon on his neck.

His second project, "Luvadocious," is due this fall, and it is fully produced by Drew Scott of the Baltimore downbeat duo Blacksage. Rogers said the record's concept is a heady journey narrated by a female God.

"I wanted to set the environment that you're on the voyage cruising through this world that you're so unfamiliar with, but it's so intriguing," he said.

Unlike many rappers, Rogers, who regularly plays local venues such as the Windup Space and the Bell Foundry, has no desire to be seen as the No. 1 rapper in his city.

"I genuinely want to make the world a better place," he said. "I'm not trying to be the top dog to run [expletive] and poke out his chest. I'm just trying to be the stone to help build the village." — Wesley Case

Patrice Hutton, Writers in Baltimore founder

For as long as she knew how, 29-year-old Patrice Hutton has been writing. In grade school, she would write short stories. In high school, she worked on essays, even trying her hand at novels.

The Kansas native came east where she completed the undergraduate creative writing program at the Johns Hopkins University. In 2008, her senior year, before working on her graduate degree in fiction writing, she began an ambitious project: Writers in Baltimore.

"After taking a class in urban education politics at Hopkins, I saw the opportunity for creative study of literature and personal expression disappearing and evaporating [in schools] as test preparation took over," she said. "That left me very sad."

She feared a society of non-writers, especially in Baltimore City Schools. So she developed creative writing workshops — and tapped fellow students to help. In the program, JHU graduate students serve as volunteer instructors, going into schools once a week to work with middle and high school kids on grammar, sentence power and self- expression. Since its inception, Writers in Baltimore has served more than 600 city students, ages 12 to 18, Hutton said.

A start-up grant of $48,750 came from the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, which took Hutton on as a fellow in 2008. Additional funding from foundations, along with crowd and private funding, keeps the program afloat to the tune of an annual budget of $85,000.

In addition to in-school instruction, which Hutton hopes to increase to twice a week and after school, Writers in Baltimore has operated a summer sleepover camp where promising young students gather with paid instructors for intensive writing and reading sessions

The camp provides a writing haven for Baltimore's youth. Many of the students, said Hutton, turn to writing when they are sad or angry, as during the recent unrest in the city.

"We had what we called a write-in for Freddie Gray," Hutton said. "We brought students together to write poems on what it is to be black in America today. You really saw their anxiety over their safety and [that of] their little brothers and sisters."

The program now operates in 24-week sessions in four schools, a number Hutton plans to increase.

"I would love people in Baltimore to listen to what young people have to say," Hutton said. "Writing is such a powerful tool for these kids." — Marie Marciano Gullard

Tanya Garcia, artist

Recently, there has been a question driving Tanya Garcia: What does it mean to be Latina?

Two years ago, while still a graduate student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, the Alabama-born multimedia artist began exploring identity, and the many effects race has on it.

"Since I was at MICA, I decided to sit down and have conversations with the Latina women who work in housekeeping," Garcia, who is Puerto Rican, said. "It just revealed so much about who they are and where they've come from, the struggles they've gone through, what they are hoping for and what they're still struggling with."

The result was the installation "Counterpunch | Contragolpe: Stories of the Latina Fight." Garcia, who received her MFA in community arts in 2014, used her video and photography to not only tell three women's stories of resilience and love, but also their determination to succeed in America. To show their fight, Garcia worked with the subjects to design colorful boxing robes with printed messages on the back like "Women Fighting for a Better Future" and "For My Kids."

On Aug. 22, Garcia — who moved to Baltimore in 2012 for MICA and currently lives in the Midway neighborhood — opened her latest exhibit, "Después de la Frontera / After the Border," at Creative Alliance. (It runs until Sept. 26, and then moves to Towson University, Garcia said.) The multimedia piece focuses on stories of families and unaccompanied immigrant youth fleeing Central America for the United States to escape gang recruitment, extortion and other perils.

"I hope the work that I do inspires people to keep researching and talking about these things," she said. "Keep that conversation happening."

Her next project is Hyrsteria, an artist-run zine she co-founded with Venezuelan illustrator Valeria Molinari that aims to "challenge the conversations about social divisions in gender, race, class and culture." The first issue is due in March.

Garcia's goal, she said, is to tell individuals' stories that are not regularly told. In a city dealing with its own issues of race and gender, Garcia believes she is in the right place at the right time.

"Being here in Baltimore, it seems — at the time we're in — to be so important to talk about this right now," she said. "It's so inspiring to be around other people that want to talk about their experiences, too. It's a great place to be." — Wesley Case

Eugene Poverni, real estate developer

Eugene Poverni can only imagine the bustling commercial, cultural and entertainment mecca that defined Baltimore City's Howard Street in its heyday, decades before his birth.

Today, the 29-year-old Ukraine native, who came to Baltimore at the age of 6, talks with confidence about the latest project from his real estate development company, the Poverni Sheikh Group — the purchase of an 80,000-square foot building in the 600 block of Howard Street.

"[We] expect it to be a mixed use project with ground floor retail and a commercial and self-storage use above," he said.

The company, which Poverni founded in 2009, is an adaptive reuse development firm dealing in construction, management brokerage and advisory services. The "we" to whom he refers includes three partners that he met since he started the company: Greg Kostrikin, who runs the day-to-day operations; Ibrahim Sheikh, heading up construction; and Paul Khazansky, involved in underwriting and special projects. The company now has 15 employees.

"They do a lot of the work. They're brilliant, capable and awesome," he said.

However, the seeds that produced Poverni's success were planted as a student in Pikesville High School, where he was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. Even while selling items, such as electronics and DVDs on e-commerce sites, he knew he would always be his own boss. His plan for lucrative self-employment propelled him to earn a bachelor's degree in mathematics, an MBA in business administration and a master's degree in finance from the University of Maryland-College Park, followed by a law degree from George Washington University.

As an attorney, Poverni did private equity and financial regulatory work, but tired of it after a year and a half and was ready for a change. He saw the opportunities in real estate development as more of a personality fit, especially in Baltimore, where buildings destined for the wrecking ball were crying out to be revitalized, he said.

Today, Poverni looks forward to playing an active role in west-side development. In the last five years, his company has bought almost 30 buildings in the city, and anticipates development of these properties to come in at approximately $40 million. Successful projects include the Residences, 52 affordable apartments spread over seven buildings in the neighborhoods of Mount Vernon, Howard Park, Druid Hill Park and Sandtown-Winchester.

"I like the complexity of the business," he said. "I like the fact there's a lot of moving pieces, so it's constantly unique. We're out there dealing with the local government and the community."

While he loves his work, right now he feels most fortunate in his private life. He's getting married on Saturday. It's a "rather exciting time to be alive," he said. — Marie Marciano Gullard

Veronique Williams and Nkem Obineme, urban farmers

Veronique Williams and Nkem Obineme see something different than most when they look at their vacant lot.

The lot, near the intersection of North and Druid Hill avenues, looks like any of the other 5,000 empty city spaces — a dusty, wasted opportunity. But Williams, 25, and Obineme, 21, have a vision that includes vibrant, healthy plants, healing herbs and a supportive community. That's because this duo plans to transform the space into what they've named Blue Lotus OG, a place where plants will be grown for — and hopefully by — the community at affordable prices.

"I want to heal people through food," Williams said. "I want to give my neighbors access to healing, fresh and healthy foods. We're not just an urban farm — we're taking it to the next level."

The idea for the farm was born out of tragedy. Last year, on the day after Christmas, Williams' grandmother died of cancer. She said that day she made a decision that would change her life — and Obineme's, too.

"We were working on a farm that was about eight acres," she said. "It was a pig farm, but they had some other animals and there were only four people working there. So I thought, why can't I manage something like this on a smaller scale on a vacant lot and heal people through food?"

Watching her grandmother's fight against cancer encouraged Williams to think about what kinds of chemicals she was ingesting through food and she decided to begin a movement toward providing local communities with foods that nourish the body. They obtained the lot through the city's Adopt-A-Lot Program, and hope to open Blue Lotus in the spring. One of the goals of starting what they call a "medicinal garden," is to get neighborhood kids involved. On any given day, you will likely find one of the neighborhood's kids in the backyard of the home the business partners share in the Upton area (yes, they're roommates, too). It's something of a practice-run for Blue Lotus' first garden. Neighborhood children like to help plant and work with the various types of herbs and vegetables being grown there — peppers, tomatoes and herbs that are used to extract essential oils. There are plans to grow chamomile and cumin.

"It's imperative that we start with these kids," Obineme said. "We are trying to instill in them a new way of living their life."

The duo also manages a green space in their neighborhood where they plan to garden next year.

"It's really scary that they don't have things to do or at least a job or something structured that they enjoy doing," Obineme said. "This is something that they can do to keep them occupied and out of trouble and it will help them gain knowledge at the same time."

Obineme and Williams have already poured more than $5,000 of their own money into the effort and recruited friends and family members to help.

"This is our chance to give back to the Earth," Williams said. "All we do is take and take and take and we never give back." — Lindsay Machak

Kasey Volpe, Ecuadent program coordinator

Each of the five times Kasey Volpe visited Guatemala, she'd leave little pieces of her heart behind. But she also brought home with her a fierce determination to help Latin American children.

"The kids are just beautiful and funny and they have very little, yet they're so excited to see you and talk to you and play with you," she said.

That's why her job as a the program coordinator for the Ecuadent Foundation is perfect for her. Through the Cockeysville-based nonprofit, the 27-year-old George Washington University graduate and Parkville resident now helps impoverished children in Ecuador get access to medical and dental care.

Although the organization is 25 years old, Volpe has innovative ideas to foster growth. She believes the organization's efforts can reach deeper into the community by developing clean water programs and nutritional initiatives in addition to the medical services the volunteers are already providing. She'd also like to see the organization increase involvement by expanding the volunteer network's breadth.

"I really would like to see a permanent presence in Ecuador," said Volpe, who hopes to run her own nonprofit someday. "We are getting pretty close to doing something like that."

Her first trip to Ecuador is planned for February and she will spend about three weeks there coordinating two separate mission groups. She expects to feel that sensation of falling in love all over again.

"When you bond with those kids, it is really, really hard to leave," she said. — Lindsay Machak

Jerrod Ridgway, To Love Children CFO

As a child growing up in Montego Bay, Jamaica, Jerrod Ridgway learned a lesson from his grandfather that still guides him today.

"He sat me down and he told me, 'Education is the only thing that can lift a man out of poverty.' He said not only monetarily, but poverty in every single way," said Ridgway, 21. "I never forgot."

Ridgway, who moved from Jamaica to Dundalk at 8 and lives in Towson, is taking his grandfather's message and spreading it in Baltimore and beyond. In May, he graduated from Loyola University Maryland with a degree in finance. A Wells Fargo analyst by day, Ridgway was in June named chief financial officer of To Love Children — a Baltimore-based nonprofit foundation focused on empowering young women and ending worldwide poverty through education.

The organization, founded by Baltimore's David Waldman in 2002, has helped open libraries and provided school supplies in Uganda and India. Often, in the countries To Love Children works with, the culture sees men as the providers, and the foundation works to alter that line of thinking and create education and job opprtunities for women, Ridgway said.

With Ridgway's input, the organization is drafting a curriculum called "Healthy and Smart" for Baltimore youth. The program will focus on HIV prevention and education, but will also address everyday issues like personal relationships and self-esteem.

"The education is a holistic approach," he said. "How do you take care of yourself mentally? How do you take care of yourself in your everyday social life? It all stems back to being educated."

As CFO, Ridgway is unpaid. He believes in To Love Children, especially its emphasis on strategic planning. Utilizing his finance background, he and Waldman can come up with an idea and then Ridgway crunches the numbers to logistically implement it.

While To Love Children is most known for its international work now, Ridgway wants the organization to expand its reach in Baltimore.

"Granted, we are an international foundation, but our home is Baltimore," he said. "We're just reaching out to many of the local organizations, local schools, local community leaders, just to see where we can put our heads together." — Wesley Case

Lisa Hinton, winemaker

Lisa Hinton was the last family member to get on board with the idea of opening a winery on her parents' farm in Westminster. She had just graduated with a degree in chemistry, and wasn't quite expecting working on a family-run winery to be her career path.

It's a good thing she finally warmed up to the concept. Hinton, 26, is the scientific brain behind the successful Old Westminster Winery. If she hadn't agreed to jump on board, she never would have discovered her talent for winemaking.

The farm had never even grown a grape until four years ago. And Hinton had never made wine. But her parents were looking for a way to put the farm's eight acres to good use and proposed the idea of starting a family-owned wine company to their three children. Once all of the siblings agreed that this was a good idea, the family planted vines on their farm with the understanding that each child would be responsible for his or her place of expertise.

Hinton's brother, Drew Baker, is responsible for business administration while her sister, Ashli Johnson, handles all of the marketing, promotions and events.

The family hired a consultant to teach them about winemaking in 2011, after Hinton graduated from Stevenson University. The next year, she spent six months in Sonoma, Calif., perfecting her skills through an internship.

"Wine is fascinating," she said. "There's so much to learn about it and you can never really know everything."

But she already knows a lot. The company's Albariño 2013 was named the Best White at the 2014 Maryland Governor's Cup Competition.

"It was the best feeling ever," she says. "When we found out it was almost kind of surreal, because I wasn't expecting it at all. I knew that we produced some really great wine, but I also know that I'm so new to the industry and you never really know if it's the best."

Hinton continues to take online classes focused on winemaking through the University of California-Davis. But the most important thing she has learned hasn't come from winemaking. It has come from working with her siblings.

"They're my best friends even outside of work," she said. "Friday night comes along, and we've worked together all week and we hang out anyway. All of our spouses are really close friends and we hang out all the time. " — Lindsay Machak

Martina Lynch, poet and rapper

It's not easy to steal a scene from Young Moose, one of Baltimore's most popular and boisterous rappers. But that's just what 19-year-old Martina Lynch did on their Freddie Gray-inspired protest song, "No Sunshine."

"We live in poverty, probably seen some things that could take you out of your normal state and turn you to a fiend / maybe give up your dreams and take you out to the street / the only place we feel free, but damn we still ain't free," Lynch raps.

Months later, Lynch recalled writing the verse in the studio with Moose in less than an hour.

"A lot of my friends were affected by this. It really touched me," Lynch said. "It was powerful when I was recording it because I felt like I was doing something that could reach people or make people kind of understand where we're coming from."

Lynch's versatility sets her apart. She can credibly deliver a stirring spoken-word performance about inequality — as she did at a TEDx event at Morgan State University in January — but also a swagger-filled rap single like last year's "Let it Snow." Not every poet can translate her words to song, but Lynch's naturally fluid flow adapts well to multiple formats.

"I got a dream: These lyrics could possibly help raise some self-esteem," Lynch said in a spoken-word performance at City Hall last year.

Lynch, who was born in Northeast Baltimore and lives there today, first remembers writing poetry in first grade. She was later inspired by another Baltimore teen poet-turned-rapper, Tupac Shakur.

"He made me want to do the same thing, especially because he talked about important things in his poetry and his raps, like social justice, poverty, police brutality, women empowerment," she said.

Lynch has friends living in Gilmor Homes, where Gray was infamously arrested, so she saw him around. When she learned the circumstances of Gray's death, she was shocked.

"I already know how it is with black people and police brutality in Baltimore because … I've seen it with my own eyes," Lynch said. "I already know these things are going on, but every time something like that happens, it always hurts me. It's always a reminder of the progress that still needs to be made."

A graduate of Frederick Douglass High School, Lynch has completed a year at Baltimore City Community College. (She is not currently enrolled but said she plans to return soon.) She works part time for the arts-focused nonprofit organization DewMore Baltimore, teaching after-school spoken word workshops about social justice.

And with a Sept. 12 show at Taste Lounge and a new mixtape slated for later that month, Lynch is determined to make a positive mark on her city.

"I'm just a regular girl trying to do my art and make it a career, but I want to show people that you aren't the environment you come from," Lynch said. "You can go beyond what you see." — Wesley Case

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