A bird ecologist. A lawyer. A transgender activist. These are just three of the 10 new Community Fellows OSI welcomed into the fold last year. There are now 200 people in our Community Fellows Network – all of them dedicated to creating a thriving, equitable, and more just Baltimore.
For his OSI Community Fellowship, Graham Coreil-Allen is working with stakeholders and community members to re-envision the public spaces around Druid Hill Park. Through his Druid Hill Complete Streets initiative, he aims to work with his neighbors to build support for the philosophy that streets should be safe and accessible for everyone using them – pedestrians, bicyclists, people with mobility devices, and cars.
As part of the community engagement process, Coreil-Allen will lead walking tours that include key public spaces surrounding the park. He also hopes he can learn from residents, picking up information that will inform the street planning process and public art installations. The art will be created with input from the communities around Druid Hill Park and help from local youth.
“I want to make sure all residents, young and old, have a say in how our neighborhood will one day reconnect with Druid Hill Park,’” Coreil-Allen says.
From a young age, Ciera Daniel recognized the mass persecution of African American males in everyday life. She remembers constantly hearing the message that blacks were inferior to whites. From as early as sixth grade, these perceptions start affecting children’s development, says Daniel.
“Sixth-grade is the cusp of adolescence,” she says. “Kids start looking for acceptance from peers, evaluating who they are and the world around
them. Some kids already have an idea of what they think they can
accomplish in life.”
To help overcome these negative perceptions at a young age, Daniel established Young Kings’ Leadership Academy (YKLA). In partnership with City Springs Elementary School in East Baltimore, YKLA will facilitate free after-school programs for underserved black male middle-school students to cultivate them as leaders, illuminate their full potential and enhance a positive culture throughout the school and community.
Eric Fishel’s background in ecology, bird ecology, and natural resources serve him well in his project, Baltimore Foodparks, which will work to improve vacant lots, conduct scientific research, and help conserve Baltimore’s greenspace and wildlife all while educating and engaging communities. In underserved communities, vacant land is not always seen as an asset because it is overgrown or blocked off from the rest of the neighborhood. But even small patches of green space can serve an important purpose in the local ecosystem and can go a long way in improving a neighborhood.
“The most important thing to me is the community engagement,” he says.
“I want to see more people get excited about nature.”
Jennay Ghowrwal will establish REMIND (Recognizing and Engaging Mental Health in Indigent Defense) to improve the experiences of indigent criminal defendants facing mental health challenges by training defense attorneys to better communicate with and advocate for them.
Ghowrwal will develop a client-centered training curriculum to teach defense attorneys – particularly those defending clients with a mental health challenge – communication techniques, ethical considerations, and legal techniques. She will consult with community advocates, past public defender clients who self-identify as having experienced mental health challenges, public defenders, social workers, and clinicians to develop the curriculum.
“The focus of the training is to teach attorneys about what their clients are experiencing,” says Ghowrwal. “These attorneys work to respect and assert the humanity of people that have typically been written off. It’s an enormous gesture to someone facing a mental health challenge.”
Shelley Halstead moved to Baltimore three years ago to help black women gain skills to renovate and maintain homes. With her OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship, Halstead will launch her initiative through her organization Black Women Build – Baltimore, which trains black women in carpentry, electrical work, and plumbing. Program participants restore vacant and deteriorated homes in West Baltimore and, if they complete the program, will eventually own one of the houses they work on. At the same time, participants develop skills to enter the construction sector—a field in which a woman can make two or three times the average salary for women in many other fields.
“People get frustrated learning a new skill, feeling like they’re not doing it right,” says Halstead. “We work side-by-side with participants and make sure each one succeeds.”
Halstead is determined to help people do well by offering wrap-around services, including financial literacy training, counseling, and nutritional awareness. And each apprentice will receive close mentorship from experts, making her more likely to complete the program.
Ava Pipitone isn’t a real estate agent or a social worker. Yet she spends most of her time finding housing for LGBT friends and others connected to the community. She is a co-founder of HostHome, an Airbnb-type website for connecting people to emergency housing, starting with transgender people.
For transgender people like Pipitone, the search for a safe place to sleep is common. Pipitone has a good relationship with her family but many do not. Transgender people are often young and cash-poor, shunned by family and friends, making them dependent on strangers for shelter. How long will they be allowed to stay? Will the host be kind? Will the host be violent?
With her OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship, Pipitone will fine tune the HostHome website and software and launch a second pilot. She says the OSI fellowship is “a very good vote of confidence” that she hopes will help her reach her goal to provide housing for 1,000 guests by the end of her first full year in operation.
Aarti Sidhu hadn’t always wanted to be a lawyer; when she was younger, she wanted to be a teacher. But in college, as she learned more about the ways that systems were failing children, she realized she was more interested in finding solutions to those systemic challenges.
Working with her clinic professor and the attorneys at the Maryland Suspension Representation Project (MSRP), Sidhu decided to further the work of MSRP by advocating for Baltimore City Public School students. She created Represent Youth: Baltimore School Justice Initiative. Sidhu will be working out of the Clinical Law Program at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. Through the project, Sidhu will directly represent students facing exclusionary school discipline – suspensions or expulsions.
“At the end of the day, we all want what is best for the students,” Sidhu says. “I don’t want teachers and principals to see me as an adversary, but I do want to educate them and hold them accountable.”
After building a successful career in sales, Emily Thompson took an unusual step – she quit her job to work at a nonprofit where she helped connect women to job skills and employment; she saw how huge of a barrier having a criminal record can be. Eventually, she and a friend founded PIVOT, which helps fill a gap in reentry services in Baltimore City, where most programs are targeted to men.
This gap in services for women begins before they are even released: throughout the state, there are nine pre-release facilities for men, but zero for women. And programs that serve both women and men often present a barrier for women, many of whom were abused by men. There is no safe space for women to receive support in trying to rebuild their lives post-incarceration.
As an OSI Community Fellow, Thompson will be able to dedicate herself to PIVOT full time – working to grow the program so it can serve more women across Baltimore City.
“With dedicated part-time staff and volunteers, we would have been a powerful but small grassroots organization,” Emily says. “Now, we can really have impact at scale.”
When faced with depression after a severe neck injury as an adult, Fred Watkins turned to comedy to occupy his time and lift his mood. But when he started performing at comedy shows, stressors he felt being bullied as a young boy came back.
“Comedy brought up those feelings again,” says Watkins. “I felt really low self-esteem. But comedy helped me overcome those feelings, too. After I identified what caused me to feel that way, comedy became a good outlet for me.”
Laughter opens people up to learning something new, becoming comfortable with vulnerability, and accepting hard truths, says Watkins. That’s why he established Lil’ Laughs, an anti-bullying mentoring program based at Watkins’ alma mater, Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School (MERVO). Lil’ Laughs uses comedy as a vehicle to build confidence and break down the cycle of bullying for middle, elementary, and high school students in Baltimore.
At MERVO, Lil’ Laughs will launch a 16-week after school program for freshmen to address self-confidence and inclusion, learn about comedy, and create an improv troop to create anti-bullying content, live skits, and student-led presentations.
Brittany Young knows that when many people see a dirt bike rider in Baltimore, they see a lawbreaker and a nuisance. She sees a potential engineer with natural talents and ingenuity. This is why she founded B-360, which uses dirt bike culture to introduce young people to educational and career opportunities in STEM fields and change perceptions of dirt bike riding. Students in the program learn about the engineering design process, mechanics, robotics, coding, riding safety, and skills training. They create and 3D print model-sized dirt bikes and host events to ensure safety. Young’s OSI Fellowship will allow her to focus on running B-360.
“When you look at people that lead STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] organizations or educational opportunities, they often don’t relate directly to the communities they serve and are not sure how to capture the audience. So it’s important to me to relate to them,” says Young, who grew in West Baltimore watching dirt bike riders in Druid Hill Park. “How can we make STEM cool and more culturally relevant? We can show how dirt bikes connect to education, and how the things we naturally do showcase skills and talent.”