Sparks for change: Open Society fellows have tested new ideas for Baltimore for 20 years

Dozens of ex-offenders have passed through Gregory Carpenter’s small bakery, where he teaches them how to make buttery pastry dough and flaky pie crusts. He hopes these small tasks will be a foundation for a future career.

Carpenter is one in an army of social justice change agents that the Baltimore office of the Open Society Institute has deployed across the city for the last 20 years. He says when he returned home in 1994 from two decades in prison, he spent months searching for work before finding a job as a short-order cook at a motel. The 12-week course he offers newly released ex-offenders at his 2AM Bakery is designed to give them an easier path forward.

The OSI community fellowships program allowed Carpenter to test his idea and build a nonprofit that helps the men and women earn food service management certifications, establish work history and acquire skills, such as resume writing and anger management.

The fellowships, aimed at finding on-the-ground solutions to entrenched problems in Baltimore, have spurred the creation of urban farms, youth drop-in centers and a conflict mediation program based on the problem-solving skills of New Zealand’s indigenous people. Among 180 fellows since 1998 were the founders of Wide Angle Youth Media, The Book Thing and Bikemore.

“It has transformed Baltimore in a lot of ways, because you see people and you hear people now having conversations that they wouldn’t otherwise be having,” Carpenter, 64, said from his Woodlawn kitchen, where he and his staff make sweet potato pies and carrot and red velvet cakes that they sell to HipHop Fish & Chicken and other local vendors.

“When we think about the value, we can almost pick any area of the community and you can find an OSI stamp on it.”

The fellows are one arm of OSI’s Baltimore office, founded by native Hungarian George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist, liberal activist and hedge fund investor. Soros opened Open Society’s first field office in Baltimore in 1997 as a social justice laboratory. The fellows — who receive $60,000 stipends over 18 months, health benefits and financial assistance for graduate school debt and start-up costs — work in a wide array of fields, including mentoring children, preserving green space and violence prevention. Up to 10 are chosen each year.

Diana Morris, who runs OSI’s Baltimore office, said initiatives rooted by the program have become go-to resources for the community, with most of the fellows still living and working on social justice causes in Baltimore. They continue to affect dialogue and policy and contribute energy and expertise, she said.

“This is an opportunity for us to take some risks and support some of these people who come forward and say, ‘I have a burning idea for change and I want to work with the community,’ ” Morris said. “What has happened over 20 years is, we’ve become a really good talent finder.”

Morris said the fellowships are akin to seed money provided by venture capital firms to fledgling businesses.

More than 80 of the fellows continue to work on their original projects. Another 40 are involved in social justice issues in Baltimore, and about 30 of the projects have continued with new leadership after the fellow stepped away from the project or transitioned to a staff or board member. The rest — fewer than 30 — are no longer active in related causes or no longer in contact with OSI. Six have died.

OSI works generally in three core areas: lessening the reach of the criminal justice system, improving school performance and attendance, and giving people access to drug addiction treatment. But the fellows have also gone on to establish projects related to immigrant and refugee rights, environmental matters, food access, homelessness and economic development.

Two hundred or more people apply for the fellowships. OSI officials say they cast a wide net to find applicants outside of typical channels. Past fellows have been new college graduates, ex-offenders, lawyers, scientists, artists and activists.

Chosen by a committee of OSI board members and local experts, the winners typically have business plans in place or have undertaken basic experimentation to prove their vision beyond an initial concept, said Pamela King, director of the fellowships program. The program has few requirements, but fellows must have the ability to work on the projects full time, which makes high school students generally not eligible. The fellowship can’t supplant their salary elsewhere, such as for similar work at an existing nonprofit.

The next cohort will start in November.

“We’re not funding a project for 18 months, we’re looking for something that can tackle a challenge in the community,” said King, adding that the fellows have creative control over their work. “You’re not going to hit the core after 18 months. The person has to be committed for the long term. They have to be all in.”

Funding for the fellowships program comes from the OSI budget in Baltimore, which includes money from local fundraising efforts and Open Society Foundations.

Kevin Lindamood, an anti-poverty activist and president of Health Care for the Homeless, has helped review the fellowship applicant proposals and select finalists.He has been struck by the diversity of the proposals, and of the applicants. They include people who have spent decades in prison, victims of domestic violence, and men and women who grew up in abject poverty.

“It’s been a fascinating way to take grassroots ideas about social change and incubate them,” Lindamood said. “We have seen so many lasting efforts that began as OSI fellowships that continue to this day.”

Morris said the fellowship program allowed OSI to move rapidly after the rioting and looting that followed Freddie Gray’s death, because the fellows have been entrenched in city neighborhoods, building networks and trust over time. OSI calls the unrest the “uprising” to put emphasis on longstanding conditions that contributed. OSI immediately dispersed hundreds of thousands of dollars to local causes with an emphasis on improving police and community relationships and aiding people experiencing trauma.

Sarah Tooley, director of 901 Arts near Waverly, used her 2010 fellowship to help solidify the center after some community elders established it. She said the money gave her the freedom to experiment without being tied to specific approaches that traditional funding sources, such as grants, might have required.

During her 18-month fellowship, the center expanded its hours and programming, set up a website and established internal structures, Tooley said. A small core staff, assisted by 40 regular volunteers, serve about 150 young people who use the center throughout the year for arts and crafts, musical lessons and homework help.

On a recent day, children of different ages were working with mentors — some of whom are young adults who grew up coming to the center and now work there part time — melting crayons on canvases on the first floor of the center, a rowhouse that a supporter bought and continues to pay the mortgage on.

Ten-year-old Zavionne Banks named her creation “Colorful Art 2017,” a name her younger brother Ziran Banks, 8, found so impressive he pleaded with his sister to name his project the same thing.

“It’s amazing what you can do with some crayons, a hot glue gun and a canvas,” Zavionne said. “You can do anything.”

ywenger@baltsun.com

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