Every year the Open Society Institute-Baltimore surveys the field of innovative, proactive residents in our city who are trying to improve the community with a beloved-if-scrappy project and gives 10 of them a vote of confidence and a $60,000 leg up.
OSI-Baltimore announced its new Community Fellows yesterday, with each receiving $60,000 over the course of 18 months.
Among those receiving grants were Hari P. Adhikari, who will be assisting Baltimore’s Bhutanese refugees as the newcomers struggle to navigate the job and housing markets as well as adjust to American culture; Darlene Crider, who runs a program called Sister-to-Sister that draws on a cadre of retired law-enforcement women to mentor teenage girls in the Oliver neighborhood; and Gregory Carpenter, who runs a bakery that also teaches ex-offenders cooking and entrepreneur-related skills.
"Competition was fierce," said Diana Morris, director of OSI-Baltimore, explaining that the purpose of the program is not necessarily to start new nonprofits—though that is sometimes the result—but to give the fellows an "eighteen month period of experimentation."
Started in 1998, the Community Fellows represent an "open valve," Morris said. "They were never linked directly to our other priorities." OSI-Baltimore, as an organization, specifically focuses on education and youth, governance and accountability, health, media, and rights and justice. This year, all of the fellows arguably fall into those categories with their projects, but that has not always been the case.
More than 160 people have gotten grants over the years with wide-ranging projects to improve the city. Morris sees the awards as mutually beneficial. "The fellows have their ears to the ground," Morris said. They share "the good news" about what is working well in Baltimore and also alert OSI about the fault lines they discover "when justice is not served." This "nuanced understanding" can then help shape OSI-Baltimore’s priorities when they go on to fund larger projects or studies.
Some of the Community Fellows roll multiple OSI issues—education, over-incarceration rates, youth empowerment—into one proposed project.
Brion Gill, 25, is one of the new Community Fellows and has been doing spoken word with teens charged as adults and incarcerated at the Baltimore City Detention Center—work she will continue there and at local group homes. She worked with 20 to 30 young people and says she learned some things, too. "All of them were artists," she said, and that surprised her. "I thought I would have to convince them to do poetry, but I didn’t."
It was also a good form for students whose literacy skills weren’t strong. "They may not have wanted to or been able to write these poems down," she said, "but if they were doing their own work and memorized it over a beat, then performing it helped them to get over that hurdle."
Several teens told Gill that being in prison actually saved their lives, given the dangers they faced on the outside. "That was such an unfortunate truth," Gill said. "I wanted to be a part of changing that."
A full list of the winners can be found here. Below is a video introducing some of the other fellows.