Illustration: Donald Ely
A city of two sides
There are two sides to this city: some areas are economically flourishing and bustling with business, sky-high buildings, tourists and foot traffic galore, while other parts of the metropolis are parched of opportunities and ignored. Just like every other city, Baltimore is flawed.
It’s a historically working-class city that rolled high in the trade industry with bustling ports and a manufacturing sector which boomed during the 19th century. More recently the city has faced a rollercoaster economy and racial inequality, but it’s always been uplifted by a handful of doers trying to make a change in their communities.
“Grassroots folks have been doing ground work for a long time. There’s a long history for it. It’s nothing new,” says social entrepreneur and philanthropy consultant Rodney Foxworth, who heads up strategy at Impact Hub Baltimore. He’s also the founder of Invested Impact, a nonprofit mission investing and social entrepreneurship organization.
120,000 STEM jobs
The country is growing in the digital age. 2016 research by Accenture found that the U.S. leads globally with its digital economy valued at $5.9 trillion. Maryland’s largest city is home to emerging innovations that are slowly but steadily keeping Baltimore on everyone’s radar: the city boasts a growing tech sector – with 348 companies in the city as of last year – and an estimated 120,000 mid-level science, tech, engineering and maths (STEM) jobs according to the Brookings Institute.
Baltimore’s social enterprise circuit is well represented nationally with local initiatives City Seeds, Flying Fruit Cafe and CUPS coffee house selected for countrywide accelerator SE4jobs. Impact Hub was voted ‘Best Creative Space’ by Baltimore magazine last year, and the Johns Hopkins University Social Innovation Lab are running bootcamps to further spread the word.
Although Foxworth acknowledges the uptick in attention, he’s keen to connect the present to the past. “I think about someone like Joe Jones from the Center for Urban Families. When he first started, he was grassroots. Then you have a whole lot of folks across the city like Brittany Young with B360, which is groundbreaking to me.”
Dirt bike culture
It’s a criminal offence to ride or own dirt bikes in Baltimore, but it’s been a decades-long tradition of thrills for predominantly African-American city residents, including engineer and educator Brittany Young.
“I remember it used to be every Sunday, crowds in the thousands would show up to watch these riders at Druid Hill,” says Young, who is part of this year’s Amaphiko Academy participant cohort.
Her B–360 organization, which started last year, aims to use community relations to flip dirt bike skills into STEM experience, from vehicle safety to mechanics, to address a range of issues including building a pipeline for tech and engineering jobs. She’s also aiming to advocate for dirt bikers who want to ride safely.
“I wanted to engage them in the STEM field, which I’m very passionate about, and try to better work with all involved like police and community members to come up with a better gameplan.”
"For people on the ground, we don’t do this work because we want to be social entrepreneurs or innovators. We do it because we have to. It’s a way of living. It’s a necessity. It’s survival mode."
Persistence is key to survival, and just like Young, many individuals and groups with that entrepreneurial spirit are looking to provide food on the table and make opportunities realities in communities that are lacking.
“I actually don’t think there’s much more that grassroots leaders or social entrepreneurs can do to be ready for resources,” says Foxworth. “The question is whether or not there can be an entity influencer for unlocking financial resources for these entrepreneurs and leaders.”
“Can we really expand –- not ‘access’ because access doesn’t mean you’re going to get it –- but can we get capital out to people, and get resources in hand?”
Baltimore is setting the scene for another phase of innovation. And this time, the idea is that everyone benefits.