Why Baltimore may be an unlikely leader in social innovation
Baltimore Corps is building a network of changemakers in Charm City
Baltimore has a long history of reinventing itself. From wartime through the post-industrial era, it has tackled major social issues necessary to fulfilling its promise of a great American city in which every resident has the opportunity to live a full, meaningful life; the present day is no different. With a population in decline, increased public safety issues, decreased political power in its region, and a public school system facing major challenges—Baltimore desperately needs innovative approaches to tackle its most pressing challenges.
Fortunately, Baltimore is uniquely positioned to capitalize on a number of trends and opportunities. The city is currently enjoying an influx of Millennial talent, especially in the social impact sector in the city. Baltimore also boasts major academic institutions that attract world-class talent for a short period of time, and with the decreased population density, there is plenty of room to attract more people to the city and retain them so they can build thriving communities.
Our greatest challenges were created by people and we believe they will also be solved by people.
Wes Moore and I, two Baltimore natives, co-founded Baltimore Corps in 2013, working from the core belief that talented individuals—including Millennials—could tackle a post-industrial city’s biggest challenges and grow its next generation of leaders. Our greatest challenges were created by people and we believe they will also be solved by people.
Baltimore Corps is confident that the city has the necessary conditions to serve as the social impact innovation hub of the nation. Baltimore Corps’ main objective is to connect talent to opportunity, while ensuring that the definition of those terms are in line with the city’s needs and with our values: to advance equity citywide, improve the effectiveness of Baltimore’s social impact sector, and build a network that puts Baltimore’s collective interests above those of any single organization.
To achieve its mission, Baltimore Corps has built and is scaling a range of programs that connect talented individuals to impactful opportunities: the Baltimore Corps Fellowship, the Elevation Awards, and Place for Purpose.
In our flagship program, the Baltimore Corps Fellowship, aspiring and established changemakers apply to participate in a year-long, paid fellowship. Fellows are matched with Visionary Cause Leaders (VCLs) who direct Baltimore institutions positioned to address the major issues impacting Baltimore. Baltimore Corps’ VCLs are truly cross-sectoral ranging from government agencies, to social enterprises, to nonprofits, and corporations.
Throughout the year, fellows are supported by Baltimore Corps’s faculty who provide customized coaching to fellows as well as to Staff and Elevation Awards grantees. Faculty are diverse in their professional and personal experiences and help to ensure that the Baltimore Corps community executes at the highest level.
To deepen their commitment to and understanding of Baltimore, Fellows also engage in values-based programming throughout their fellowship, for example, a year-long series on race and equity in Baltimore. Fellows learn the history behind present day inequities while challenging one another to confront their own biases with the aim of building bridges and creating sustainable solutions.
Baltimore is ripe for social innovation and has the potential to emerge as a city at the forefront of dismantling systems of oppression.
At the Baltimore City Department of Social Services’ Office of Innovation, current fellows, Jeremy Pesner and Anne Lin are leveraging their love of data science and operations to support the Innovation Lab.
Under the leadership of Molly Tierney, the Baltimore City Department of Social Services (BCDSS), helps Baltimore citizens in need by administering a wide range of public assistance programs, primarily serving low-income people as well as families and children in crisis. BCDSS engages one in three Baltimore residents annually, which historically has led to services being deployed according to a “one size fits all” approach. Today, the leadership of the agency recognizes a reality where the availability of information and technology can help it be more proactive and innovative in the ways it serves the community. In the words of Molly Tierney, “BCDSS does not suffer from a lack of care or empathy for the community, nor does it suffer from a lack of base resources required, it simply is blind without information.”
And so with the help of Baltimore Corps fellows the Office of Innovation at BCDSS takes the agency out of compliance mode of operations and positions it as a big picture and innovative organization capable of moving more families forward. Fellow Anne Lin uses Six Sigma business principles to support the streamlining of agency processes such as hiring, client enrollments, and customer relations. And fellow Jeremy Pesner uses programming software to clean up old agency data, automate the running of reports, and even produce graphs, visualizations, and web applications to better communicate data trends to decision makers.
Through Baltimore Corps’ Elevation Awards, Shannon Epps is using her grant and the accompanying technical and professional development support to address homelessness in the historically underserved West Baltimore community. She is designing and building a laundromat on wheels to specifically provide a traveling laundry service for homeless citizens of the community. “Cleanliness is not just an isolated solution, it is also a gateway to other potential services in the future which include counseling, mentoring and other services,” she said.
The Elevation Awards grants were made possible through thoughtful and strategic leadership from the T. Rowe Price Foundation. In an effort to ensure that funds disbursed by the foundation were reaching those closest to the problems facing in our city, Baltimore Corps was tapped to create a framework that increased community access to funding and long-term support to bring ideas and innovation from community leaders to fruition.
Baltimore Corps’ Place for Purpose service provides a curated job placement service to employers in the Baltimore Corps network. VCLs seeking applicants who have been vetted for Baltimore Corps values use this service to fill positions outside of the fellowship program. Through strategic partnerships with organizations like Teach for America—Baltimore (which is funneling its alumni to Baltimore Corps for job placement in Baltimore’s social sector), Baltimore Corps will be able to provide opportunities to retain a growing social impact workforce in the city.
Although our organization is just over 3 years old, we are already seeing the fruits of our labor. In total, more than 80 percent of Baltimore Corps fellows from the first two cohorts remain in Baltimore and most importantly, its social impact sector. Applications for the Baltimore Corps fellowship have increased by 500 percent over the past three years. This is promising, but as we grow, we are determined not to repeat the mistakes of our city’s past, which have brought us to the current state that we are in. It is imperative that we partner with, invest in, and take cues from communities that have been historically and systematically marginalized by Baltimore’s prevailing institutions. By building and empowering equitable talent pipelines, Baltimore Corps will sustainably drive change across the city.
The look ahead
Baltimore is ripe for social innovation and has the potential to emerge as a city at the forefront of dismantling systems of oppression. We understand that this will not happen without a clear focus on the principles that lead to enduring change: by empowering those closest to the problems facing our communities, shifting how we deploy resources, and remembering that positive impact requires collaboration at all levels, we are well on our way to making this a reality. In 20 years, we envision a city that disrupts the intergenerational cycle of poverty and inequity that has locked out entire communities from opportunity for generations.