Anti-poverty project quietly fades away

Experiment: Casey Foundation's efforts to help needy neighborhoods bog down in a troubled partnership.

April 01, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Three years ago, Baltimore's poorest families seemed destined to receive millions of dollars of help after a national foundation based here announced plans for an ambitious anti-poverty program in 22 cities, including its hometown.

Baltimore's inclusion in the Annie E. Casey Foundation's "Making Connections" project fueled hopes that the $3 billion foundation's money and expertise, so often directed elsewhere, could change conditions in one of the city's toughest places.

But three years later, the Casey program has quietly faded from the Baltimore neighborhoods where it began.

The reasons for the end of the experiment here depend on whom you ask. But the marriage between Casey -- one of the nation's largest foundations, with its highly educated and well-paid talent -- and a swath of East Baltimore that contains some of the city's most desperate conditions was a tough partnership from the beginning.

"Oftentimes there's going to be resistance to even the best of ideas," said the Rev. Johnny N. Golden Sr., pastor of New Unity Baptist Church and president of Clergy United for Renewal in East Baltimore. "If you went to India and tried to give them the greatest gift in the world, wrapped in white, it would be offensive to them. You've got to know the culture."

The end of Making Connections here is part of a continuing story -- of how a large foundation that wants to direct change as well as give money finds its niche in a needy hometown.

Officials of the foundation, created in 1948 by United Parcel Service founder Jim Casey, say their programs were stretched too thin to effectively run Making Connections and other efforts to help youths in Baltimore.

They say that, over time, Baltimore programs will get more money than if Making Connections had gone forward.

But some community leaders say East Baltimore will suffer with the departure of the program, which was designed to connect families with jobs, churches, schools and other pillars of support that residents of better neighborhoods take for granted.

"This was the richest thing I had experienced in a long time, as far as integrity and as far as intent," said Nia Redmond, who got a grant through Making Connections to publish two newspapers with elementary and high-school students.

Others, who felt the foundation's big shoes treading on their turf, aren't sorry to see the project fade.

"They wrote up a report that to me was just like going to a community meeting listening to people complain about the things they complain about all the time ... the drug dealing, the trash, the crime," said Lucille Gorham, longtime head of the Middle East Community Organization. "It wasn't anything new that any of us didn't know about."

Casey unveiled Making Connections nationally with great fanfare. The foundation planned to devote a third to half its grant-making -- about $500 million across the country over 10 years -- to the general approach. Making Connections was to test the strategy in particularly tough neighborhoods.

Based in the Mount Vernon neighborhood since 1994, Casey, with a staff of about 126, had been known as a national foundation with big resources and big ideas about how to improve children's lives. Although it ran a local grants program that put several million dollars a year into area nonprofit groups and contributed to other projects, the foundation had yet to launch a large initiative here.

That changed when Baltimore was named one of the demonstration sites. But Sandra Jibrell, the foundation's director for civic investments, acknowledges that it was "sort of an afterthought" to add the city -- along with Washington and Atlanta, which Casey also considers "home" sites -- to Making Connections.

The foundation felt the weight of local expectations, she said. How would it look if it started an important national initiative that didn't address the problems in its back yard?

At the same time, Casey was already at work in those cities, Jibrell said. In Baltimore, it was contributing to a longtime project to transform the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood with the Enterprise Foundation, and to several citywide projects for children.

For "aking Connections, the foundation focused on a large area of East Baltimore bounded roughly by North Avenue, Lombard Street, Aisquith Street and Clinton Street -- an area that contains some of the city's most desolate neighborhoods.

It is a place of high rates of drug addiction and crime, where poverty runs deep. Blocks of rowhouses have mostly been abandoned to squatters and drug addicts. Sprinkled throughout are a patchwork quilt of small neighborhood associations, some with leaders whose long entrenchment has made them influential. In the middle is Johns Hopkins Hospital, an institution long suspected by residents of tacitly encouraging blight to ease its own prospects for expansion.

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