Lessons from a failed philanthropy project

Predominantly white faces control philanthropic boardrooms, and they may distribute their grants with their eyes closed. I declare a guilty plea as I walk away from my philanthropic efforts in Sandtown-Winchester, one of Baltimore's most depressed areas. That neighborhood became the focus in the national media after Freddie Gray, who was arrested there last year, died from injuries suffered while in police custody. Various reports highlighted the challenges for undereducated and underemployed

Predominantly white faces control philanthropic boardrooms, and they may unintentionally distribute grants with their hearts open but their minds closed. That's the best explanation for the results of the good intentioned but ultimately failed attempt by visionary James Rouse to revitalize Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood by assembling a $130 million, multi-year effort there in 1989. And it's likely behind the disappointing results of my own efforts in that same neighborhood.

Sandtown-Winchester is one of Baltimore's most depressed areas. It became the focus in the national media after Freddie Gray, who was arrested there last year, died from injuries suffered while in police custody. Various reports highlighted the challenges for undereducated and underemployed young people like Gray. And so, determined to make a difference, I initiated a pilot program to teach these youngsters ages 16 to 24 construction skills and investing in the stock market. I included standards tested in other programs, which gave me confidence in my effort's eventual success and its potential for duplication across the city. Assurance in its potential came from my years as press secretary to William Donald Schaefer when he was Baltimore City's mayor, and subsequent experience funding and administering two successful nonprofit organizations.


Construct a Difference (CAD), as my program was known, was administered through the city's west-side YO Baltimore center, a community magnet for this age group. Participants in the 14-week program could walk away with valued skills building planters and picnic tables subsequently donated to the city's parks and recreation department. This qualified them for paid construction internships in preparation for employment. A second part introduced stock market fundamentals with money earned during construction used to buy publicly traded stocks. Participants also received weekly stipends. Completing the program, they walked away with job opportunities and stock.

Entering the YO Baltimore facility through its metal doors, I suddenly recognized I was blindfolded. Ta-Nehisi Coates' book "Between the World and Me" had put me on alert. As he walked to school as a sixth grader, he realized he was no longer just a kid who was black. Instead, for the first time, he wore a coat of armor that carried all the negative stereotypes that white Americans have against blacks.

I experienced that revelation in reverse. The sea of black faces greeting me didn't see just a white woman. Instead, it became painfully clear that I displayed a prominent billboard plastered with reasons blacks needed to be wary of my presence. Forget acceptance as a do-good neighbor who cared enough to initiate a program to positively impact a distressed age group. I was the white slave owner with a self-imposed righteous attitude wanting to dictate my standards, ones not practiced in their black world.

I had introduced CAD's principles feeling confident they offered significant incentives guaranteeing receptivity by the participants. These included weekly stipends to encourage regular attendance, gaining construction skills qualifying them for employment, instilling pride of accomplishments along with preparation for job opportunities, and walking away as a stockholder generating positive peer recognition. This combination would work — right?

At the first class, a 20-year-old black father sat with his 6-month old on his lap and expressed determination through this program to "make changes." By the third session he was a no-show, returning instead to working the streets. One enthusiastic participant who attending sessions regularly showed determination and skill both in construction and absorbing the basics for investing in the stock market. It was the seventh week that he was prevented from attending the class because he showed up "high." He never returned. And an 18-year old who dropped out of school at 15 embraced this experience, but her momentum skidded to a halt when an old photograph surfaced on Facebook that replayed her being teased about her haircut.

Within weeks, attendance dropped from 10 to four. At the conclusion, the minimal attendance requirement to qualify for stock ownership had only three candidates. Only two completed the necessary paperwork giving them ownership of stocks. And only one applied for the paid construction internship, but was rejected when showing up for the initial interview in sloppy clothes and a messed application.

My disappointment in the results led me to analyze the contributing reasons. It became clear that unsuspecting arrogance was my Achilles heel. I had stepped into this "foreign" neighborhood without conducting sufficient research on factors impacting these individuals who were raised fatherless, lived in depressed conditions, and admired and imitated role models with questionable standards. Without sufficient groundwork, I failed to absorb and integrate this population's motivations. And a glance at results from other similar efforts designed by predominantly white philanthropic boardrooms reinforced the need to encourage institutions to more closely examine preconceived standards.

The black community cannot claim freedom from contributing to the disappointing results. A YO Baltimore supervisor stated one problem with some of the CAD participants: "They don't have the people in their lives to spell out parameters of acceptable behavior. There's no one to teach the basics."

There's no shortage of black role models in the music and athletic worlds, which offer high visibility, said Brenda Boyd, CEO of TuTTies Place, a Baltimore foster care specialist who sees struggling African American communities in need of more everyday role models to learn from. Black businesspeople in particular seem to disappear from places like Sandtown once they make it, she said.

"African Americans need black heroes. … The ones who are successful can't wait to move out, and they don't look back," Ms. Boyd said. Therefore, she added, many in impoverished black communities still have a slave mentality and "look to the white people to give solutions. That's how we were raised. It's a continuation that's been passed through the generations and some of us can't change that dynamic."

But we clearly don't have all the answers, and working independently we never will. I learned the hard way that if you don't truly know a community, you can't know how to help its members — no matter how good your intentions. I won't make that mistake again.

Pat Bernstein is a Baltimore philanthropist; her email is