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Baltimore Teacher Supply Swap offers free school supplies to teachers, child care providers, and others working with children. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

When the Baltimore Teacher Supply Swap, which collected and distributed unused classroom materials to educators who needed them, announced that it would be closing its doors, the outcry was swift. As co-founder and executive director, I was inundated with emails and phone calls from people asking if there was anything they could do and lamenting the loss of an institution that does “amazing things for so many students and teachers,” according to one commenter. Now, a chance to save the organization is being sought. But why has it taken the imminent demise of the Baltimore Teacher Supply Swap for people to ask what they can do to save it?

It takes money and people to run an operation, and the Baltimore Teacher Supply Swap needed more of both as it continued to grow. Although I pleaded for funds and volunteers to keep up with the growing need, there was never enough of either. It became clear that — with the exception of some wonderful volunteers, donors, and funders — few were willing to participate in the demanding work required to sustain a startup. The Baltimore Teacher Supply Swap eventually became my only identity as people asked me about it everywhere I went and most people only recognized me as its executive director. This cognitive, emotional, and physical burden caused me to spiral further and further into anxiety and depression, ultimately requiring medical intervention to stabilize. The only way for me to be free was to be free of the Baltimore Teacher Supply Swap, which I now am.

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Kellei Burrus, co-founder of Multiple Sclerosis Baltimore, is grateful for the art supplies she finds at Teacher Supply Swap for the craft programs she offers at her non-profit organization. Teacher Supply Swap, located in a warehouse on Wicomico Street, offers donated school supplies to school teachers and other educators for free.
Kellei Burrus, co-founder of Multiple Sclerosis Baltimore, is grateful for the art supplies she finds at Teacher Supply Swap for the craft programs she offers at her non-profit organization. Teacher Supply Swap, located in a warehouse on Wicomico Street, offers donated school supplies to school teachers and other educators for free. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Sadly, my story is all too common among social impact leaders struggling to succeed in the vicious world of the nonprofit industrial complex. Through conversations with other Baltimore founders of “scrappy” nonprofits and grassroots groups, it is clear they bear a very similar burden. Society expects it of them, and others are depending on them. It is untenable and unsustainable to demand so much of nonprofits which need money to hire more staff, and at the same time need more staff to develop campaigns to acquire more money — and so the cycle continues. So what can be done to change this?

We as a community have to get out of the mindset that one person or group of people will do all the work that’s required to make Baltimore a better place. We have to stop assuming that nonprofit workers are martyrs who don’t mind working hard for little money, or in some cases for free, because they “love what they do” (try paying your grocery bill with love) or “do such great work.” We have to develop partnerships and work together to solve problems to avoid making one person take on the majority of the work. We have to ask small, cash-and-resource strapped nonprofits and grassroots groups what their needs are, and those of us who have the ability to do so must try to meet those needs. Those of us who are in a position of privilege must listen to those who are impacted by oppression and use our privilege to uplift and support their work.

As for the Baltimore Teacher Supply Swap specifically, it shouldn’t have to exist, because schools should be adequately funded. Everyone who is upset about the Baltimore Teacher Supply Swap closing can, and should, direct that same amount of energy into supporting the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations to adequately fund our schools. The Kirwin Commission's Wwork group recently proposed an updated public school funding formula and phase-in plan that significantly increases the amount of money each school district receives under the current law to ensure the success of both teachers and students in schools. Contact your legislator to ask them to support the recommendations and join a Strong Schools Team of Ten to learn how you can stay engaged. Support grassroots groups that are addressing the root causes of educational inequity such as Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators, Teachers Democracy Project or Baltimore Algebra Project. Together, we can better support Baltimore, its schools, its educators and its students.

Melissa Badeker (melissabadeker@gmail.com) is co-founder and former executive director of Baltimore Teacher Supply Swap.

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