Open Society Institute's social justice laboratory in Baltimore turns 15

On the field next to Northeast Middle School, young refugees Abhishek Yonghang and Ahmed Osman kicked a soccer ball around, each grateful for the common connection as they adjust to a new life far from their former homes in Nepal and Somalia.

Three miles away in a classroom at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, junior Wayne Young slipped a suit jacket over his school uniform for debate practice with the Urban Debate League, trying to "look the part" of the Harvard law grad he envisions himself to one day be.

The lives of these Baltimore teens are among the thousands influenced by George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist who decided 15 years ago that the city, with severe crime and poverty and just enough potential, was ripe for an experiment.

The Baltimore office of his Open Society Institute was designed as a social justice laboratory to keep students engaged in school, confront drug addiction, reduce incarceration and grow an army of advocates. Now, the 83-year-old hedge fund investor — who has given $90 million to the effort here — wants to recreate it in as many as five more U.S. cities.

"A lot remains to be done, but we now consider the Baltimore experiment so successful that we wanted to replicate it nationwide," Soros said in a phone interview from his native Budapest, Hungary.

Soros, who lives outside New York City, said his organization, Open Society Foundations, has given planning grants to eight communities to compete for future offices. Meanwhile, he pledged his continued support in Baltimore, saying the advancements the institute has helped promote in student attendance, discipline and performance are the return on investment he wanted.

"Baltimore is our poster child, the city that has done the most," he said. "From my perspective, that is the one I cherish the most."

The local office will mark its anniversary Tuesday with a sold-out event, "Big Change Baltimore," that is expected to bring 500 people to Center Stage. Speakers will include civil rights activist Sherrilyn Ifill and Ravens president Dick Cass, and the organization will give awards to community members, including Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks. Soros is not expected to attend.

Celeste Amato, president of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, said OSI has honed in on the issues most critical to the city. Her group works with OSI and more than 145 other philanthropic groups.

"What philanthropy brings is the ability to test ideas and innovative solutions to what may seem to be intractable issues," she said, and at OSI, that's "part of their mission."

Jeff Singer, an advocate for the homeless in Baltimore for more than 40 years and an adjunct instructor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, said quantifying OSI's impact and separating its successes from other nonprofits is impossible. But what he knows for sure is that because of OSI's work, people have greater access to addiction services, and marginalized individuals such as ex-offenders are being heard.

"Their impact in the philanthropy and nonprofit world has been as a leader in showing a relationship between service and advocacy," Singer said. "There aren't very many philanthropies that are willing to fund both. OSI has seen the connection.

"OSI does some of that work itself, but they are also providing the lifeblood for us to do it."

For example, the Urban Debate League, launched by the institute in 1999, boasts a graduation rate of 90 percent and college acceptance rate of 80 percent among its participating students. This year, 31 city schools are participating in the league and 600 students have signed up so far.

During a recent practice drill at Mergenthaler, Fernando Kirkman told Young, the 16-year-old from Pigtown, and his teammates to speak louder and project their voices.

"Debate is a competitive activity," said Kirkman, 28, a program coordinator for the league and a graduate of Baltimore City College and Towson University. He is also a former debate league student. "Just like the football team, just like the basketball team, you have to commit to doing this at the highest level you can obtain."

Shamaiah Evans, a sophomore from East Baltimore whose sights are set on Carnegie Mellon University, joined the debate league last year. With Kirkman's help, the 15-year-old focused her arguments around this year's debate topic, Latin American economic policy, discussing the instability of Venezuela, the danger of a civil war and its reliance on oil reserves.

She had never heard of Soros before, but last week she considered the billionaire and his investment for a moment, and said, "I think he saw a lot of potential in Baltimore."

Like the debate league, OSI's investment has been the springboard for nearly 150 projects through its Community Fellowships program, which has helped to create a citywide network of social entrepreneurs. Each fellow receives $60,000 over 18 months as well as money for health insurance, travel and education debt relief.

With that seed money, Jill Pardini, 29, a former Fulbright Scholar and Peace Corps volunteer, founded Soccer Without Borders in Baltimore. The program uses soccer to connect immigrant and refugee children, primarily in the city's Northeast, and help tutor and mentor them, improve their English skills and keep them physically and emotionally strong.

Yonghang, a Patterson High School senior whose family fled Nepal in 2008, called the program "pretty awesome."

"It helps you feel better knowing other people are trying to do the same thing as you are — trying to learn and playing soccer," the 17-year-old said.

The staff and volunteers have helped Yonghang with the process of applying for college, where he wants to major in computer science.

Daniel Sass, an English teacher at Digital Harbor High School, said he started hearing about "Coach Jill" in 2011 from some of the boys he coached on the school's soccer team, and eventually attended one of their Saturday games for Soccer Without Borders.

"The thing I love most about it is the way it teaches the boys to be engaged citizens of the world they live in," said Sass, 27, who now volunteers with the program. "Boys who a couple of years ago were still socially and emotionally immature have emerged as leaders in the classroom, leaders socially, on the soccer field, in their community."

Creating an engaged citizenry is exactly what was envisioned by Soros, whose $20 billion net worth ranks 19th on Forbes' list of the 400 richest Americans — one place ahead of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. He created the Open Society Foundations, which have projects in more than 100 countries, to advance the principles of democracy and promote civic engagement.

"The foundation is concerned with promoting and preserving open societies, and the open society being a more comprehensive, liberal democracy," Soros said. "Open society in the United States is now endangered."

Soros, who has visited Baltimore every year since the local office opened, fully funded it for eight years. He then challenged the local leaders to raise money to support its efforts; so far, the office has brought in an additional $28 million.

Soros is known for supporting liberal causes and backing Democratic candidates. This month, he pledged $25,000 to the super PAC Ready for Hillary, in support of a potential presidential run by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Andre M. Davis, an OSI-Baltimore board members since 2000, said Baltimore has significant work left to do, but with the partnerships the local group helped create and the resources marshaled, the city is in a dramatically better place.

"OSI has just been a godsend to Baltimore, and particularly the underserved and the voiceless in Baltimore," said Davis, a native of the city.

Davis said the mission for OSI-Baltimore is intertwined with that of many other institutions, including the Public Justice Center, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the police force and public school system.

Susan Goering, director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland, called OSI a "game changer" for its strategic focus and longevity. To further the ACLU's mission, OSI brought together a group of charitable donors who helped the local organization expand its education reform division from one employee to four.

"Social reform, which is what we're doing, is really a product of a whole constellation of factors," Goering said. "For deep social reform, you have to be in the long haul."

Diana Morris, director of the OSI's Baltimore field office, said one change is unmistakable: In what was seen by many as a sinking city, people now have reason to be hopeful.

Morris said OSI's success relies on its partnerships with government agencies, other nonprofits and individual advocates, which together shape policy and change generations. OSI helps the process by employing a staff of experts on criminal justice, education and other subjects and by making the latest research available to leaders across the city.

"We have to combine consulting with data, with intuition," she said. "We need to be engaged, and in doing so, we try to surround ourselves with people who are at the frontiers of pushing for justice. We're not going to do any of this alone."

At Clay Pots coffeehouse and community center in southern Baltimore, forcing social change amid drug-dealing, prostitution and other illicit activity in the surrounding neighborhood is the objective, said Dwayne Hess, who helped found the largely volunteer-run venue. The community center was opened in 2005 and received an OSI fellowship in 2009.

"The community fellowship opened doors in a way we weren't able to before," Hess, 44, said. "Now, there's something happening seven days a week, and it's interesting to watch people taking ownership of the place."

Since the OSI funding, Clay Pots has offered adult education, such as GED classes and computer lessons, and neighborhood activities, said Hess, a former city schools teacher. The Mount Clare resident aims to build a sense of camaraderie through regular coffeehouse sessions where as many as 100 people come each week for free beverages and a space to congregate.

"There's definitely a community connection that's happening here," Hess said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Nayana Davis contributed to this article.

Investing in change

Here are four hallmarks of OSI in Baltimore:

•OSI seeks to eliminate injustice and poverty by focusing on four core issues: improving education, confronting drug addiction, reducing incarceration and growing an advocacy network.

•Working with partners across Baltimore, OSI documents measurable change in city institutions, such as suspensions in city schools, which peaked in 2008 at 25,000 and has dropped to less than 8,000.

•OSI has financed nearly 150 Community Fellowships for projects such as the Griot's Eye, a youth leadership program that travels annually to Ghana and Ethiopia.

•Soros, through the Open Society Foundations, has provided $90 million to the Baltimore office; the local office has raised an additional $28 million.


As Open Society Institute celebrates its 15th anniversary in Baltimore, founder and chairman George Soros and local director Diana Morris discuss the impact the social experiment has had on the city. Soros was interviewed over the phone from Budapest, Hungary. Morris was interviewed at OSI's Baltimore office.

Q: What successes has OSI led since 1998?

Soros: From my perspective, actually, one of the greatest successes has been in improving the school attendance and completion in Baltimore. ... That's a very difficult task because the current legislation actually creates a perverse incentive for principals to get rid of troublemakers in the school by actually putting them into the juvenile justice systems. Once they are there, their future is very endangered. We are waging a nationwide campaign to change that.

Q: Why did you select Baltimore for this investment?

Soros: We felt it is the city [with] the biggest problems and the most potential to actually improve the situation. … Those were the criteria that led us to Baltimore and particularly the drug problem and the inner-city problem that qualified Baltimore, as well as the potential for improvement in the city administration and mobilizing civic engagement in Baltimore.

Q: How does OSI work with partners to accomplish its objectives?

Morris: We realize that you need to work at a lot of different levels. It's very important for government to be a partner. But it's also important to have people within the community understanding the issues and working with you. So we talk a lot about partnerships. We're not going to do any of this alone.

Q: What does OSI want for Baltimore's future?

Morris: The "O" stands for optimism. We are optimistic about the future. We do have high standards for not just the children, but frankly how the adults in these various systems are going to behave. There is a lot of adult responsibility as part of the equation.

Q: Why focus this investment on the U.S. rather than another country where problems may be more pronounced?

Soros: The democratic institutions are not functioning the way they did for the ... 200-odd years of its history, so our concern is to make them function once again the way they did, and hopefully better.

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