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Challenging ‘changemakers’ to help tackle social issues in Howard County

Challenging ‘changemakers’ to help tackle social issues in Howard County
Nikki Highsmith Vernick is the president and chief executive officer of the Horizon Foundation. File photo (Doug Kapustin/for the Baltimore Sun)

What if innovative thinkers could win $10,000 grants to help them implement original ideas with the power to bring about real social change in Howard County?

That's the concept behind the Changemaker Challenge, a county-focused competition by the Columbia-based Horizon Foundation and the United Way of Central Maryland to spur out-of-the-box solutions to an array of pressing social issues in the county.

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Maryland residents 18 and older and statewide nonprofits can submit ideas online by Sept. 8 as individuals or in teams, culminating Oct. 30 with finalists pitching their ideas before an audience.

Three winners, who will also receive up to $25,000 worth of project consultation services, will be selected by a panel of judges.

Submissions must contain written and video components. Some have already been received at changemakerchallengehc.org since the contest was announced June 28.

The idea to stage a competition grew from a seed planted by the new president of the Howard County Branch NAACP, said Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation, a health and wellness philanthropy based in Columbia.

"I give the credit to Willie Flowers from the NAACP," Highsmith Vernick said. "Willie came in to talk to me a couple of months ago and he mentioned the Warnock Foundation in Baltimore, which has a similar focus on innovation.

"He asked, 'Why not in Howard County?'" she said of Flowers, an Ellicott City resident and the executive director of the Park Heights Community Health Alliance.

"That was the kernel of an idea" that led to the contest, she said. "We want to showcase ideas that take risks and elevate people."

Flowers, who was elected in November to head the 700-member NAACP chapter and took office in January, said he was humbled to learn that Highsmith Vernick attributes the contest's genesis to him.

"In an affluent area like Howard County, to see people still using a grassroots approach to make the community better is a positive thing," he said.

"The Horizon Foundation stepped up by negotiating a relationship with United Way that should inspire grassroots people," he said. "This challenge should bring them out because without seed money, these programs can't exist."

Highsmith Vernick noted that Ignite Howard County, which is sponsored by the Howard County Economic Development Authority, is a similar "great event," but emphasized that the Changemaker Challenge will focus on ideas with a social component.

People associate the Horizon Foundation with health-related issues, but this challenge will encourage the submission of ideas in all areas where there's potential to spark social change, such as the environment, social justice or economic opportunity, she said.

"The issues are real and the possibilities … are endless," the website states.

Franklyn Baker, who took the reins as president and CEO of the United Way of Central Maryland in November, said he agreed to partner with the Horizon Foundation on the Changemaker Challenge the next day after Highsmith Vernick first approached him.

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"Nikki was very excited about generating visibility for those with a cause or a platform," Baker said.

"This challenge will put people in the driver's seat by asking them to come up with ideas to galvanize the community," he said, listing health, housing, education and employment as the four areas on which his organization focuses its attention.

Referring to the United Way of Central Maryland's 2016-2017 study of financial hardship in the state — named the ALICE Report, for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — Baker said a Howard County family composed of two adults, one preschooler and one infant needs to earn an income of $75,972 to subsist on what is termed a "survival budget."

That amount is higher than the state's median income of $73,971, he said, noting that Howard County's median income is $107,490.

"This particular challenge will harness innovative ideas," Baker said. "We want to change the odds for those who don't make enough to make ends meet."

Flowers said he hopes someone submits an idea that tackles Howard County's race-related challenges, which "are hiding in plain sight."

He listed the separate postings on social media of a racist video by a Mount Hebron High School student and a photo by an Atholton High School student in blackface as two examples of racism that occurred in the county last year.

"These [incidents] were micro-aggressions on steroids, but there were never solutions put in place to stop them from happening again," he said.

Flowers also said the century-old civil rights organization is still confronting the claim by naysayers that it has lost its relevance.

"There has been strong debate as well as critical op-ed pieces written that call for us to be more consistent with the political times," Flowers said, noting the 108th NAACP National Convention will be held July 22 to July 26 in Baltimore.

"People want something stronger, and some feel race relations are where they were 50 years ago during desegregation due to the same hate being perpetuated today," he said.

"They are asking, 'How do we [in the NAACP] fit into today's times?'

"We have to stay positive and use love as an organizing tool," Flowers said.

Highsmith Vernick said fresh thinking is needed to make lives better.

"This is an attempt to find people with great ideas who need help in connecting with others to bring those ideas to fruition," she said.

"We're not assuming Howard County's got a grand plan that's all baked. We want to uplift the social entrepreneurs who want to change the world."

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