Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 16, 2024

Conference for the Greater Good provides platform for collaboration

By ELI WALLACH | October 24, 2013

This Saturday, as Hopkins students mobilized around Baltimore for President’s Day of Service, community members passionate about social justice convened in the MICA Graduate Studio Building for the daylong Fusion Partnerships Innovation for The Greater Good Conference.

The conference, which had around 150 attendees, was planned in conjunction with Fusion Partnership’s 15th Anniversary Celebration, which took place later that night inside St. Johns Church in Charles Village.

Fusion Partnerships is a non-profit organization that acts as an incubator to incite social justice in the Baltimore community through collaborative action. Currently, Fusion sponsors over 60 grassroots organizations, providing them with fiscal support along with consulting and access to its network of other grassroots organizations working towards social change.

“We are holding a space for all of you to connect and share and really ask hard questions about what is going on in our city,” Laurie Bezold, also known as Polly Riddims, said in her opening remarks. Bezold serves as a Managing Partner for Fusion along with Saidya Stone, also known as Strongheart.

After Bezold’s opening remarks, spoken-word artist Kay Love and vocalist Elizabeth Duncan took the stage to perform a piece entitled “The Call,” which emphasizes the relationship between art and social justice.

The opening session concluded with a panel discussion by notable social innovators and activists from within the Fusion network. These activists briefly described their organizations and their relationships to Fusion.

The panel included Jacqueline Robarge, founder of the Power Inside to advocate for women who have faced abuse; Walter Lomax, founder of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative to advocate for those sentenced to long-term incarceration or parole-eligible life sentences; Babatunde Salaam who works as an advocacy leader and filmmaker for New Lens, a youth-run social justice group dedicated to making art and media about often-underrepresented people; and Piper Watson, who founded the North Station Tool Library to connect people with constructive resources. Paulo Gregory Harris, founder of the Ingoma Foundation — a project of Fusion — served as moderator for the panel.

Following the opening session, attendees were able to go to workshops run by leaders in the Fusion network. The workshops ran for two-hour sessions, with topics ranging from harm reduction and funding strategies to case studies regarding community based participatory research in southwest Baltimore.

Among these workshops was a guided forum on Institutional Accountability. Community activist Betty Robinson, a member of the Fusion Board of Directors, moderated the workshop.

Four speakers were scheduled to speak during this workshop, giving seven-minute presentations on their respective encounters with the subject matter before opening up the discussion to allow the attendees to contribute.

First to share was Todd Vanidestine, who is currently earning his PhD at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Vanidestine works with Equity Matters, Baltimore and the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.

In his presentation, Vanidestine demonstrated the difference between perceptions of large institutions from the bottom and from the top.

“When I go out to people’s organizations and go up and talk to them, they say ‘Hey, you’re from [any university/college], so you’re going to come out here and research us.’ And that was the first thing they’d say to me,” Vanidestine said. “And I’d be like ‘no, I’m not. I want to hear your story.’ And they would say how people would come out here and write a story about them and then get tenure, journal articles, everything else and then basically not even have the courtesy to bring them a copy of it. And they were wondering whether I was going to do the same thing.”

Vanidestine then shifted the presentation and began to raise questions surrounding the issues of keeping accountability with a large number of people from different groups.

“We have all these streams of accountability,” Vanidestine said. “How do we manage all that? How do we juggle all that?”

Robarge was next to discuss her experiences dealing with large institutions. She examined case studies from personal experiences in which she worked with researchers interested in women who have had to resort to prostitution in order to survive. To Robarge, this research is especially important for raising awareness.

“Sometimes for us it feels that research is the only thing that people listen to,” Robarge said. “We can tell a hundred stories...about a woman dying in jail or street sweeps or police brutality, and people don’t seem to listen to it as they might a little data point.”

However, Robarge explained that she and the women for whom she advocates have not been given access to the data.

“So now we do not have access to the data. We are still waiting to figure out how we can use this. We haven’t gotten anything on paper, an abstract. And when I asked about that it was ‘Oh, we are working on several products.’ And I don’t know what a ‘product’ is but this feels urgent to me,” Robarge said.

Following Robarge was Fanon Hill, who co-founded the Baltimore City Youth Resiliency Institute. This organization offers training and services to members of the Baltimore community with the goal of creating intergenerational teams of advocates for the Baltimore community.

“There are young people in Baltimore City who are suffocating under the weight of institutions that make assumptions, day in and day out, about what people need...” Hill said. “The question then becomes how do you serve young people and communities who understand the power of self-determination, who understand the ball is in their court and are questioning these institutional structures? What is the process? What are those ingredients that allow young people to stand up and speak their truths and stand up to individuals with courage and confidence?"

To add to his presentation, Hill brought in two active and influential members of the Baltimore community: Shirley Foulkes and Mary Disharoom.

Foulkes worked in the Baltimore school system for 22 years before she decided to leave her position there and implement a youth program of her own.

“What I knew children needed was love. Love is powerful and when you feed children you have to feed them all the way to the soul or you are not doing anything for them,” Foulkes said.

Disharoom also worked with Baltimore’s youth as an advocate for children in the Albemarle Square community.

“These children, they are our future,” Disharoom said. “We have to teach them and teach them well.”

The last to present before the discussion was opened to the audience was Rodney Foxworth, who sits on Fusion’s Board of Directors. Foxworth leads the Baltimore operations of Black Male Engagement (BME).

Foxworth stressed that in the world of aid coming from large institutions, the bottom-up approach that BME pursues is rare. Having worked in different institutional frameworks in addition to having grown up in a working-class environment, Foxworth emphasized the difficulties in compromising between top-down and bottom-up approaches.

“But those who are interested in pursuing [the institutional] career path, it’s always something that I feel like you unfortunately have to think about constantly,” Foxworth said. “You want to do right by the community, so the question is: how can you do that within the structure that is currently provided?”

In a later interview, Bezold was able to give her own perspective on the issue of institutional accountability.

“People all the time in grassroots groups feel like they are being taken advantage of or foundations will come in and say ‘this is what you need,’” Bezold said. “But they don’t ask the community what they need. I think this is the big complaint. Big institutions need to go into communities and listen instead of saying ‘this is what we think you need.’”

Throughout the conference, organizations sponsored by Fusion ran booths to spread word of their individual missions. Organizations represented included Turning Pages, a family literacy and reunification program; Word on the Street, a grassroots newspaper focused on homelessness in Baltimore; Hollaback! B’more, which fights against street harassment; Mother Made Baltimore, a group dedicated empowering low-income women through design, creation and merchandising of environmentally-friendly products; the Baltimore Free Store, an organization that coordinates the free swapping of resources through monthly free markets; and the Station North Tool Library, which uses the library lending system to give the Baltimore community access to tools.

In the closing session, Jim Howard Kucher, member of the Fusion board of directors, presented the Social Justice Award to five active leaders in the Fusion network. Among these award recipients were Marshall “Eddie” Conway, who works with Maryland’s prisoners regarding matters ranging from violence reduction to education; Nadja Bentley-Hammond, who advocates for youth in foster care; and Adam Schneider, who advocates for the homeless. Lomax and Robarge, both of whom sat on the panel during the opening session, also received this award.

To cap the conference, Founder and Managing Director of the New Capitalist, Melissa Bradley, was called to the stage to give a keynote speech.

Through innovative business practices and a goal to make an impact, Bradley has accumulated a long history of inciting social change through investment. She graduated from Georgetown University in 1989 with a degree in finance and received her MBA in marketing from American University in 1991. In her current position at the New Capitalist, she has facilitated over $20 million of venture capital transactions, generated an average of 20% return on investment and also created proprietary investment vehicles that have greatly assisted minority-owned firms in capital sourcing.

“I think that what you all are doing...is where the real work is and, I would argue, is where the money needs to be,” Bradley said.

Bradley reflected on her years at Georgetown, focusing on her first time volunteering with a program that dealt with children who either had been incarcerated or whose parents had been incarcerated. Bradley, who grew up in a one-bedroom household and was raised by a single mother, pointed out the problems she noticed in the structure of the organization for which she volunteered.

“One, I was the only person of color in that room. Two, I was the only women in that room. Three, I was the only person who even barely understood what the heck was going on in their lives,” Bradley said. “But let me be clear, that does not mean that you need to be a certain person or certain type to work with folks, but that the circle of influence and powers has to be representative of the diversity that is within each person.”

Furthermore, Bradley took away important realizations from her volunteer work during her undergraduate years.

“I recognized then that it was extremely important that we shift the nature of service from the Jesus Christ Superstar ‘I am going to save you,’ to ‘I am going to break down the walls and create the pathway for you to find your own power.’ And that’s a huge shift.”

Bradley, a self-proclaimed “capitalist with a conscience,” had many words of advice about what it takes to create social change. Through anecdotes from her professional and personal history, Bradley pushed attendees to pursue sustainable and innovative practices in their respective organizations.

“The one thing that frustrates me is that we have now just begun to think of innovation as just around technology and around speed,” Bradley said. “But the reality is that innovation is not external, it’s internal. It’s inside an organization. It’s inside a person. It’s not about processes, it’s about people.”

Bradley shared a story regarding the Reentry Strategies Institute (RSI), an organization dedicated to using market based approaches to lower the recidivism rate in prisons that she herself founded. Through her involvement in RSI, Bradley developed a computer program to make sure that people out of jail did not get double booked for appointments, as missing appointments was a common cause of recidivism. Bradley brought the program to the state of North Carolina in an arrangement that allowed RSI to receive all the money that the state saved through the program’s implementation.

Within six months of the program’s implementation, North Carolina experienced a 38% reduction in recidivism, saving the their Department of Corrections over $1 million, money that went back to RSI.

“That was not a new iPhone in a gold cover. That was not some twitter-140-character-how-much-less-can-I-talk-to-my-parents. That was just a simplistic common sense idea that saved over a million dollars. That was a reality check for me that innovation does not have to be grand, but it does have to be thoughtful, that it does not have to be pie-in-the-sky, but it has to be relevant to the communities we serve,” Bradley said.

Through this anecdote, Bradley also noted the importance of financial sustainability.

“When you stop asking people for money, they start looking at you in a very different way,” Bradley said.

Bradley further emphasized this point as she talked about her work with the Entrepreneurial Development Institute (TEDI), another organization that she founded to address youth economic development.

“If they think that you are expendable in three years, they will tolerate you for three years,” Bradley said referring to programs dependent on temporary grants. “But if you are making that financial investment in that same community and having positive results, now you are a stakeholder. And that’s where we need to make that shift, of not just being a recipient, but a stakeholder and a shareholder in the future of our communities.”

Hopkins senior Lidiana Economou was just one of the attendees of the conference. Economou is an intern for the Power Inside, where she is actively working on creating a network of student groups interested in the issues impacting women as well as in conducting information-based campaigns on the Homewood Campus.

“I thought [the conference] was amazing,” Economou said. “It was really remarkable to see so many dedicated people in the room who were very empowered and passionate about the work they were doing...There were so many people who were there really trying to make a change and get involved in the community and on a grassroots level, which is really refreshing.”

Economou was paired up with the Power Inside by the Community Impact Internship Program (CIIP) run through the Center for Social Concern (CSC). The CIIP is an annual summer program that pairs students with non-profit organizations and government agencies to pursue community-identified projects. Economou first participated in the CIIP two years ago with an organization that dealt with transitional housing matters called Martha’s Place. This summer she returned to the program as a peer mentor, at which point she began her work with the Power Inside.

“Once you start seeing how much is happening and how many of the grassroots organizations there are from the community themselves, wanting to better the community, just really working on it. It’s really inspiring and nice. It makes you want to get involved,” Economou said.

Registration for the conference took place online. The cost of attending both the conference and the 15th anniversary celebration was $45. However, attendees who chose not to go to both events could buy tickets for them individually, with the entrance to the conference priced at $40 and the entrance to the celebration priced at $20.

“It turned out great,” Bezold said. “Everything happened on time. People seemed to very engaged. I got a lot of positive feedback...We are very happy at Fusion about how it went.”


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