Here are 10 change-makers who are working to improve the Baltimore area with their courage, innovative thinking and leadership:
36, founder of COR Health Institute, martial arts instructor
After years going in and out of jail and using drugs and alcohol, the East Baltimore resident decided to transform his life with martial arts.
“I needed the self-discipline, and I needed a tool to help me grow, professionally as well as physically,” said Bahar. He also co-founded the now-defunct 300 Men March in Baltimore, launched to stop violence. It was all a part of a promise he made to the city “to do whatever's necessary to bring the violence down,” he said.
Now, Bahar uses his experiences growing up and his expertise in martial arts to teach and transform the city, one child at a time. He created a dojo in East Baltimore after the uprisings in April 2015 to teach boys who are considered to be the most neglected and affected by city crime, violence and drugs.
“It requires so much internal work and discipline. … That is the true path toward change. If you want to change the world, you have to change yourself,” he said.
Bahar continues to do work through his COR (“Committed, Organized and Responsible”) Health Institute, including volunteering and roof repair in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. This month, he plans to expand the martial arts program to all generations.
54, art activist
In 2015, Gaskins co-founded arts group Artpartheid after seeing that Baltimore’s creative scene was segregated and that black artists were not receiving the same opportunities as white artists in their own city. The group, in hopes of seeing a more diverse and equitable arts scene, has since led community discussions on the intersection of race and art, including the city’s recent removal of Confederate monuments.
Gaskins continued the conversations about the intersection of art and race in academia in a Maryland Institute College of Art course called “Contemporary Racism: Know Your Biases,” which trains graduate students to be conscious of their own advantages because of their affluence or race when coming into a community, Gaskins said.
“In the past, community artists have been harmful to the community,” said Gaskins. Comparing their impact to colonization, Gaskins said some white artists who were not knowledgeable about the city have received funding to use Baltimore as their canvas, while black artists were often not granted the same opportunities. This resulted in art that was not representative of the neighborhood or provided no benefit to the community.
She’s already seeing some progress, she said.
“If I can get an artist, a white artist, to change their heart, then we have some change happening. It’s a heart-changing thing that needs to happen. … We should all just take the mask off, open our eyes and start all over. It ain’t gon get no better and no worse until we do.”
29, NFL player
The NFL wide receiver and University of Maryland alum started his philanthropic journey in Baltimore as a Raven. He’s worked with BARCS to bring more awareness to animal welfare. He and his wife, Chanel, have established the Torrey Smith Family Fund, which continues to fund and host holiday gift and food drives, scholarship funds, and after-school, back-to-school and mentorship programs for children in the city. The father of two has been honored for his charitable work, including being nominated for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award three times. He does it because he enjoys it, he said.
“My wife, my family — we try to be the example. … It’s a lot of kids and people that look up into the city, so we try to set the example and walk what we talk,” he said.
Smith has earned two Superbowl rings — one in 2013 with the Ravens and one this year with the Philadelphia Eagles — and was recently traded to the Carolina Panthers. He still considers his work in Baltimore a lifelong commitment. Most recently, he hosted the seventh annual Torrey Smith Family Fund Charity Basketball Game at Royal Farms Arena, where the game, according to Smith, will stay.
“[Baltimore] has a lot of potential,” Smith said. “There are great young leaders that need an opportunity and resources, and that’s why I think it’s important for them to have everything that they need.”
66, co-founder and president of the Baltimore African American Tourism Council of Maryland
Local tour guide and history enthusiast Lou Fields co-launched the Baltimore African American Tourism Council in the mid-90s in hopes of filling the gaps of Baltimore’s tourism market and highlighting attractions beyond the Inner Harbor.
“The African-American sites and things that people of color would like to see was not part of it,” Fields said of the tourism industry. His goal quickly became to promote sites along Pennsylvania Avenue, including the Arch Social Club; the city’s historical churches; and longtime cultural fixtures like The Arena Players, the Shake and Bake Family Fun Center, and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s House on the 1600th block of Division Street.
Since then, Fields has compiled decades of research about Maryland’s black history and has led historical tours throughout the city for more than 20 years, including the Frederick Douglass Path to Freedom Walking Tour. The tour explores various landmarks in Fells Point, where orator and abolitionist Douglass once lived, escaped slavery and returned to speak and purchase Dallas Street properties as a free man.
Fields has also lent his ever-growing expertise to local and state tourism organizations, helping them to include and promote a more complete history. But beyond a tourism platform for these historical gems, Fields is fighting for their preservation. He’s working to rename North Avenue “Harriet Tubman Boulevard” so that a street bears the abolitionist’s name. He’s lobbying to restore historical markers in Fells Point that point to Douglass’ history, and he’s urging the city and local communities to improve the neighborhoods harboring such important sites.
“The Baltimore we all envision is the one true Baltimore, where the same level of energy and resources are in every community,” Fields said.
“People are not just here for the Inner Harbor and sports. They come for the authentic parts,” and Fields, who is determined to never let Baltimore forget exactly what those are.
Catalina Rodriguez Lima
37, director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs
Rodriguez Lima has made immigrants and refugees — a population often overlooked — a priority in Baltimore. The Ecuadorian-born director of the Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs aims to close the gaps, focusing on their well-being and inclusion in the community, while also fighting to bring the voices of immigrants to the highest levels of government and to highlight their economic contributions to the city.
Rodriguez Lima served as a liaison for the immigrant Latino community under former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake starting in 2011. In 2013, she helped put together the New American Task Force, a public-private partnership with community stakeholders to make recommendations on how to make the city more welcoming to refugees, and in 2014, she helped form MIMA, which was created with several recommendations seeking to transform a negative narrative that immigrants were a drain to the city’s economy.
The office also recruited Latino Economic Development Center’s Washington office to provide technical assistance and micro-loans to immigrant business owners who might have low credit. And when dozens of local immigrants were arrested, MIMA launched the Safe City Baltimore Initiative in December in partnership with Open Society Institute Baltimore to provide access to immigration legal services.
“For me, this position and the line of work is not really a job. It’s very personal to me, obviously as an immigrant myself. I have an opportunity to wake up and do what I love and not treat it as a job or as work,” she said. “It’s really trying to make somebody’s journey, somebody’s life a little easier.”
45, founder of The Book Thing
Russell Wattenberg had operated The Book Thing, a haven for free books, for around two decades when its Abell location was struck by a debilitating fire in March 2016. Instead of counting it as a loss, the founder resolved that he would bring the book warehouse back, but more functional, more organized and with even more books.
In October, a relieved Wattenberg reopened The Book Thing’s doors to literature lovers, teachers and people from all over the city with around 200,000 books in stock.
Highlights have been witnessing children’s enthusiasm when they find their favorite titles like “Captain Underpants,” seeing people express gratitude when they have a place to donate their books and observing teary-eyed visitors part with their favorite reads, Wattenberg said.
The experiences at The Book Thing made him a better bibliophile, Wattenberg said.
“I’ve grown to learn what people are looking for and what are all the intricacies of people’s relationships to books,” he said, adding that he now knows which publishers have the best technical books, and that though many people might say they don’t like to read mysteries, they still might love works by Agatha Christie.
His next goal? To spread the warehouse’s reach by bringing books and bookcases to Motor Vehicle Administration buildings, to courts for those serving jury duty, and places where people have substantial waits.
Joan Webb Scornaienchi
58, executive director of HCDrug Free
Before opioid addiction was a major concern in Howard County, Scornaienchi was doing the work to prevent habit-forming medications from getting into the hands of children and other loved ones with HC Drug Free, which educates generations of county residents on drug and alcohol addiction prevention, decision-making, and the dire effects of substance abuse.
In collaboration with Howard County Police and the Drug Enforcement Administration, HCDrug Free began collecting unused and unwanted medication in 2013. Since then, the organization has collected and efficiently disposed of thousands of pounds of medication — more than 1,200 pounds in their most recent collection, and the initiatives continue. Twice a year, the organization hosts a drive-through medication drop-off, which allows people to dispose of medication ranging from cancer treatments to prescriptions for pets, and the nonprofit also offers a disposal program for needles, syringes and EpiPens, and provides free medication storage box programs to lock away medications.
Scornaienchi, who has been the nonprofit’s executive director since 2009 and served as chair for the Howard County Commission for Women last year, said her job has been a fulfilling marriage of her background and skills in education and her passion for saving lives.
“It’s impacting all of us in many ways. Everyone seems to know someone who has lost someone. It’s rippling through the community,” said Scornaienchi, whose work has earned her a recent induction into the Howard County Women’s Hall of Fame. “Why aren’t we more passionate about saving lives and helping people reach their God-given potential?”
“What I see each day is how families and individuals can go from big dreams … to a lifetime or heartbreak with little to no warning. I want to help impact their lives,” she said.
He’s lectured in London and spoken at universities including Georgetown and American, but Kondwani Fidel’s heart resides in Baltimore.
The poet and University of Baltimore student has composed several bittersweet odes to his life growing up in Baltimore, which include his 2017 book “Raw Wounds” and his Medium-piece-gone-viral “How a young boy has been decaying in Baltimore since age 10: A Death Note,” in which he candidly discusses the soul-crushing effects of being surrounded by inequality, violence and poverty.
His truth-telling has been requested at local schools and at services, including local rapper Lor Scoota’s wake and a vigil for Korryn Gaines, who was fatally shot by Baltimore County police at her home in 2016. His image and quotes now grace the walls of Renaissance Academy High School.
With a literacy campaign, Fidel hopes to inspire children to read more, and to search out books with relatable and diverse characters, attributes that made him a more avid reader, he noted.
He never shies away from his roots, and his recent international attention has felt both like a pat on the back and another chance to show people what Baltimore is all about, he said.
“I feel like Baltimore is an underdog city and growing up I have always been an underdog, being a black man or going to college,” he said. “...I know how people look at me and how people view Baltimore and black people in general, and I always want to represent where I come from.”
55, Food Communities and Public Health program director at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future
Today, 146,000 Baltimore residents — 23.5 percent of its population — live in “healthy food priority areas,” formerly referred to most widely as “food deserts,” and Palmer leads some of the research in figuring out why.
Food policy, which relates to how food is produced, processed, distributed, purchased and disposed of, has been Palmer’s work for more than a decade, not only as the Food Communities and Public Health program director at Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, but also as a research associate at the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where Palmer researches and reviews journal articles on topics such as supermarkets, urban agriculture, regional food systems and improving community food security and access.
“We deal with people living in a lot of neighborhoods that have been neglected for a long time. When you’re in those situations of entrenched poverty, it's hard to think about things being different,” she said, but policies can make things more equitable. “It’s a way to level the playing fields out there if done correctly.”
At Center for a Livable Future, Palmer has spearheaded and managed a number of programs, including the Food Policy Networks projects, which seeks to support and improve food policy, and the Maryland Food System mapping project, a tool used by both the city and state to map food environments, gather data and determine how an area is being impacted based on factors like transportation, poverty levels, distance to supermarkets and quality of food. These long-term initiatives have made Baltimore a national and international leader in terms of policy, and more people are using the data they have collected to make decisions on certain programs and policies, which has been an exciting feat for Palmer and her colleagues.
“It’s very rewarding,” she said.
47, regional resident services manager of HMR Properties
The Aberdeen resident had worked in social services as a caseworker for years before taking on a position that would build the programming of Edgewood’s Village of Lakeview, a government-subsidized housing community, from the ground up. In around just two years, Peaker went above and beyond to establish an after-school program, a summer camp, a neighbor-to-neighbor mediation program, housekeeping training and financial literacy programs to assist residents.
Today, she operates as regional resident services manager of Housing Management Resources Properties, the company that owns Village of Lakeview and two other entities in Maryland, including a campus on Orchard Street. Her work has also expanded to oversee other U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development community centers in the Mid-Atlantic.
“It’s hard work, but I love it,” said Peaker. She emphasized that the most rewarding part of her job is witnessing “at least one life changed through programming” and affecting and earning the trust of generations of families. Still, Peaker said that many people discriminate or stereotype people who are in need of government assistance, not realizing that many people they know might need the help.
“People think that they’re not regular people, but that could be your neighbor next door,” she said.
“We’re all the same people. We’re people.”