City's nonprofit sector springs into action after rioting

Baltimore-based nonprofit infuse millions into communities following April 27 unrest, create new group.

In the weeks since Baltimore was torn by riots, nonprofits have earmarked millions of dollars for struggling city communities to address the unemployment, poverty and other underlying problems that fueled the April unrest.

Fifty families that were affected by the riots will be given vehicles and a course on car maintenance, providing a cornerstone to long-term self-sufficiency: transportation. More than 650 additional children participated in a summer enrichment program proven to help students make academic gains — part of a broader effort to give city youths jobs and spots at camps.

And across the city, money has poured into other programs delivering groceries to seniors, helping ex-offenders learn construction trades and teaching youths to use media to tell their personal stories.

City-based nonprofits have channeled between $7 million and $10 million into dozens of programs to help Baltimore's recovery, according to a survey by The Baltimore Sun. Some of the money was from individual donations, such as a $200 check to the Baltimore Community Foundation. It came with a note from an Eastern Shore teen who held a Scrabble for Baltimore fundraiser. Other donations were much larger, such as the $5 million allocated by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Alongside that financial commitment, the unrest has triggered soul-searching within Baltimore's philanthropic community, one of the most active in the nation. As academics and nonprofit leaders ask what more can be done to address short-term needs, they are also discussing broader forces that have long held communities back: structural racism, concentrated poverty and unequal access to justice.

"Our city can't keep repeating the same problem," said Michael Cryor, who is leading OneBaltimore, a new organization designed to reach across public and private sectors in tackling common goals. "We can't continue to do this without tackling the tougher issues. This can't be as tough as going to Pluto, and there is talent in the world that has done that."

Ashley Valis, who leads community engagement initiatives at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, said the city is faced with the critical task of helping dozens of charitable programs work together.

"We need to look at services offered to residents holistically — that's the key," Valis said. "What programs are meeting the needs, and how can they work together to support each other? We need to build on existing programs to serve more people and have a bigger, deeper impact."

The university was among the organizations that worked in the days after the unrest to provide help to communities in crisis, Valis said. Officials decided to work with a camp at Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School in West Baltimore, bringing a couple of dozen children to the campus and exposing them to academic fields that might grab their interest.

The children spent summer days exploring a replica pharmacy and a simulated nursing lab. They took an anatomy lesson with preserved human organs that led to questions about ailments they had seen firsthand, including cancer and diabetes, Valis said. Even the security guards on duty took time to explain their jobs.

On Friday, the kids visited the law school to learn about freedom of speech. The experience resonated with Precious McKnight, 14, who wants to be a lawyer so she can "speak for people who do not have a voice."

After leaving the law school, the group jumped into the university's fourth-floor pool, which overlooks the hospital. They swam laps, shot hoops and played volleyball. Eleven-year-old Keayon Lawson tentatively stood by the side in a life jacket; he had been in a pool only a few times.

But the rising sixth-grader was enthusiastic about his time on campus: "You can learn many things and you can have fun."

Cryor, 69, who was tapped by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to lead OneBaltimore, aims to build on programs like the university's and to evaluate collective progress toward citywide goals. He envisions an organization that will unite government, businesses, nonprofits, academic institutions and neighborhood groups.

Cryor — architect of then-Mayor Martin O'Malley's Believe campaign and a former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party — has laid out a broad vision but has not developed a clear path. He wants to develop a way to measure progress toward goals, foster more dialogue on race, encourage innovative ways to improve public safety and focus on training people, especially young African-Americans, for careers in technology jobs.

Some caution that OneBaltimore must guard against taking on so much that it becomes ineffective, or focusing too closely on an area that duplicates existing efforts.

"It cannot be a laundry list of things, because nothing will get done," said Diana Morris, director of the Open Society Institute's Baltimore office and a member of OneBaltimore's steering committee. "This is a big opportunity to set, not just new priorities, but much higher expectations."

Morris said OneBaltimore should review different approaches that have been taken to address the city's systemic problems. The organization's success will be tied to whether organizations coming to the table are transparent about their achievements and failures, she said.

"Part of what OneBaltimore can do, consistent with its name, is to weave some of those communities together, and make sure we're using the assets we do have fully," Morris said.

OneBaltimore made a splash soon after its inception. It was key in helping the city raise money and find companies to host 3,000 young adults who were on a waiting list for city-sponsored summer jobs.

OneBaltimore, which is seeking nonprofit status, has about $500,000 in the bank and a staff of two. The money, from various foundations, will fund initial operation costs. Cryor — who was working as a consultant to New York City police when he got the call about OneBaltimore — is holding off fundraising until the organization's mission is crystallized.

Sitting at a table in a sparse Mid-Town Belvedere office that he recently rented, Cryor said he wants to turn the space into a command center of sorts, with a large computer screen that constantly displays information on the collective progress toward agreed-upon goals. Although the beige and green walls are bare, he plans to decorate them with images from the unrest and the days afterward, providing visitors with a visceral reaction and a connection to their feelings at the time.

Success will be judged on whether the collaborative effort meets its goals and hits deadlines, Cryor said, adding that he expects OneBaltimore to last for at least five or 10 years.

Rawlings-Blake said Cryor is the right person for the job, a Baltimore native who is a "known entity to the philanthropic community, to the business community." Cryor has agreed to forgo a salary for the first six months, and what he will be paid after that has not been determined.

"When I see the way we've come together as a city after the unrest, it gives me a lot of hope," the mayor said. "The problems we have in Baltimore aren't unique to Baltimore. What is unique is the way we've come together.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, is one of the people who called Cryor to ask him to lead OneBaltimore. The congressman said that after the riots he heard from many residents concerned about jobs, education and recreational opportunities.

People can endlessly debate whether OneBaltimore is duplicative, but the question the city needs to answer, Cummings said, is whether the work being done now is effective and efficient. OneBaltimore can help figure that out, he said.

"After the disturbances, a lot of people said they wanted to do things to make a difference," Cummings said. "We are all in this boat together, and we're calling on all Baltimoreans and people all over the region and all over the country to help us."

Diane Bell-McKoy, who leads Associated Black Charities, said OneBaltimore must first define the source of the city's most serious dysfunction. She believes the answer lies in the legacy of racism and its ripple effect over decades.

"Do we understand that people in these communities are not broken?" Bell-McKoy said. "Those people have capacity and desire to be engaged and have positive outcomes for themselves and their communities. Do we provide the tools for that pathway?"

Patrick McCarthy, president of the Baltimore-based Casey foundation, agrees that the "long-term racial divide" should be an area of focus for OneBaltimore. Citywide, he said, some have benefited from policies that left others with a lack of transportation and meaningful jobs, inequities in pay and an educational system that "many people have walked away from and turned their back on."

He said that through OneBaltimore, "we are charging ourselves with looking at ourselves with an unblinking eye and refusing to ignore what's been created, largely, but not exclusively, along racial lines."

The Casey Foundation, one of the city's largest charitable organizations, gave OneBaltimore $300,000 in seed money. Altogether, it has allocated $5 million to city programs since the April riots.

The foundation boosted its summer enrichment commitments by $645,000 and contributed $2 million to the city's summer jobs program. Other money went to stock food pantries, provide grants for youth entrepreneurship and build playgrounds.

Other groups, including the United Way, have made major gifts.

The Abell Foundation contributed more than $1 million to causes such as preventing homelessness and training people to install solar panels on homes owned by low-income families. The Weinberg Foundation issued $400,000 in emergency funding for 10 organizations, including $27,000 to Vehicles for Change to help the group secure 10 of 50 cars for riot-affected families. Wells Fargo's charitable arm gave $300,000 to local causes, including $100,000 to a partnership with the Greater Baltimore Urban League and Digit All Systems to help people develop careers in technology.

The Baltimore Community Foundation has allocated about half of the $750,000 raised from donations that flooded in from 30 states and three foreign countries, said Kevin Griffin Moreno, its senior program officer. The money came in gifts ranging from $5 to $100,000 and included $42,000 from the Hippodrome Theatre as those who worked on "Dirty Dancing, The Classic Story on Stage" took up a collection.

The foundation's grants were designed to help address immediate needs and long-term systemic issues, he said. It handed out money to help people get their prescriptions, repair businesses in Highlandtown and support the efforts of the youth-led Baltimore Algebra Project.

Griffin Moreno said nonprofits should engage more directly with community-based groups and those led by young people to develop solutions.

Morris, who leads the Open Society Institute in Baltimore, said the nonprofit has been studying how to spend the $800,000 it raised after the riots. She said the group is following the advice of colleagues who worked in Ferguson, Mo., after the unrest that accompanied last year's fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teen.

Morris said the organization wants to use the money to build on existing programs and to sharpen the focus where necessary. Among the top goals is criminal justice reform, studying bias among police officers and examining the ways the bail system is misused, she said.

Like many in the philanthropic community, Morris sees an opportunity to change Baltimore in the wake of the April riots.

"It's a very emotional time," she said. "And for some people that can feel dangerous, and they may want to control it. For other people, they realize it's a very important moment for a city to move ahead."

ywenger@baltsun.com

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