Annie Hall—or Ms. Annie, as she is affectionately known—has decades of history and deep relationships in her community of Penn North. “My involvement started when the Penn North Community Association was in the middle of a master planning process and the president left. I was retired at that point and my grandnephew [State Senator Antonio Hayes] said, ‘Well you’re not doing anything!’” she laughs. A lifelong resident of the small community in West Baltimore and its staunchest advocate, Annie has led revisions to the master plan and has been fighting ever since for everything from the revitalization of a recreation center to the removal of illegally dumped couches on vacant lots.
Annie’s reputation in the community is unmatched, according to Kelly Little, former director of the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation and current consultant to the Penn North Community Association. “But the challenge for someone who has been here fighting the battles for so long, is you look at anything and anyone new skeptically,” he says. A new pilot program called Baltimore Communities Assisting and Advancing Neighbors (BCAAN) is overcoming that challenge by taking time to build trust with residents and ensure they feel autonomy and ownership as the group works to address two of the greatest issues facing the community: (1) the lack of economic opportunity and mobility, particularly for young Black men; and (2) the pervasive sense of hopelessness that comes from being surrounded by disinvestment and a lack of direction.
With support from the New York-based Robin Hood Foundation and Baltimore’s own Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, and in partnership with the Baltimore Community Foundation and the Center for Urban Families, BCAAN is empowering neighborhood leaders to offer neighborhood-specific solutions, trusting their unique insights to ensure programs are impactful, and following up with immediate investments to demonstrate commitment. After years of broken promises from people in power, the importance of building trust to foster long-term change cannot be overstated.
Leaders like Annie Hall are often unknown and underappreciated assets, but they have an unparalleled ability to identify possible barriers, engage hard-to-reach neighbors, and encourage buy-in. “You can’t do this work without relationships,” says Kelly. “How can anyone expect to influence change without relationships? She knows everyone—the young people, the dealers… She got into an argument with a young man the other day and a couple of hours later he came to her house and apologized because his friends told him he couldn’t disrespect Ms. Annie,” he says, laughing.
BCAAN builds on these personal relationships, which are the heart of Penn North. In the coming months, the program will hire a team of staff with direct knowledge of the community to engage and connect residents to resources that remove barriers to economic opportunity. These include reducing criminal records and child support debt, promoting workforce attachment, creating access to postsecondary education/training, advancing family-sustaining wages, and encouraging entrepreneurship. An outreach worker will strategically target residents who are known to need opportunity. A community navigator will help to identify and overcome systemic barriers and support advocacy for investment. A partnership coordinator will work with the wide range of nonprofits in and around Penn North to ensure they are ready to provide wraparound services for referred clients, and a dedicated case manager will guide program participants through every step and offer moral support as they strive to achieve economic stability and, ultimately, mobility.
Beyond extending access to economic opportunity, BCAAN is laser focused on developing the next generation of community leaders and a broad level of civic engagement. The reason is two-fold: to further disrupt the feeling of hopelessness that many feel by instilling a sense of autonomy and power, and to support Annie and other women who are “the backbone of this community,” says Kelly. “She has a reputation for getting stuff done, but she’s really trying to do more than troubleshooting.”
It’s true. Annie Hall has big visions for the neighborhood, including a vibrant recreation center and other assets to ensure children thrive, transit-oriented development to allow residents to reach school and work, a diverse mix of new housing to attract families, and the addition of small businesses and manufacturers to provide services and employment opportunities for residents. With real, tangible investment from BCAAN and authentic engagement of existing residents, Annie sees a bright future for Penn North: “Sometimes in Baltimore, we revere the past. We want to focus on the future here.”