As the COVID-19 crisis took hold a year ago, large institutions struggled to address issues ranging from food insecurity to remote learning loss to insufficient broadband. Many turned to community-based organizations for their on-the-ground expertise. Though relatively small, these grassroots organizations are largely comprised of staff who were born and raised in the communities they serve. As the pandemic unfolded, deep relationships allowed community-based organizations to identify children and families most at risk. A foundation of trust ensured that resources were accepted without hesitation. Further, these organizations had long operated with limited financial support, but a driving commitment to meeting needs. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” as the old proverb goes and their creativity has led to innovative solutions with immediate impact and the potential to be game changers long-term. Well beyond COVID-19, with sufficient support, the work of community-based organizations could be replicated and scaled to build a stronger, more equitable Baltimore—and beyond. Thankfully, BCF’s strategic plan includes a strong emphasis on community engagement, giving us a front row seat to the powerful work underway. Here, we profile just a few of the ingenious individuals and organizations that are leading the charge.
The Movement Team
Even before COVID-19, The Movement Team was keeping students from falling through the cracks. Since 2014, it has provided both in-school and out-of-school time mentoring, enrichment, and parent engagement programs in 11 schools across Baltimore City. Alongside programs, the group built a broad community support system, partnering on food distributions, toy drives, clothing and coat giveaways, and more to ensure children had all of the resources needed to succeed. “All of the members of our team have a rich history of growing up in Baltimore,” says Kea Crowder, co-founder and vice president of The Movement Team. “They’ve lived it, so they always have their eyes open looking for ways we can be of help.”
That ability to relate proved critical when the pandemic hit in March. With a $40,000 grant from BCF’s COVID-19 Evolving Community Needs Fund, the group quickly mobilized mass food distributions and door-to-door deliveries to check on isolated families. As remote learning got underway and the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS) grappled with rising levels of disengagement, it turned to The Movement Team and its ability to meet families where they were. “We said [to BCPSS], ‘We can get on the ground. What do we need to do? Knock on doors?’ We immediately signed a contract, and from March to June, we completed 3,000 wellness checks,” says Kea proudly.
Every week since, The Movement Team’s trauma-trained youth specialists have been making calls and visiting homes to not only provide emotional support, but also gauge the wide variety of needs that families have and how best to address them. “You might have families who have a computer but don’t have electricity. You have families where the kids are angry because they’re hungry and there’s no food in the house. A 12-year-old might be taking care of all of their siblings,” Kea says. “But when we go to a home, we’re not going to investigate. We’re going to ask how we can help. We’re building trust.” Beyond meeting urgent needs, The Movement Team incentivizes engagement with raffle prizes—delivered along with school supplies, food, and other resources at home wellness checks. As the organization works locally, it’s thinking globally, partnering with groups in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Chicago to create similar community-led support systems. Says Kea, “We are showing the model for how to do this work anywhere.”
Elev8 Baltimore was launched by The Atlantic Philanthropies in 2009 as one of four sites nationwide striving to align schools, nonprofits, and families to ensure student success. Although part of a larger initiative, Elev8 Baltimore operates independently and now has staff embedded at 10 schools across Baltimore City, coordinating integrated out-of-school time opportunities and wraparound support services for families. It has also adopted a race equity framework focused on ensuring that communities have ownership and feel that they are represented in all of the strategies. “We let communities drive priorities and resource development,” says CEO Alexandria Warrick-Adams. “They trust that we are protecting their values and voice, keeping them centered in that conversation.”
Because of that trust, Elev8 was one of the first organizations that families reached out to when the pandemic hit. Foremost among the immediate needs was food. While Elev8 regularly operates school food pantries, it used a $5,000 grant from BCF’s COVID-19 Evolving Community Needs Fund to distribute Instacart gift cards, allowing families to stay safe at home and have the dignity of choosing the foods they needed most. Next to food, the greatest need was reliable internet access because multiple children and adults in the same household were often unable to be online at the same time, if at all. Through the lens of community sovereignty, the group partnered with grassroots tech start-up and fellow BCF grantee RowdyOrb.it to install community-run mesh Wi-Fi networks. In May and June 2020, a team of young trainees installed large wireless towers on top of New Song Academy, a community school and Elev8 partner in West Baltimore, as well as on top of Elev8’s headquarters and local churches in the Cherry Hill neighborhood of South Baltimore—all near other Elev8 community schools. These towers were supplemented with smaller towers on surrounding homes to amplify and strengthen the existing signal. Access is free for the next year, as RowdyOrb.it monitors the strength of the signal and community partners assess long-term sustainability to preserve affordability.
The improved internet access was vital as Elev8 transitioned its out-of-school time programs to virtual settings and launched virtual tutoring for students falling behind. Supported with a second COVID-19 Evolving Community Needs Fund grant of $116,618, the tutoring provides critical academic intervention—as well as social-emotional benefits, like mentorship—that will be felt well beyond the pandemic. Tutoring is supplemented with house visits and wellness checks to ensure that basic needs are met. Beyond the vital importance of reliable internet for distance learning, mesh Wi-Fi networks have the potential to address a wide range of equity issues, expanding access to telehealth services, banking, and workforce development, among others. “Cities and states across the country are grappling with the digital divide,” says Alexandria. “Here, we’re creating access to decision-making interventions, so systems aren’t doing to and for, but communities are leading and guiding. When we create space for communities to authentically be at the table, that’s when we create long-term systemic change.”
No Boundaries Coalition
Founded in 2008, the No Boundaries Coalition (NBC) is a resident-led advocacy organization that is building a unified and empowered Central West Baltimore across boundaries of race, class and neighborhood. Their efforts in the 21217 zip code – made up of Sandtown, Druid Heights, Upton, Madison Park, Penn North, Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill – have included community block parties, voter registration drives, youth organizing programs and public safety campaigns among others. Most recently, NBC has focused on food justice, auditing the safety and nutritional quality of products at the few nearby grocery stores and corner stores and advocating for a major grocery store chain to set up shop. “We spent years advocating,” says NBC CEO Ashiah Parker, “and were told, in so many words, that ‘poor communities don’t actually want fresh food.’ So, almost on a dare, to prove that wasn’t the case, we set up a fresh produce stall at The Avenue Market in Upton. Within an hour every time, we would sell out.”
Much of No Boundaries’ success has come from leveraging the resources and voices of higher-income communities to lift up and amplify the needs of lower-income neighboring communities. When The Avenue Market and others in Baltimore were ordered closed in March 2020, NBC saw the opportunity to leverage another resource: buying power. They quickly transitioned their produce stall into the Central West Baltimore Buying Club using a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) membership model. Residents were able to order a variety of products directly from distributors and purchasing in bulk as a collective reduced costs per item. Bulk ordering is something low-to-moderate income families are often unable to take advantage of with tightly scripted weekly budgets. Further, NBC parceled out the orders themselves making free bi-weekly deliveries so families could remain safe at home and avoid delivery fees and minimum order amounts that might have deterred them from personal shopping apps.
Beyond addressing food access, the buying club enables communities who have historically relied on limited options to use their purchasing power to effect social change. NBC has sought out locally-owned and Black-owned manufacturers, growers and makers and selections are based on residents’ expressed needs, including fresh food, toiletries and household goods. As cities and towns across the country grapple with food insecurity amid food deserts, the No Boundaries Coalition shows the power of the people. “We are hitting it hard on leadership,” says Ashiah. “We know exactly what our priorities are and what is needed in West Baltimore.” ν