Kenya Asli – Part 2

Part two of Unsung Baltimore’s conversation with Kenya Asli is shorter than the first part, but it’s so lovely that it deserves to stand on its own.

Below is her stream of consciousness response to the question, ‘what do you love about Baltimore?’ The accompanying images are photos I’ve taken of Baltimore over the years. Enjoy.

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I love that I can get to work in 15 minutes and ride through four different types of neighborhoods. The neighborhoods look different, but the people are exactly the same.

I love the smells and sounds of Baltimore. I miss Whistle Man…he was this artist who sat outside CPHA and would whistle as you walked by.

I love how Baltimore changes. I love how, when need be, Baltimore will get its crap together — if only for a moment, like it did after the Dawson family tragedy.

I love the woman who told me, ‘girl, you don’t know how to cut up a whole chicken!’ I love that I was raised by my block. I love that even though the O’s have sucked since 1983, you still see people wearing black and orange.

I love Denise Koch, the way she announced that Jerry Turner had died. He was a member of our family, and that’s how she said it.

I love Baltimore because I could stand in my mother’s bedroom and watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve. I love how, the week between Christmas and New Year’s, the 3000 block of Mulberry Street was closed to traffic to let kids try out their skates. I loved that the drug dealers bought uniforms, nets, basketballs, and paid for a basketball league in Edmondson Village.

Baltimore’s biggest problem is its lack of imagination. Baltimore was always a very segregated town: you don’t go to places you’re not supposed to go. But I think if Baltimore rolled up its sleeves, it could do something about that.

Most of the time, you just need to connect the dots. You don’t need any more than what you already have.

5 minutes. 20 slides. $1,500.

So apparently I’m not eligible for this because I’m on the review committee. Weak.

That, however, shouldn’t stop you from submitting your own proposal for a six-month, $1,500 Ignition Grant to fund a cool idea that will make Baltimore a better place. Applications are due 9/17.

The Ignition Grant is an initiative of Baltimore Community Foundation and Ignite Baltimore, which gives selected speakers five minutes and 20 PowerPoint slides to talk about something interesting.

Tickets are on sale now
for Ignite Baltimore #6, which will be held on September 30 at 6 p.m. They’re only $5, so get ‘em while they’re hot!

Kenya Asli – Part 1

Some people are so fascinating, so much fun to talk to, their life experiences so rich, that it’s hard to fit all they have to say into one post. This is the first of a two-part conversation with Kenya Asli, community organizer, lawyer, mom, proud neighborhood girl, and ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ fan.

Rather than spend a lot of time introducing her to you, I invite you to scroll down and meet her for yourself.

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When Kenya Asli was in 12th grade at Edmondson High in the 1980′s, she once was kicked out of class for refusing to stand for the song ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee.’

“I couldn’t understand why we were in a majority African-American school and saying the Pledge of Allegiance and singing ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee,’ but not ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ she says, referring to the hymn sometimes called the ‘Black National Anthem.’

“My classmates said ‘Kenya, get over it,’ but I wouldn’t let it go. By the third day, I was done. I ran to the office and screamed, ‘why aren’t we singing Lift Every Voice and Sing?,’ and it went out over the PA. So for a week, to appease me, they changed the song.”

This teenager who was willing to take on her peers and authority figures over a matter of equity was a far cry from the shy little girl who nearly failed kindergarten for being too quiet. “I haven’t been accused of being quiet for centuries,” says Asli with a mischievous grin.

Asli is the Red Line Economic Empowerment Officer with the Baltimore City Department of Transportation. In that capacity, she works to ensure that Baltimoreans living in communities impacted by the Red Line east-west transit corridor are able to benefit from jobs and other economic opportunities generated by the project. She took the job in 2009, after several years working with the grassroots advocacy group Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA).

Although her current job title may be new, the role of community organizer and advocate is a familiar one for Asli, who grew up in West Baltimore. She was born in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, where her father served in the U.S. Marine Corps, but the family soon moved to Grantley Street in Edmondson Village. It was there that Asli came to appreciate the importance of community and neighborhood identity.

“I lived at 308 Grantley,” she recalls, her brown eyes moving as if reading the house numbers. “My grandparents lived at 322. I had family at 314. My great aunt lived around the corner. My entire universe was within two blocks of my house.”

This universe included Friendship Baptist Church, where her family worshipped; the rec center where she learned to shoot pool; and Mary Rodman Elementary School, where one of her early teachers helped her come out of her shell.

“Mr. Smallwood wrote plays and got kids to play parts in them every six months…he would sit down and talk to us, mainly about what it meant to be African-American and about his love for Edmondson Village. I thought that my hair was nappy, but he said, ‘no, it’s just very tightly curled, and there’s nothing wrong with that!’ He helped me realize that I had a voice.”

At age 13, Asli discovered that she could use that voice to speak out against injustice.

“I had to write a paper and I needed white-out. I walked into a convenience store and asked the Korean businessman for white-out and he said, ‘I don’t have white-out, I have black-out!’ And he pointed to this baseball bat. So I launched my first protest.”

Asli sat on the curb outside the convenience store for two weeks, telling her story to everyone who walked inside. “None of them changed their mind or cared,” she says, frowning. “But that was okay, because I just wanted them to know that they were giving their money to someone who, given the chance, would use his ‘black-out.’”

Asli recalls that she first learned about the power of speaking out and engaging in conversation from her single mother, who would regularly hold family meetings with Kenya and two siblings. “We would have a meeting to talk about what to have for dinner. We would have a meeting when family members weren’t getting along.” The family would even make joint decisions about finances. When Asli’s mother received her paycheck, she would convene a family meeting to discuss how the money should be spent that week.

That tradition of dialogue and joint decision-making continues in Asli’s family to this day. Her own two children are the chairs of her family’s youth committee, responsible for planning events and activities when the family has a reunion in Baltimore. That feeling of belonging, of support from a network of family and community members, is what she remembers most about growing up in Edmondson Village.

“I was a stepkid: I stayed on the step,” she jokes. “Three blocks from home, in the 500 block, that’s where crime, grime, sex, and drugs lived and breathed. Crossing Edmondson Avenue was unheard of.”

On occasions when she would visit a friend who lived on the other side of the avenue, Asli remembers being terrified. “The people in her house drank a lot and smoked. I would run home and hug my great aunt, breathe in the smell of her biscuits. She made the best biscuits.”

Her mood turns reflective. “That’s what Edmondson Village was, back then. You just knew everyone. I was okay to be me there.”

When she entered sixth grade, Asli had to travel outside Edmondson Village to Calvert Middle School, an experience she describes as unexpectedly stressful. “It was like moving from Mayberry to New York City! I had to catch an MTA bus and cross the bridge…this was more than teenage drama: this was ruining my life.”

High school, at least, was closer to home for Asli. She attended Edmondson High, although she had hoped to enroll in Western, a citywide magnet school and the oldest all-girl high school in the U.S. Years before she was tossed out of class for refusing to stand for ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee,’ Asli was using her voice to distinguish herself.

“So it was the first week of school, ninth grade, and our social studies teacher gave extra credit to anyone who knew the Preamble. I sat next to this kid I knew from middle school — I hated him. Know-it-all,” she adds with mock indignation.

“Anyway, I raised my hand and said, ‘I know the Preamble, but I have to sing it.’ Now, I don’t have a nice singing voice, but I stood up and sang the Preamble…which I knew because of Schoolhouse Rock.”

Her eleventh grade English teacher, Mr. Fletcher, encouraged Asli to hone her burgeoning oratorical skills by entering a speech contest. “He asked me to read a speech from Frederick Douglass: “Fellow Citizens — Pardon me, and allow me to ask…‘” Asli’s voice trails off. “I loved that speech,” she murmurs, after a pause. “I loved what it said. It moved me.”

Despite delivering the speech well — “I read it like a wrote it,” she asserts — Asli did not win the contest. “I was distraught because I followed the rules and I lost,” she reflects. By way of consolation, Mr. Fletcher took her out to dinner. It was the first time Asli had ever eaten at a restaurant with linen napkins.

After graduation, Asli entered Coppin State University. “I wanted to become my generation’s Thurgood Marshall,” she says seriously. But that dream was deferred when her mother lost her job at Proctor and Gamble, where she had worked for 15 years. Asli dropped out of college to help her mother, but refused to allow her little sister to do the same.

Asli eventually went back to school, this time at Morgan State University, where she pursued a bachelor’s degree in social work. By that point, she was married with two children of her own and was working for CPHA.

“I had this horrible teacher who asked us to write a paper about addiction in urban communities,” she remembers. “Because I worked at CPHA, I knew about the issue from a different perspective. The teacher asked me to leave the room because I argued that there was a bigger picture. But I had no scholarship, no financial aid, and I had to miss class because of evening trainings at CPHA. So I refused to leave.”

Asked about women who have shaped her life and thinking, Asli muses that, aside from her mother and other female family members, she was not exposed to female role models until she entered law school at the University of Maryland.

“One of the reasons I pulled away from the church was because of a lack of female examples,” she says. “But in law school I had this teacher, a short white woman who was madly in love with Eleanor Roosevelt. She introduced me to Ida Wells and Angela Davis‘ autobiography,” which Asli read in a single night. Asli later had the chance to meet Angela Davis at a talk at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “I was speechless,” Asli says.

At age 21, Asli also got to meet Betty Shabazz, the wife of Malcolm X. “I always said that if I went back in time, I’d have to beat her up and take her man,” Asli recounts with a smile. “He was supposed to be my husband!”

Asli discovered that myth and reality are not always congruent. “Betty Shabazz said that at the time [of their marriage], he wasn’t paying the bills. She was a dynamo in her own right, but she was always in his shadow.”

As a result of these encounters, Asli came to understand the importance of female role models and came to cultivate lasting friendships with “strong, older women.”

Throughout her life, Asli has never been afraid to think for herself or to speak out, even if it means getting in trouble. “Very early on, I understood that rules are always to interpretation and are always in favor of people who want to win. So I began to change the rules. I began to ask why.”

That spirit of inquiry and audacity informs has shaped the way Asli relates to people in all areas of her life.

“Your ability to compel others to act – that’s what’s important,” she declares. “I dare you to think outside the box.”

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Read Part 2 of my conversation with Kenya, in which she describes what she loves about Baltimore.

Todd Elliott


Full disclosure: I’ve been friends with Todd Elliott and his wife Kathleen for years. Todd and I met in a nonprofit management program in 2003, shortly after he became director of the Adult Literacy and ESOL Program at Greater Homewood Community Corporation.

In addition to being a devoted educator, Todd is an enthusiastic outdoorsman, a talented nature photographer, a fan of live theater and the symphony, and an irredeemable film buff.

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As a young graduate student, Todd Elliott never imagined would end up running an adult education program in Baltimore.

“I wanted to be a film critic,” laughs the 41-year-old Cedarcroft resident. He attended Penn State to pursue a degree in media studies, a field he sardonically describes as one “where you talk a lot about movies, but don’t actually make them.”

That goal changed when he read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Brazilian education theorist Paulo Freire. The book, considered a classic by adult educators, argues that literacy is essential for the individual and social liberation of marginalized peoples.

The idea was a transformative one for Elliott, who summarizes Freire’s thesis bluntly: “there are far too many adults who don’t know how to read.” Consequently, “they’re disenfranchised, they can’t participate in civil society. In Freire I saw the connection between education, media, and civic engagement.”

This realization kindled a passion for pedagogy in Elliott, who joined the Peace Corps after graduation and soon found himself in Slovakia, teaching English to adults. After their two-year stint in the Peace Corps ended, he and his then-wife moved to Baltimore, where she enrolled in the University of Maryland School of of Social Work.

Growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, Elliott was familiar with Baltimore’s dubious reputation in other parts of the country. So he was pleasantly surprised when he discovered Baltimore to be “a really cool area.”

“I love being so close to the water and the mountains,” says the avid hiker, canoer, and cyclist. “There’s so much to do here.” Asked to name one pet peeve about the city, Elliott ponders a while before responding. “I guess I would have to say the state of the roads,” he muses. “But that’s been the worst of my experience here. I mean, I’ve never been mugged or robbed!”

Soon after settling in Maryland, he found work teaching GED prep to adults at the Young Parent Support Center in Baltimore County. He stayed there for four years, eventually becoming the adult education coordinator. During that time, he became increasingly convinced that teaching adults to read was a calling, not just a job. When the position of director of Adult Literacy and English for Speakers of Other Languages at the Greater Homewood Community Corporation opened, he siezed the opportunity.

“The majority of the learners at Greater Homewood are between 30 and 60, with the average age being 45,” explains Elliott. “Most of them have really struggled…I try to show respect for people’s ability to say, ‘I can’t read, will you help me?’”

Like Paolo Freire, Elliott sees illiteracy as part of a larger set of social problems. “Thirty percent of Baltimore City kids don’t have a diploma,” he says, leaning forward. “Mostly that’s due to lack of resources.” He views adult literacy as a necessary component of a “community infrastructure where people feel safer and have more options.”

Despite the daunting nature of the challenges facing Baltimore, Elliott finds reasons for optimism.

“Baltimore has a lot to offer,” he says. “Its best hope and resource are its people: people who care what happens to their neighbors, individuals who reach out to one another.”

In addition to teaching, one of the ways that Elliott has chosen to reach out is through lobbying. He serves as president of the Maryland Association for Adult Community and Continuing Education (MAACCE), which advocates at the state level for more resources to support literacy, GED preparation, ESOL, and other adult education services. Elliott’s longtime involvement with MAACCE has given him a nuanced perspective on the legislative process.

“I like to think there is altruism among political leaders,” he reflects. “They have a hard job and I don’t envy them. I’m encouraged that people want to step up.”

As much as he enjoys policy work, Elliott feels most at home in the classroom, working with adult learners.


“I’m never bored,” he grins. “What I like most about my job is working with adults who are trying to improve their lives, watching them make progress, watching the change in their faces.”

For Elliott, the benefits of adult education extend well beyond test scores. “A lot of what we do [with the learners] is around self-confidence,” he says. “Adult education can be the first line in helping people build that…we smile at them, we give them hope. And that’s when things start to change.”

Paulo Gregory Harris


I first heard about Paulo Gregory Harris from a mutual friend in the nonprofit world. In one of those moments of “Smalltimore” serendipity, the day after I received the call from my friend, I saw Harris talk about issues of race at the Stoop Storytelling series. His story was funny, touching, and nuanced, and I resolved then to profile him for this blog.

In conversation, Paulo projects a quiet intensity. He looks at you straight in the eye and chooses his words with care. He is also warm, genuine, and generous with his time. I spoke to him at Gutierrez Studios in Clipper Mill.

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The bench moves just a little when you sit on it. That’s only one of the distinctive properties of the appropriately named Bench That Gives.

The brainchild of artist Paulo Gregory Harris, the bench is produced through a partnership with Gutierrez Studios. Harris’ vision encompasses not just form and function, but a plan to economically empower disadvantaged Baltimore residents through job skills training, cooperative ownership, and neighborhood improvement.

It’s an ambitious idea. But Harris, the founder of the Ingoma Foundation (a project of nonprofit incubator Fusion Partnerships) has never been averse to going out on a limb.

“We all need to take more risks,” he says matter-of-factly. “As we begin to drop hold of the things that we think give us security, the more security we discover we have.”

For Harris, one early risk was moving to Baltimore from Pennsylvania in the late 1970′s to study fine arts and education at the Maryland Institute College of Art. MICA was the only college he applied to, and getting in was no sure thing.

“I was not a very academic student,” he says of his high school years. “I’ve always been creative, but it was a fluke that I got in,” a stroke of luck that he wryly attributes to “Divine Providence and a brilliant father.”

His time at MICA was instructive for Harris, and not just in the context of the classroom or the studio. “It was a very urban campus, with no dorms,” he remembers. Having grown up in the Philadelphia suburbs, life in downtown Baltimore was a brand new experience. “I enjoyed getting to know the city.” The two biggest gifts that MICA gave him, he says, were “the ability to take criticism and see it as an asset, and the ability to problem-solve.”

In Baltimore, Harris found a number of problems that needed solving. He recalls his early impression of the city as “very blue collar, very segregated.” While he has noticed “some signs of progress” on the race front over the past three decades, such as in the growth of the region’s black middle class, Harris sees much more that still needs to be done.

“Structural [racism] is still huge,” he says, shaking his head. “We still have the remnants of separate but equal. Separate is rarely equal, but the way we’ve chosen to do integration is a way of simply dispersing the problem.”

For Harris, addressing the economic components of structural racism requires a new way of thinking about financial capital and human capital, one that includes approaches like cooperative ownership, pooled loan funds, and leadership development programs designed for people from historically disenfranchised communities.

He becomes animated when he speaks of the need to craft “pathways of opportunity” that move people from a place of “destitute poverty to being able create resources for their children.” Developing these pathways requires “a comprehensive, asset-based strategy that looks at what people are good at,” not just what they lack.

In talking about the economic potential of low-income residents, Harris outlines what he calls “The Three C’s of Poverty:” creativity, community, and creator. He believes these “dividends of poverty” tend to arise out of necessity in areas without financial wealth.

“People in poverty are creative,” he explains. “We need to tap into that creativity, to weave cultures together and connect people across the gulf of resources.”

Regarding the second ‘C’ in his list, Harris asserts that people of means and privilege can learn much about community-building from their economically disadvantaged neighbors. “You rarely see poor people who aren’t part of a community” of some sort, he says. He views our society’s emphasis on individualism as one of the principal causes of poverty, since it leads to disconnection from the people around us. A sense of shared responsibility, he feels, is one of the crucial steps toward creating more equitable economic model.

The third ‘C’ is what Harris calls “access to the creator,” a sense of being part of something larger than oneself. “However you define it, it’s what makes you move beyond your capacity,” he says, adding that the work of economic justice and community-building should be “permeated with a sense of spirit.”

Harris describes society’s prevailing economic model as a pyramid, with people of privilege at the top and a wide base of disfranchised persons at the bottom.

“We who have been raised in privilege need to understand that our privilege doesn’t give us everything,” he says. “There’s a massive amount of learning we need to do, and the keys to that learning are held by people at the bottom of the pyramid. We need humility.”

For their part, people at the bottom of the pyramid must be ready to risk “creating a compelling view of one’s own future…from the top of the pyramid, the future looks good. From the bottom of the pyramid, the future is this afternoon.”

Harris maintains that the biggest risk for people at the bottom “involves how often [they] have been disappointed, have had resources waved in front of their faces” only to be snatched away. “But we have the power to shift. We need to start engaging that power and pursuing vehicles — for-profit, as well as not-for-profit — to do that.”

Which brings us back to the Bench That Gives. Working with Gutierrez Studios, the Baltimore design firm responsible for the remarkable staircase at the American Visionary Art Museum, Harris has designed an apprenticeship program to teach low-income job seekers in Baltimore’s Old Town community wood- and metal-working skills, job readiness skills, and entrepreneurship.

The bench, known formally as the Nurture Form Community Bench, is the first product of Harris’ program. Made from ipe (a weather- and insect-resistant hardwood native to South America) and framed by a single piece of recurved, half-inch steel, the bench can be found at the Miller’s Court development on Howard Street. Benches have also been installed around the new labyrinth at Goucher College. In addition to Gutierrez Studios, Harris’ partners in this endeavor include Sojourner-Douglass College and the Job Opportunities Task Force.

While Harris is encouraged by these partnerships and by the momentum gathering behind his project, he acknowledges that Baltimore can be a tough place to start new projects.

“Baltimore is the La Brea Tar Pits of getting things going,” he chuckles ruefully. “It’s difficult to get things seeded here.” One reason for this, he says, is that “Baltimore doesn’t really believe in itself.”

“I think we have middle child syndrome,” he muses. “We’re stuck between the towers of New York and the monuments of D.C. We believe that the answers are going to come from outside Baltimore.” This sense of civic self-denigration, he feels, causes Baltimore to “lose some of the best talent and commitment at the local level.”

Despite these frustrations, Harris sees Baltimore’s “beautiful sense of humility” and more modest scale as advantages.

“I love Baltimore,” he says sincerely. “It’s an incredibly quirky and open city to network in. Within a month one can know all the players in a given field. I also like the realness of the people. In D.C. it’s who you know, in New York it’s about the mystique, but Baltimore has a sense of truth. There’s less hidden here.”

As he talks, Harris’ arms extend to rest along the back of the Bench That Gives. The seat moves ever so slightly as he shifts his weight. The bench is an exquisite fusion of design and functionality, of art and craft, of economic theory and real-world pragmatism. It is strong but flexible, elegant but unpretentious. In those respects, it is much like Baltimore.