After 3 years, grants start flowing from Baltimore Youth Fund to nonprofit groups

As he stayed up until 5 a.m. completing his application to the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund, 17-year-old Jerome Waters said he had one worry: Would anyone seriously consider awarding $20,000 in taxpayer funds to a teenager?

Waters, the founder of a record label and clothing brand called Humble Beast Movement, was applying for one of the first grants from the $12 million Youth Fund that its political supporters hope will transform how fledgling youth organizations access government and grant funding.

“I’m the voice for the youth, so I take it seriously and I prayed that everyone else would take it seriously,” said Waters, who started his senior year at Franklin High School in Baltimore County on Tuesday. “Being that it’s a youth fund and I’m a youth, I was thinking hopefully they take that into consideration.”

Waters’ long nights filling out the grant paperwork paid off as Humble Beast Movement was recently named as one of 84 organizations selected to receive Youth Fund grants. They are a mix of new groups and some established charitable organizations that have pledged to use the funds to provide after-school programming, business training and leadership opportunities to young people across Baltimore.

The awards are the culmination of three years of work that began when Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young proposed the fund in 2015. The council passed legislation to create it — overcoming a veto by former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — and then secured voter approval in 2016 to set aside a portion of property tax revenues to finance annual grants from the fund.

“I’m happy that it’s getting off the ground,” said the Democratic council president.

The fund’s creation is part of a broader rethinking after Freddie Gray’s death in 2015 about how to expand access to government and charity grants to smaller, neighborhood-based groups that often do not know how to compete for such funding to help young people in low-income communities that lack employment, mentorship and training opportunities.

Mayor Catherine Pugh also has placed a new emphasis on grassroots organizations. Earlier this year the mayor announced a partnership with The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation to award grants of up to $10,000 per year to small nonprofits that provide direct services to low-income individuals and families in Baltimore.

Nneka Nnamdi, the founder of Fight Blight Bmore and another inaugural Youth Fund grantee, called the resources flowing into communities like hers in West Baltimore “the blood money from Freddie Gray.”

From that perspective, Nnamdi said she feels a responsibility to use the new Youth Fund resources wisely. She applied for $25,000, but doesn’t know yet how much her group received.

“This is about the community where I live,” she said. “This is about what I see, the young people I see every day. My own sons.”

Nnamdi plans to use the fund’s money to launch a “Hack Hub” in a formerly vacant building in Upton that she is rehabilitating. Students will learn about branding, creating cellphone apps and structuring a business. They also will have access to a 3-D printer and be taught about creating prototypes.

“If we want the blight and bleeding to stop we really have to develop an economic base in the community,” Nnamdi said.

The fund received 487 applications this year from groups seeking a total of $75 million. A team from Associated Black Charities, which will monitor the grants, and a committee of 24 reviewers whittled them down to the 84 selected to get a share in the $10.8 million. (ABC is using the remaining $1.2 million to cover its administrative costs.)

The recipients include Baltimore Children’s Museum-Port Discovery Children’s Museum, Baltimore Clayworks, Casa de Maryland, Civic Works and other organizations, but Young’s office, which is administering the program, could not say yet how much each received.

The selection committee established three tiers of grants. In the first, 34 organizations are receiving an average of $17,600. The second includes 40 groups that will get an average of $150,000. The third group is made up of 10 top-tier organizations that are slated to get grants of $300,000.

Young said some of the larger organizations that won grants are partnering with smaller groups on joint programs.

The council president added that he wasn’t familiar with many of the winning applicants, suggesting to him that the fund had attracted organizations that might otherwise be overlooked.

“It’s exactly what I intended it to do,” he said.

Waters, the teenager who started his recording company two years ago, said he only learned about the grants a week before the application deadline in July. But he saw an opportunity to help other young people and raced to put his pitch together. The money will support training, mentorship and entrepreneurial opportunities for students after school in the recording studio.

“The youth know what we want,” Waters said. “Not that adults don’t want to help us, but they may not know how to help us.”

Waters had help navigating the application process from his mentor, Joni Holifield. She is the founder of HeartSmiles, an organization that helps young people apply to college or find jobs.

Holifield said she was disheartened that her organization and other more established groups were not selected for Youth Fund grants.

“It was definitely disappointing to know so many other grassroots organizations who are in the streets, in the weeds every day and did not get funded,” she said.

Despite her frustration, Holifield said she’s excited about Waters’ success.

“We teach young people how to be leaders and how to be entrepreneurs,” she said. “He’s a perfect example of that.”

Waters is now looking to recruit 10 other young people to take part in an after-school program that will blend business and music-production education. He wants to help them realize that they can use their talents to make money.

“That’s all I want to show other kids,” Waters said. “There’s a lot of them just like me.”

iduncan@baltsun.com

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