By Priscilla Rodriguez | m/Oppenheim Media Writer
As in many large urban centers across the U.S., the key to creating a strong city with diverse neighborhoods involves creating a wealth of resources to help individuals and families of all backgrounds to thrive in their environments.
In Baltimore, Maryland, the nonprofit Strong City Baltimore, works directly with residents and local institutions to build up diverse leadership that is representative of its communities and to create more opportunities for minorities that make up a vast portion of the city’s population.
“The way we’ve done that is through a very holistic approach of looking at what it takes to improve the quality of life in any neighborhood,” says Karen Stokes, Chief Executive Officer of Strong City Baltimore, a community development organization.
Strong City strengthens Baltimore’s neighborhoods in numerous ways, including with programs focused on community building; through partnerships with local schools and learning centers; through housing revitalization; and through projects that create more opportunities for diverse leadership to emerge.
The organization has had immense impact on the city’s education system, for example, supporting the Baltimore Education Coalition in its efforts to land a $1 billion school renovation and construction bond bill for Baltimore City. Additionally it partners with local public schools, inviting teachers, parents and students to become strong advocates for quality education.
Beyond its impact on K-12 education, Strong City partners with Community Learning Partners and other local academic institutions to provide minorities with training to become employable and retainable in community leadership positions.
“The goal is to help them develop technical skills necessary to land jobs, to compliment their natural abilities that already make them great leaders,” says Stokes.
Throughout the course of its existence for nearly 50 years, the organization’s mission hasn’t changed much, explains Stokes, always focused on people and improving neighborhoods. However one aspect of its work has become significantly outstanding: serving diverse communities and working in an anti-racist, anti-discriminatory manner.
“We want to look at all aspects of our work, from how we hire, to our board recruitment and we work in the community – really taking a serious look at what we are doing as an organization and how we could model a behavior that is anti-racist in nature,” says Stokes.
Many people in Baltimore have experienced, or been witnesses to, intense policing, explains Stokes, and therefore Strong City decided that it was important to make it part of its mission statement and to actively work against racist practices.
“The way we define what it means to be anti-racist organization is that we are committed to the work of dismantling systemic racism and supporting community-led efforts to build healthy, restorative and sustainable communities in Baltimore,” says Stokes.
Part of that process, of course, includes developing projects that give people of color an opportunity to access high quality education, good jobs, safe work spaces, great homes, safe neighborhoods, and to become leaders in their communities.
Now celebrating her tenth year at Strong City Baltimore, Stokes’ leadership has shaped the organization to become an indispensable resource to its community. Her background in serving underprivileged communities and in working with families who were battling homelessness over the years has positioned her to lead a successful effort that reaches thousands of families around the city.
When asked what makes a city strong, Stokes answers that there are many unique moving parts that the organization strives to address.
“Ultimately, we look at what we think makes an urban neighborhood or vibrant living area: we think safe streets, diverse housing, quality public schools, educated workforce, and a deep sense of civic engagement – each of those areas is important.”