When passersby drive through West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester community, they won't see flags symbolizing unity or notice traces of an affluent town. What they will see is a neighborhood once riddled with drug trade and prostitution, now being transformed with the help of activists like Pastor C.W. Harris.
A native of Sandtown-Winchester, Harris is one of 15 BMe Leadership Award recipients being recognized as black men doing their part to better Baltimore.
Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Open Society Foundations, BMe (Black Male Engagement) helps black men exchange ideas and receive resources to advance the positive work they do in the city.
The organization, launched in Detroit and Philadelphia in 2011, awarded nearly $200,000 to 15 black men who lead community projects, including Harris, who received a $15,000 grant.
Harris' work is restoring his neighborhood to the way he remembers it being years ago before economic depression and crime tore it down. He formed the faith-based organization Strength to Love II — named after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. book — to rejuvenate his city and end poverty.
"I see a prosperity growing in this community," said Harris, a pastor at Newborn Community of Faith. "I define that prosperity as making homes affordable, lowering the crime rate and providing educational tools for our children to succeed."
While there is much work to do, Harris is on his way toward that goal.
Strength to Love II and Habitat for Humanity have built over 300 homes in the Sandtown-Winchester area. Harris' nonprofit oversaw the construction of New Song Community Learning Center, a school for children in the eighth grade and under.
He helped transform the previously drug-ridden corners of Presstman Street and Pennsylvania Avenue — known to community members as resurrection intersection — by refurbishing homes and building Martha's Place, a drug rehab clinic for women.
"There was no training as to how to run a program like this," Harris said. "When folks see me doing all this, it gives them great hope. I knew nothing about training women to recover from addiction and I knew nothing about construction. But I learned."
One of Harris' most ambitious tasks yet is addressing the crime rate. Strength to Love II is using abandoned city lots to build hoop houses for urban farming. Harris says citizens returning from incarceration will be trained and employed by Big City Farms, an urban agriculture firm, to grow produce that will be sold to local grocery stores and restaurants.
"There's a wealth of black men who don't get recognized for the work they do in their communities," said Rodney Foxworth, community engagement consultant with BMe. "Helping ex-offenders serves such a critical need to advance the community and resonates with a lot of folks."
The Strength to Love farm is the first of 18 planned hoop houses. Harris knows the effort will succeed because he has seen it in action.
Will Long is the farm manager for the Strength to Love farm and one of Harris' most trusted friends. But before that, he was an ex-offender who went to Big City Farms to receive training.
"Around the farm, I try to be the role model I was placed there to be," said Long. "It's not just me growing vegetables. I'm helping to save lives.
"Most households in this area don't have a male figure. I talk to the kids and tell them my story, how I was beat up from the feet up, robbing places, selling drugs. I appreciate what Elder Harris has done for me. If I can make the change, they can too."
Harris says Strength to Love II will promote self-help for substance abusers and ex-offenders. Upon returning from incarceration, they will be taught three trades with hopes of eventually starting businesses of their own. While employed, they will be placed in a refurbished row house and given a stipend.
It's just one part of Harris' plan — one he says will continue to rejuvenate the Sandtown-Winchester community after he's gone.
"Hashish, cocaine, heroin — these were the things that tore us down," he said. "We are changing the ills that divide us and maybe when everyone sees the change, we can waive flags proudly in our community because all walks of life will be working together."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun