Thursday, June 9, 2011

[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.