The Art of Tribulation and Redemption: A Multimedia Project Documents Stories of Women in Recovery

Terona Hopkins (photo courtesy Marshall Clarke)

Terona Hopkins looks like someone you want to have coffee with.

With an infectious smile and deep, brown eyes that radiate both warmth and mischief, hers is the face of a confidant, someone with whom you could share your secrets.

It is not the sort of face you tend to associate with addiction, homelessness, and incarceration.

“I was broke down, homeless” Hopkins recounts in 30 Women, 30 Stories: Journeys of Recovery and Transformation, a book of stories and photographs published by the nonprofit housing and recovery program Marian House, which marks its third decade of operations this year. The book was formally released at a reception at the Cork Gallery on June 21, 2012.

“I started running the streets and got caught up in the drug game,” continues Ms. Hopkins in the book. “My life was in turmoil until I got two years in prison. It was then that I started hearing about the Marian House from word-of-mouth.”

30 Women, 30 Stories captures Ms. Hopkins’ tale and those of 29 other Baltimore women who, like her, found healing from addiction, trauma, and homelessness within the walls of the Waverly-based nonprofit organization that seeks to provide, in the words of its mission statement, “a safe, loving environment that challenges women to respect and love themselves, confront emotional and socio-economic issues, and transition to stable and independent lives.”

In her foreword to 30 Women, Marian House executive director Katie Allston describes how inspired she is by the women profiled in the book and the roughly 1,300 other women who have been helped by Marian House. “I hope you find that this book and the stories it contains capture the beauty, depth, and warmth of these women,” she writes.

Attendees at the ’30 Women, 30 Stories’ book release

A multimedia experience

Nearly 100 people braved the sweltering humidity of an early Baltimore summer to pack the gallery for the book’s release. Funders, artists, elected officials, and Marian House staff mingled with the women whose tales of transformed lives are chronicled in 30 Women.

The event offered an impressively rich and well-integrated multimedia experience. Photographs of each woman profiled in the book adorned the walls, paired with quotes and QR codes leading to the Marian House website, where attendees could listen to recordings of the women telling their stories in their own voices. Guests also had the option of taking a cell phone tour of the exhibit.

On one wall of the gallery hung a quilt created by four Marian House residents and a local textile artist. On another, a resident-created painting inspired by the book project shared space with portraits of the women taken by local photographer Marshall Clarke. A DVD and forthcoming touring exhibition of Clarke’s photographs are aimed at introducing Marian House to a wider audience — including policymakers, advocates, and funders — and highlighting the issues of addiction, mental illness, trauma, homelessness, and incarceration explored in the book.

Despite technical problems with the audio component of the exhibit, the different media elements combined to create an immersive experience for attendees.

A Springboard for Conversation

The project was directed by artist and former Art on Purpose director Peter Bruun, who has previously spearheaded projects in partnerships with the Park School, Evergreen House, the Contemporary, and the Creative Alliance. He worked with Marian House staff, clients, and alumnae to tell the women’s stories using a wide range of media and disciplines.

Bruun explains that the collaborative, multi-dimensional nature of the project is designed to engage a diverse following.

“The notion is different contexts and different audiences are more or less accessible depending on what works for them,” he says. “Some will flip through a book, some will go to a web page, some will go to an exhibition. The goal is to use each platform as a gateway to another — though the audio was a bust at the event, it helped people be mindful of the stories existing on the website.”

Portraits of the women in ’30 Women, 30 Stories’ by Marshall Clarke

Bruun hopes that the stories collected in the book act as a “springboard for conversations in neighborhoods about the value of having treatment services.”

Allston echoes this theme, explaining that one of the goals of the project is to change the way the community at large views women who are facing monumental challenges like homelessness and addiction.

“Marian House is about transformation,” she told the Cork Gallery audience. “We can tell people statistics…but when they sit down with one of the women, that’s when they feel what Marian House is all about.”

Clarke, who spent roughly an hour photographing each of the subjects of 30 Women, agrees. “I think when we hear the word ‘addict,’ or know someone has been to jail, an image comes to mind about who these people are or what they look like,” he reflects. “But my hope is that these images will counter that stereotype and portray the 30 women and the many women they represent as people we can connect with, relate to, and who have a incredible power inside.”

The director of Access Art, Clarke clearly developed a rapport with the 30 women he photographed, as evidenced by Terona Hopkins’ fond greeting. “Where’s Marshall,” she asked, looking around the gallery excitedly. “Oh there he is! Come over here!” she shouted with a grin.

Photographing Hopkins was both a delight and a challenge, Clarke recalls. “Terona was very fun to photograph because she was extremely funny and lighthearted, but also difficult in that she wanted to pose a lot and ‘act’ for the camera.” He adds that his goal with the portraits was “to show the best of these women and show a natural moment where their personality was on display.”

The Power of Women’s Stories

For all the visual, audio, and online elements that comprised the exhibit, the focus of the June 21 event was the Marian House graduates and their personal journeys. Two of the women profiled in the book, Carol Smith and Linette Parrine-Waters, took the microphone to share their stories, which were emblematic of the struggles and triumphs experienced by all of Marian House’s residents and graduates.

Quilt made by Marian House residents

Marian House residents worked with artist Faustine Davis to produce this quilt.

A spare, tattooed woman in her early forties, Smith recounted how a judge had laughed at her when she had begged him to refer her for substance abuse treatment. “He said I was too old,” she recalled grimly. At Marian House, Smith found people who disagreed with the judge’s assessment.

“They saw something in me worth saving,” she reflected, adding, “I had no idea the amount of work I had ahead of me in order to completely transform myself…the farthest distance I would travel in my life was the 14 inches between my head and my heart.”

Her fellow alumni cheered Smith when she announced that she had just completed the fourth year of a five-year electricians’ union apprenticeship. “I had the highest GPA in my class,” she noted with a grin.

Parrine-Waters, who sojourned at Marian House in 1998-1999, spoke passionately about her own trajectory.

“I was called ‘Darth Vader’ and ‘the creature from the Black Lagoon’ as a child,” she said, her voice shaking. “When I looked in the mirror, all I could see was that monster…when I first used drugs, it was because someone asked me. I thought, ‘they must really like me, to share their drugs with me!’”

Now 14 years clean and sober, Parrine-Waters has built a career in the public sector, where she works with young people who are caught in the same cycle of addiction and depression that ensnared her. “My dream is to show these youth that, no matter what your condition is, that’s not how you have to live the rest of your life,” she proclaimed to applause.

“I think of our women each like a puzzle,”  Allston told the audience quietly. “They started in this world as a whole and complete picture but their being and sense of self have been shattered into pieces long before we meet them – and they may even have lost pieces of themselves along the way.” Marian House, she continued, “is simply the platform upon which those pieces come back together and holes are filled.”

In the rear of the gallery, Terona Hopkins held court, introducing her daughter to fellow attendees and shaking hands with

Terona Hopkins by Marshall Clarke

Another photo of Terona Hopkins by Marshall Clarke

Baltimore City Councilwoman and longtime Marian House supporter Mary Pat Clarke. The two women shared fond recollections of former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke.

Hopkins told Councilwoman Clarke that in 1986, she and her daughter were homeless, with all their worldly belongings stuffed into a shopping bag. Desperate, cold and hungry, they walked into the mayor’s office (“Back in the day, City Hall was open like that,” laughs Hopkins) and lay across his desk, determined not to leave until they had received assistance.

When he returned to his office, the startled mayor did not have the pair escorted from the building. Instead, Schmoke introduced Hopkins to Ernestine Uncles, the city’s social services liaison. “And in 24 hours, I was in my first public house,” concludes Hopkins.

Though she continued to encounter roadblocks to success, Hopkins is in a much better place than she was the night she decided to camp out in City Hall. She has been working since 2003, a dramatic change she credits to the lessons she learned at Marian House.

“I learned independence, I learned how to take care of myself, and I learned to be on time,” she says in 30 Women, 30 Stories. “With me staying connected to the Marian House there is growth for me, and I love them.”

***************

‘30 Women, 30 Stories’ is funded by grants from from the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, the TKF Foundation, and the David and Barbara B. Hirschhorn Foundation.

Bmore Historic

I’m looking forward to this Friday’s Bmore Historicunconference,” a daylong, participant-led series of conversations about “public history, historic preservation, and community development.”

I’ve proposed a session on neighborhood vibrancy, just as a way of getting people’s thoughts about what that means and how to make it happen.

Other proposed sessions include “Instant Living History,” “Place-Based Local History,” “Mapping Place: Experiments in Digital and Spatial Humanities.”

I have no idea what that last one means. But it sounds pretty wicked.

[VERB] Baltimore: Harnessing the Power of Homegrown Ideas

The following is a post I wrote for the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers blog. Since that site is viewable to members only, I’m reposting the entry here, with permission.

Full disclosure: I participated in an early discussion about identifying IBB presenters.

***************************

Over 75 people crowded the Windup Space in the Station North Arts District on May 26 to listen to 15 speakers present their ideas about how to make Baltimore a better place to live and work. Titled “Ignite for a Better Baltimore” (IBB), the event was the brainchild of Kate Bladow, a nonprofit technology consultant, and Alex Rinsler, a campaign and project manager who currently works for Feats, Inc.

As a member of the Baltimore Community Foundation (BCF) investment team, I attended IBB because I was eager to hear local thinkers and doers (including several BCF grantees) present unconventional approaches to building on the city’s assets and overcome its pressing problems.

The roster of speakers at IBB featured: tech entrepreneur Mike Subelsky, who spoke of the need to harness the energy and ideas generated by gatherings like IBB as a way of increasing Baltimore’s tax base; social enterprise pioneer John Herron of Harbor City Services , who challenged aspiring social entrepreneurs to balance their organizations’ social missions with the bottom line; Alissa Richardson, a Morgan State University professor who researches the behavior of the “millennial generation;” and Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance executive director J. Buck Jabaily, who described new pathways and obstacles in Baltimore’s arts and culture landscape.


IBB keynote speaker Mike Subelsky

Other IBB speakers included:
Reverend Heber Brown III – Pastor, Pleasant Hope Baptist Church
Peter Bruun – Artist and Art Educator; Contractor, Art on Purpose
John Campagna – Managing Partner, Restore Capital
Megan Hamilton – Program Director, Creative Alliance
Geoff Livingston – Partner & Co-Founder, Zoetica
John Shepley – Vice President, Emory Knoll Farms
Jill Sorensen – Executive Director, Baltimore-Washington Electric Vehicle Initiative
Jack VandenHengel – Executive Director, Shepherd’s Clinic
Tracy Ward – Publisher, Urbanite
Tong Zhang – Chief Innovations Officer, Incentive Mentoring Program

[Videos of all of these speakers’ presentations can be viewed on IBB’s YouTube channel.]

IBB organizers Bladow and Rinsler met through Bmore Smart, a networking group for social entrepreneurs in Baltimore. Members meet monthly to learn about startup organizations and attempt to connect them with resources. In developing the idea for IBB, Bladow and Rinsler chose to make the event a spinoff of Ignite Baltimore, a regular series of short talks in which speakers get five minutes and 20 PowerPoint slides each to present an idea. Ignite, in turn, was inspired by the TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) conferences that have gained worldwide attention in recent years.

Bmore Smart, Ignite, IBB, and similar gatherings (including Create Baltimore, Amplify Baltimore, Innovate Baltimore, and TEDx Baltimore, among others) are part of a growing trend of local events that bring together a cross-section of area residents representing the arts, creative, tech and nonprofit communities. Attendees are mostly social media-savvy twenty- and thirty-somethings who wish to explore collaborative, cross-disciplinary ways of improving the quality of life in the region.

As a grantmaker, one of my only criticisms of these gatherings is their lack of follow-through. The speakers are energetic, their ideas frequently inspiring, and the crowds enthusiastic, but while the events provide presenters and attendees with good networking opportunities, there tends to be little in the way of tangible outcomes. With IBB, organizers Bladow and Rinsler sought to address this.

“Our hope was that people would walk away having met a person who could help them with an idea,” says Bladow, 31. “We specifically brought together speakers who could connect people. We intend to do some follow up, [to] reach out to people after the event, figure out what the next steps are.”

One of the most memorable IBB presentations was by Rebekah and Justin Kuk, a young couple who stumbled almost inadvertently into providing affordable housing for homeless people in West Baltimore. Having recently moved to Bolton Hill, they were struck by the number of homeless people they encountered while on their regular bike excursions through Fells Point. The Kuks struck up conversations with their homeless neighbors. Before long, they were helping to connect their new acquaintances with food and other resources.

Troubled by the lack of affordable housing available to people in extreme poverty, Rebekah and Justin bought and renovated a five-bedroom house in Reservoir Hill in order to provide affordable rental housing to individuals transitioning from homelessness to stability. The couple now has plans to connect renters to vocational training, job placement, and other services.
From their talk, it was clear that Rebekah and Justin have compassion, intelligence, and energy to spare; what they lack are technical knowledge and resources. Following their presentation, I approached them and offered to help them think about strategies to sustain and expand their project. We have a meeting scheduled for next week.

Bladow expressed her satisfaction that such an interaction arose from IBB. “That’s exactly sort of connection that this event was designed to foster,” she says, adding that speaker Alissa Richardson and web designer Mike Brenner are collaborating on the development of a video game camp for children.

Events like IBB, the regular Ignite series, Create Baltimore, TEDx, etc. offer local funders abundant opportunities to tap into the passion, intelligence, and innovative thinking among Baltimore’s burgeoning “creative class.”

While obviously not all ideas are ripe for funding, these gatherings can expose grantmakers to diverse groups of talented professionals who are committed to building on Baltimore’s strengths and surmounting its challenges.

Walbrook Film Project Teaches Students About More Than Holding a Camera

Filmmaker and volunteer instructor Josef Sawyer addresses the audience.
Arts, community, violence, conflict resolution, history, memory: these were some of the topics explored in three short films by 10 young artists whose work was screened yesterday afternoon at the Walbrook Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.The films were part of the Walbrook Project, a student filmmaking initiative created by Felicia Pride, founder of The Backlist, and her sister Fellina. Using the Walbrook library as a hub, the Pride sisters recruited film instructor Josef Sawyer and other volunteer mentors and armed a group of middle- and high schoolers to document aspects of life in West Baltimore over a six-month period. Support for the project came from a $1,500 Ignition Grant* awarded to Felicia Pride in September 2010.

Learning the fundamentals of filmmaking gave the young participants a new perspective on the media they consume. “I learned how to properly take an interview, how to ask questions and film it,” said one student. “[The project] changed my view of media and TV…now when I watch the news, I think about how to set up the cameras, how people don’t hold cameras anymore — everything’s automatic.”

Another student picked up the theme. “When I watch the newscast, I’m thinking about things like headroom, how to focus on person when they’re talking,” she said.

The experience taught the young filmmakers more than just the basics of framing, blocking, and editing.

“We learned to work as a team,” enthused one of a trio of young women who collaborated to produce the film ‘Walbrook: Heart of the Arts.’ “I learned how friends can operate together in a work setting.”

“I learned that Walbrook used to have a lot of businesses,” reflected a young man who interviewed older community residents for the film ‘Through Their Eyes: Elders of Walbrook.’ “I didn’t know we used to have streetcars. I learned that Walbrook can be a better community.”

About 60 people, most of them community residents, attended yesterday’s screening. Audience members praised the students for they way they applied the skills they had acquired, and encouraged them to dream big.

Felicia Pride (far right), Fellina Pride (second from right), and other mentors applauded the young people’s accomplishments.

“You never know where [the study of filmmaking] might take you,” said volunteer mentor Dankwa Brooks, who works in the media unit of the Baltimore City Police Department. “Media literacy impacts how we look at messages and the media we consume.”

“It’s good to see that youth who don’t go to Baltimore School for the Arts can still create good art,” asserted a man in the audience during a question-and-answer session, drawing heartfelt applause from the crowd.

Participating in the project gave the students an opportunity to delve into particular aspects of their lives and the life of the city.

“We wanted to see how arts impact the community,” explained one of the filmmakers behind ‘Walbrook: Heart of the Arts.’ The film features interviews with members of WombWork Productions, a grassroots company that promotes healing and empowerment through dance, theater, and other forms of creative expression.

Another film, ‘Two-Way Mirror: Walbrook,’ opens with a shot of two teenage boys playing ball on a grassy field on North Hilton Street, while police sirens blare in the background. The boys are approached by another pair of young men who demand the ball. When the demand is refused, a chase and scuffle ensue, culminating in a fight scene that is unsettling in its realistic depiction of violence.

“We wanted to present what we see every day in the ‘hood’,” explained one of the filmmakers, who put air-quotes around the word ‘hood.’ “This is what happens outside of school, and sometimes in school. The violence is getting worse and worse, closer and closer to where you live.”

Despite its grim subject matter, ‘Two-Way Mirror’ ends on an optimistic note. After the beating scene, a title card appears that reads, “what should have happened…” The film then rewinds to the point where the “gang members” (as they are listed in the credits) ask for the ball. Rather than refusing them outright, the owner of the ball agrees to give it to them, on the condition that the four boys play with it together. The film closes on a scene of both pairs of young men tossing the ball back and forth.

While ‘Two-Way Mirror’ shows a reflection of West Baltimore’s youth, ‘Through Their Eyes: Elders of Walbrook’ offers a portrait of three of the community’s older residents.
“I love the city,” says S. Bunjo Butler in the opening scene. “Everbody I love is here.” Butler, who is the manager of the Walbrook Library, and who was on hand for yesterday’s screening, goes on in the film to lament the “heartbreaking” changes he has witnessed to his community over time, i.e. increases in crime, drug activity, and poverty.
Despite these concerns, Butler and his fellow older adults express hope for the future. “In twelve and a half years, I’ll be 100 years old,” says a surprisingly spry-looking Herman Pittman in the film. A local businessman who owns several properties in the area, Pittman envisions the restoration of North Avenue into “a Main Street.” Education is the key to that revitalization, he says.

Some of the reminiscences of the older people profiled in ‘Through Their Eyes’ provoked warm responses from the audience. “We had Arundel’s Ice Cream,” recalls an interviewee, who goes on to talk about how racism kept her from going to certain schools and eating at a particular restaurant. The mention of the now-defunct ice cream parlor prompted fond chuckles and murmurs of “Oh, yeah!” from the crowd.
Asked what he learned from interviewing older adults, one of the filmmakers responded, “One of the things I learned is how Baltimore was back then. And Baltimore is still changing now, so hopefully…I’ll be able to tell someone who’s sitting in my seat how it was back in my time.”
Another young project participant said that listening to older members of the community caused her to see the economic potential in her neighborhood, and that she was now inspired to obtain a college degree in order to help realize that potential.
One young woman admitted to feeling overwhelmed by the choices facing her. “When someone asks me what I want to do when I go to college, I don’t know what to say, because I want to do everything,” she laughed.
Such sentiments were clearly music to the ears of the adults in the room, particularly the many proud mothers in attendance. One after another, family members, mentors, neighbors, and visitors rose to commend the young filmmakers on the works they had produced, and to encourage them to keep achieving.

The young dreamers blushed and smiled.
————————————
The three short films will be available for viewing online in the near future. They will be linked from this site.

————————————

*Full disclosure: I am a member of the Ignition Grant review team.

NewsTrust Baltimore

Sharp-eyed readers — or at least those who read past the first couple of sentences of each post — will notice a new widget on the sidebar.

As an enthusiastic supporter of NewsTrust Baltimore, I am proud to direct Unsung Baltimore viewers to this bold and much-needed experiment to engage local residents in media literacy and criticism.

Simply put, NT Baltimore invites everyone with web access to read, review, and comment on journalism by local news outlets. While membership is free, subscribers must register using their real names, which reduces the risk of drive-by trolling and incendiary posts that sadly infest the comments threads of even reputable and established news sites. Members not only rate news stories on accuracy, fairness, context, and other indicators, but they can rate each other’s reviews as well.

For me, one of the coolest aspects of this application is that it resembles a game. The more articles you review, the more comments you post, and the more peer ratings you give and receive, the more of a “trusted member” you become. By being an active participant, you can move from someone who rates articles, to a peer reviewer, to an editor, to a group host, to a content producer in your own right.

One of the goals of this project is therefore to promote transparency, accountability, responsibility, thoughtfulness, and civility on the parts of journalists, the publications they work for, the people and institutions they report on, and local news consumers.

NewsTrust was founded in 2005 by Fabrice Florin, a former news producer and software developer who helped produce MTV News, Macromedia’s Shockwave, and a number of online games. NT Baltimore, which was launched in January 2011 with the support of the Open Society Foundations, is the first branch of NewsTrust dedicated to journalism from a geographically targeted news market.

The pilot phase of the project is for three months, with the hope that the initiative will continue indefinitely, based on funding and community response.

In keeping with the theme of this blog, the articles that appear in the widget to the right are exclusively about the Baltimore community.

Go ahead and sign up. It’s fun. And it’s valuable.

Action Alert: How (and why) to contact your reps about arts funding


The Maryland General Assembly is entering the home stretch of the 2011 legislative session. Right now your elected officials are making some tough fiscal decisions, trying to decide what types of public funding should be cut in order to meet our state’s constitutionally mandated balanced budget requirement.

One of the many items on the chopping block is the Arts Preservation Fund, which provides modest but important amounts of state aid for local arts initiatives. If the arts are important to you, take a moment to read this action alert from Maryland Citizens for the Arts and contact the key delegates on the budget conference committee today.

Here are some tips for contacting your elected representatives:

  1. Be polite. Whatever you might think of politicians, they have a tough job, so be nice and thank them for doing it.
  2. Say what you want up front. Before you even get into the text of your message, name the bill or budget item and what you’re asking of the policymakers (e.g., “Support HB 0000 – The Puppies Are Cute Act of 2011″)
  3. Personalize it. Borrowing someone else’s talking points are fine, but you should always include something from your direct experience. That way it sounds less like a form letter.
  4. Be specific. Don’t just say that you support HB 0000 because puppies are cute. Say exactly why you think puppies are cute. If you like, it never hurts to back up those sorts of claims with research.
  5. Repeat the ask. Right as you close the letter, say again what it is that you want the policymakers to do.
  6. Include your name, address, and phone number.

Generally speaking, it’s better for you to contact your own representatives instead of officials from some other district. But on something like the state budget, the most important legislators are the budget conferees, so they’re the ones you want to target.

Finally, remember two things:

  • Elected officials always pay attention to communications from constituents.
  • If they don’t hear from you, they think you’re happy.

Below is the letter I just sent to the budget conferees regarding funding for the arts.

###

March 29, 2011

To: Hon. James Proctor, Jr.; Hon. Adrienne A. Jones; Hon. Michael E. Busch; Hon. Norman Conway; Hon. John L. Bohanan

Subject: Please Concur With Senate Position on Arts Funding

Esteemed Delegates:

I am writing as a proud Maryland resident and supporter of the arts to urge you and your fellow legislators to concur with the State Senate’s position on the Arts Preservation Fund for FY 2012.

As a longtime resident of Baltimore City, I can see firsthand the impact that the arts have made on the life of our community. Over the past decade, dozens of young and not-so-young artists who in the past would have chosen to leave Baltimore for other cities, have chosen instead to remain and produce art right here in Maryland. Many of these artists receive support from the Maryland State Arts Council and other public sources of arts funding.

Witnessing so much art being produced and consumed in the Baltimore region and throughout Maryland is not only thrilling for me as someone who appreciates the arts. It is also exciting because of its potential economic impact.

Here are a few examples from around the State.

1) The Station North Arts District in Baltimore has transformed an economically depressed area of Baltimore City into a thriving hub of activity. The art being produced in Station North is drawing residents who otherwise never would have thought of visiting that community and spending their money there.

Two weeks ago I attended a play produced by Single Carrot Theatre, an acclaimed dramatic ensemble that chose Maryland as its base. Before the show I dined at a restaurant across the street from the theater. The restaurant was packed with theatergoers. Single Carrot receives support from the Maryland State Arts Council.

2) The Avalon Theater in historic Easton has become a destination location for nationally acclaimed musicians and for their fans. I recently traveled to Easton from Baltimore to watch a Canadian band perform at the Avalon, and was extremely impressed by the venue and by the local restaurant at which my friends and I dined prior to the show. Through the Avalon Foundation, the Avalon Theater also receives support from the Maryland State Arts Council.

3) In February I attended the launch of the Frederick Film Festival, which is gaining increasing recognition for the quality of the films it annually screens. The reception and concert that marked the festival’s launch were hosted by Brewer’s Alley, a Frederick dining institution. The Frederick Film Festival receives support from the Maryland State Arts Council.

State funding for the arts not only helps create a thriving, culturally vibrant Maryland with creative opportunities for all. It also helps to stimulate local economies and generates jobs for creative people who wish to contribute to the health of our state.

I deeply appreciate your past support of arts in Maryland and I call upon you to show the same spirit of support in this fiscally challenging year. Please vote to concur with the Senate and keep $500,000 for State arts funding in the budget.

Thank you for your kind consideration of this request and thank you for all you do for Maryland.

Sincerely,

Kevin Griffin Moreno

###

Scotty Walsh and Port Discovery join with Westport students to make art

Scotty Walsh speaks prior to the mural unveiling


When Scotty Walsh found out that art had been cut from the curriculum at Westport Academy, a k-8 public school in a working class neighborhood in South Baltimore, he decided to do something about it.

A street performer, accomplished vaudevillian, and the visual arts specialist for Port Discovery Children’s Museum, Walsh partnered with Westport Academy to create an eight-week, after-school arts program to engage students in painting. The result of that effort was on display at Port Discovery yesterday, as the young artists unveiled a colorful mural in front of media representatives, parents, museum officials, and special guests gathered in the museum’s art room.

Scotty Walsh and Bonnie Crockett with Westport Academy students in front of their painting.

“Art really made all of the difference for me when I was a kid, so I’ve never forgotten the importance of art in the lives of children,” said Walsh in a museum press release. “I think it’s especially important to develop art programs and hopefully reach some of the children that need art in their lives.”

The program was embraced by administrators at Westport Academy, where 83 percent of students are eligible for the federal free lunch program, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. The school serves a historically African-American community with a once-thriving economy which nosedived as businesses closed down or left Baltimore in the ’70’s, ’80’s, and ’90’s.

To jump start the painting project, Walsh sought funding from Patrick Turner, a prominent local developer who hopes to reverse the economic fortunes of the neighborhood with an ambitious $35 million waterfront redevelopment project. Walsh also reached out to Bonnie Crockett of Westport Community Partnerships and to acclaimed Chattanooga-based sculptor John Henry, who plans to install a large-scale work in the Westport waterfront space.

Henry spoke to the Westport students who gathered for yesterday’s mural unveiling, calling them “the next generation of creative leaders.” Each of the eight children who completed the after-school program received a certificate signed by the sculptor.

Sculptor John Henry speaks to the young artists

As the small crowd waited for the television news crew to arrive, Walsh led the children – who seemed to be between the ages of 5 and 10 – in a song and dazzled them with magic acts.



The students also drew self-portraits, taking inspiration from the self-portraits of famous artists that covered the walls.

The 5′ x 10′ painting will reside in Port Discovery’s StudioWorkshop exhibit space.

Faces of Homelessness


Here’s something cool that was brought to my attention by my friends over at Healthcare for the Homeless.

If you or your organization is interested in learning more about homelessness from people who have direct experience with it, contact the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau – Baltimore.

###

From: Lindsay Callahan Vanderheiden, Healthcare for the Homeless

Founded by the National Coalition for the Homeless out of Washington D.C., the “Faces of Homelessness” Speakers’ Bureau is a public education program about homelessness and what can be done to end it. The speakers are individuals who have personally experienced homelessness, and are the true experts on the topic. The Bureau builds opportunities for the speakers to advocate for themselves and others and to build bridges within the community. In 2009, the “Faces” Bureau spoke to approximately 390 groups – a combined audience of over 20,500 people from over 40 states. Currently the “Faces of Homelessness” Speakers’ Bureau is based out of 16 states in the U.S.

Using their own experiences, our diverse speakers put a human “face” on homelessness dispelling the stereotypes many people have regarding persons experiencing homelessness. By fostering an environment of self-worth, respect and understanding for all people, the “Faces of Homelessness” Speakers’ Bureau challenges us to believe that we can and should end homelessness.

A standard presentation includes up to three panelists with firsthand experience of homelessness and a discussion moderator. While presentations can be customized for particular groups, classes, or events, presentations typically follow this outline:

• Introduction and Stereotypes (5-10 minutes)
• Speaker Testimonies from 2-3 speakers (10-20 minutes each)
• Question and Answer (15+ minutes)

For more information on hosting a “Faces of Homelessness” Speakers’ Bureau panel, please contact:

Lindsay Callahan Vanderheiden
AmeriCorps*VISTA
Health Care for the Homeless
(443) 703-1349
lcallahan[at]hchmd[dot]org

The Faces of Homeless Speakers’ Bureau – Baltimore is a collaborative project of Healthcare for the Homeless, National Coalition for the Homeless, AmeriCorps, and St. Vincent de Paul Baltimore.

###

(Photo above from the National Walk to End Homelessness, Washington, D.C., 2008)

Jacqueline Robarge

In December 2009, I received an e-mail from Jacqueline Robarge, director of Power Inside (PI), which provides services and outreach to women struggling with the overlapping challenges of poverty, incarceration, violence, and life on the street. A PI client had just managed to secure permanent housing, employment, and custody of her young daughter, and the staff needed help moving her into her new place. So I rounded up my friend (and previous Unsung Baltimorean) Todd and we spent a couple of hours carrying furniture.

Several things about that experience will remain indelibly etched in my consciousness. The first was the passionate commitment of the PI staff, who will go to any lengths, make practically any sacrifice, to serve the most marginalized members of our society. The other was an overwhelming sense of the enormity of the effort this one woman had to put forth to move from a place of fear, desperation, and oppression to a place of greater safety, stability, and determination.

We can have the best programs, the most methodologically sound interventions, but they are doomed to failure without the commitment, determination, and faith of the people they are designed to assist. We throw around the term “turning one’s life around,” as if it were as easy as flipping a light switch, when in reality it’s tantamount to reversing the orbit of a planet – and as miraculous.

All the odds were stacked against the woman whose furniture we carried that day, yet she had beaten them. She stood up to the darkness of the world and the darkness within herself, and in this way discovered a light to walk toward.

Jacqui Robarge is one of the keepers of that light.

————————-

“I saw gay people and said, ‘if I live through high school, I’m going to California.'”

“I start by asking people what they want for themselves,” says Power Inside director Jacqueline Robarge about working with women in need. “If you ask them what’s important to them, it’s family, safety, connection, warmth, and love. Then, when you ask them what is the barrier to getting there, they name things like drug use and emotional and physical pain.”

Robarge is 43 but looks younger, with close-cropped hair and a ready smile. She simultaneously radiates inexhaustible energy and quiet stillness. Her watchful brown eyes give the impression of laughter lurking just beneath the surface…along with some long-held sadness.

“I grew up around a lot of violence and mental illness in my family,” she says. “This was in upstate New York, near the Canadian border. I had a near-fatal suicide attempt in the 9th grade. I didn’t fit in in school. I was voted most friendly, but I was awkward.”

Her gaze moves around the room as she reaches back into memory. “Four acres: that was my salvation growing up…my backyard. I had trees, grass, places to hide. I had a German shepherd who was my best friend.”

Following her attempted suicide, Robarge was sent to stay with her uncle in California for a time. That’s where she was introduced to the movements for LGBTQ- and women’s equality. “I saw gay people and said, ‘if I live through high school, I’m going to California,'” she recalls with a small smile. “That was my reward for surviving.”

Robarge survived and kept the promise she made to herself. At age 19 she used the earnings from her McDonald’s job to buy a one-way ticket to San Francisco, where she remained for 15 years.

“San Francisco is like the Mecca of activism,” she says. “In San Francisco you could be perpetually finding yourself: constantly coming out of the closet, constantly being an edgy activist.” She soon found a place in the social equity movement, working on women’s rights and white privilege issues.

Robarge also got involved in street outreach and needle exchange programs, through which she was introduced to the concept of harm reduction, which has guided her career ever since.

“Harm exists, and we don’t just prevent harm just by telling people to stop it.”

The term “harm reduction” encompasses a broad range of strategies designed to lower the negative consequences associated with drug use and other harmful behaviors. Proponents tend to view these behaviors through the lens of public health, as opposed to criminal justice. The approach relies heavily on techniques whose efficacy has been proven or suggested through scientific research. Examples include needle exchange programs, medically assisted drug treatment, and the distribution of condoms to reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections.

For Robarge, harm reduction comprises both philosophy and practice.

“The philosophy is that harm exists, and we don’t just prevent harm just by telling people to ‘stop it.’ It’s the opposite of ‘just say no;’ it’s saying, ‘okay, now what?” It invites people to think about whether they want a better quality of life.

“The practice involves doable steps toward incremental change, which is really affirming. A lot of [people and organizations] are practicing harm reduction right now and don’t even know it.” She cites as an example “faith based organizations who will feed anyone who gets in line.”

The principles of harm reduction are an integral part of Power Inside, which Robarge founded 10 years ago with the support of an Open Society Institute-Baltimore Community Fellowship.

“Power Inside started as a group inside the Baltimore City Detention Center. We were asked to do a ‘self esteem’ group, as if all those women’s problems had to do with self esteem! For women to be in this dangerous, chaotic place and to sit in a circle and tell their stories – that was really powerful. And the [female detainees] made it happen. Pretty soon the women said, ‘we need a place to meet you when we get out.”

Today, PI and its small staff provide group counseling, prisoner re-entry and aftercare, street outreach, and other services to women in crisis situations. Last year the organization served over 350 women experiencing poverty, incarceration, addiction, and/or abuse.

“Power Inside is really cost effective,” says Robarge. “If we can get a woman off the street, the only resources that have been used are a couple hundred cups of coffee [versus] the cost of incarceration.”

Saving taxpayer costs in an already burdened criminal justice system is one justification for PI’s work. Its grounding in evidence-based practices and research is another.

In 2005, PI Commisioned the first-ever needs assessment of women confined in the Baltimore City Jail. The resulting report, Release from Jail: Moments of Crisis or Window of Opportunity for Female Detainees in Baltimore City? was published by the Journal of Urban Health in 2006. PI followed that study in 2010 with a similar report that examined the needs of men incarcerated at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

“Because people said I can’t I want to find all the science, all the research,” Robarge says firmly. “I want to find the evidence that unconditional love works.”


“You cannot stop us from being with one another. You cannot stop us from putting chairs in a circle.”

Robarge has received numerous accolades for her work, including a Petra Foundation Fellowship in 2009. She has also been invited to participate on numerous panels, commissions, and task forces that include agencies like the state Division of Correction and the Baltimore City Police Department. She notes with some satisfaction that these public sector institutions have shifted their approach to drug treatment and homelessness prevention over the years.

“When I came [to Baltimore] in 2001, harm reduction was reviled. I was a in a meeting of officials who shall remain nameless, and an administrator said ‘we can’t even use the term harm reduction here; we don’t even say it.'”

Still, Robarge expresses frustration with the public sector’s historic approach to problems associated with deep poverty.

“George [W.] Bush gutted HIV prevention and reduction work. Now there’s a generation of providers who think that testing and health fairs are all we need…why would any government, any person, any institution want to stop me from feeding a homeless person? You cannot stop us from being with one another. You cannot stop us from putting chairs in a circle.”

The very real physical dangers faced by women on the street lend a sense of urgency to Robarge’s direct service and policy advocacy work.

“In my time of being here there’s been three separate strings of serial killers of women trading sex on the street. Women are dying!” She looks down and sighs. “If I had my way, everyone would be off the street tomorrow. I’ve seen so many women die.”

She remains shaken by the murder two years ago of a former client who became a PI staff person. “She got out of jail and called us, then called us back and said she had another ride. I told her to wait…but she was murdered a couple of weeks after that. She was a survivor. She organized a [support] group in prison.”

More than any other experience, that tragedy brought home for Robarge the “dissonance” she sees between society’s pervasive image of sex workers and the reality of the women she works with and has come to know as individuals. For Robarge, that disconnection points to a wider problem of sexism in America.

“I see objectification of women all the time: the stereotype of the ‘drug addled prostitute.’ When you kill a sex worker on the street, that’s an act of misogyny. There’s something sick about the act itself, but it also represents a thread in our culture.”

Such trauma exacts a toll not only on women in crisis, but also on the women who serve them.

“It’s very difficult to embrace [sex workers] who are mothers, who aren’t taking care of their kids, who have untreated mental illness, who are abusing drugs,” says Robarge. “So I train people in the way I was trained by the battered women’s network. These workers would do anything: putting women on the couch, starting underground networks – really heroic stuff. I want the [PI] staff to have the same sort of training that I had, that sustains them in their work. Talking, sharing stories, is important.”

“We have so much power to heal people!”

Asked about her own source of strength, Robarge points to her faith. She acknowledges that this is a suprising response for her in light of her tumultuous relationship with organized religion.

“I was raised Catholic; it was a very scary and oppressive experience for me.” She cites her struggles as a young person with “church doctrines of absolute good and evil, original sin. When humans get involved in judging people, using mortal or original sin to cast people away, it’s very hurtful.”

Despite these challenges, faith has always been central to her activism. “In high school I thought, ‘God just wants me to be a good person.’ So I began volunteering for the Salvation Army, ringing the bell.”

She also volunteered at a nursing home where she cared for elderly people, many of whom were undernourished. That experience taught her “the power of human presence and witness. Holding the hand of an old person – their soft, thin skin – I could feel the change in them. They would pat my hand.”

She smiles and shakes her head slightly. “We have so much power to heal people!”

In San Francisco she was exposed to faith-based activists like Starhawk and Catholic liberation theologians. Robarge was drawn in particular to the writings of Catholic Worker movement founder Dorothy Day, who preached a life of service grounded in radical faith. From such encounters Robarge learned that activism and revolution were not incompatible with spirituality.

“I keep going back to that vow that I’ve committed my life to service,” she says quietly. “I think how lucky I am that I know what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life.”

The strength Robarge draws from her spirituality extends beyond her work at PI. She recently reconnected with her father, from whom she was estranged for most of her life. Now sober for 30 years, he is committed to restoring his relationship with his daughter.

While serving vulnerable women in Baltimore can be arduous at times, Robarge finds much to appreciate in her adopted city.

“I love walking around the lake at Druid Hill Park. It’s beautiful at sunset. I love the people here. I love the history of resistance here. I love the woman I saw in the food stamps line who was not taking ‘no’ for an answer. People are doing amazing things here.

“I love when I walk down the street and whole families are sitting outside. I love family traditions; I didn’t have that as a child. I’m nostalgic for a time I’ve never seen.”

A phone in the office begins to ring. There is work to be done, clients who need assistance.

“It’s my choice to be here,” Robarge says with a grin. “I’m bringing myself into the present. I’m trying to be a grownup.”

Forget your tired old new year’s resolution. Do this stuff instead.

Coming up: a new post about how racial, ethnic, and class segregation impacts Baltimore’s emerging arts scene; and a profile of one of my local heroes, Power Inside director Jacqueline Robarge.

First, though, here’s a list of some cool stuff going on around town this month.

  • Amplify Baltimore, a symposium on who we are and where we’re going, with a focus on “political literacy and public safety.” The roster of speakers is pretty impressive. (Jan 8)
  • Isabel Wilkerson: Race and the Great Migration, a discussion about the ongoing ramifications of the African-American diaspora from the rural South to the urban North. (Jan 12)
  • OSI-Baltimore Seeks Applicants for 2011 Community Fellowships - the orginal celebration of unsung Baltimore, if you will. (Deadline: March 21)
  • Glassworks, a presentation of the music of Philip Glass by Mobtown Modern and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. (Jan 12)
  • Create Baltimore: A Gathering of People Building Creative Community in Baltimore. There’s a waiting list for tickets, but it’s still worth signing up. (Jan 15)
  • Baker Artist Awards: there’s only eight days left to nominate yourself, so get cracking. Also? Download youself some Baker iPhone app. (Deadline: Jan 15)

There is just too much awesomeness happening to miss out on it. Which reminds me, I need to finish my Baker nomination.