Baltimore Funding Model Challenges 'Nonprofit Industrial Complex' Practices

With the Freddie Gray uprising as a catalyst, Baltimore residents voted in the $12 million Children & Youth Fund. Here's how local activists in this majority Black city ensured that young, people-of-color-led, grassroots groups had a seat at the table.


Originally Published on (August 30, 2018)

By Bakari Kitwana

Three years after the police killing of Freddie Gray triggered an uprising in Baltimore, little has changed for Black residents who make up 63 percent of its population. Attempts to prosecute Gray’s killers famously failed. A 2017 consent decree, which the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) entered into after the U.S. Department of Justice found a pattern of civil rights violations against Blacks, is stalled. This year’s revelations about the corruption and violence of the BPD’s Gun Trace Task Force underscore more of the same.


There is, however, the potential for change in the form of the Baltimore Children &Youth Fund (BCYF). More than two decades in the making, the new $12 million fund provides local youth-focused groups with grants ranging from $500 to $500,000. BCYF is funded annually by 3 percent of the city’s property taxes. What’s innovative is how its principals structured it to ensure that small Black grassroots groups that usually go unfunded have a seat at the table.


The Freddie Gray Connection

Baltimore City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young had been introducing the idea of a dedicated youth fund since 1996. In 2016, city council unanimously approved a bill he’d introduced in 2015. But then-mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake vetoed it, claiming that earmarking discretionary funds limited mayoral decision-making power. With a newfound urgency forged by the Gray uprising, city council did something it hadn’t done since 1982: they overrode the mayor’s veto and brought an amendment to the city charter before voters. Over 80 percent voted yes.


“The unfortunate and untimely death of Freddie Gray provided the propellant to move this initiative forward,” says Lester Davis,Young’s deputy chief of staff charged with setting up the fund. “We realized we needed new ideas and we needed to support youth in a different way than we had in the past.”

The youth fund law didn’t specify how the money would be allocated or managed. Young appointed a 34-member taskforce of city agency heads, philanthropic leaders and grassroots activists to figure that out. Adam Jackson, the outspoken CEO of the Black “grassroots think tank” Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle(LBS) co-chaired the taskforce along with T. Rowe Price Foundation president John Brothers.Kim Trueheart,a Northwest Baltimore activist and city council meeting fixture who ran against Young in 2016, also served on it.


A core recommendation of the taskforce was that racial equity should be at the core of the structure. Says Jackson, “A lot of the spirit of the taskforce from early on was, ‘How do we make sure that racial equity and transparency and accountability is embedded into how the fund is structured and operates?”’

To that end, the taskforce did the most logical thing: “We went to communities and asked folks who run programs, parents, students, youth and young adults what they believed should be funded,” says Jackson. To structure the meetings, they borrowed from the idea of “people’s assemblies,” a radical form of community forums popularized by the late Jackson, Mississippi, mayor, Chokwe Lumumba.

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