5 Questions That Matter with Karen Stokes

Karen Stokes is the Executive Director of Strong City Baltimore

Karen incites change. It’s not an easy thing for the leader of a non-profit in Baltimore to accomplish. She uses stories to raise awareness and get all the movers & shakers and organizations in north central Baltimore, each with their own agenda, on the same page working towards a shared vision.

Strong City Baltimore, formerly known as Greater Homewood Community Corporation (GHCC or GH), is a 45 year old non-profit that builds and strengthens vibrant urban communities in north central Baltimore.

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“Dare to take a stand.”

Times have changed since 1969. Technology changes everything, markets are dynamic, money is tighter than ever, and funders are more demanding. What is a non-profit leader’s job?

We’re a 45 year old non-profit. And we’re fairly large. So, from my perspective, my job as leader of this complex organization is to develop a consensus around vision. Whether it’s for the organization, a project or a program, my role is to get consensus around the vision and know what the endgame is. What is success? And get us there. I need to know–when do we claim victory?

The other element of being a good leader is being a cheerleader. It is really important, being enthusiastic, encouraging everybody around you. I think that’s true of leadership in general. We want our mayors to be enthusiastic, and not tell us all the reasons we can’t do something. It’s why we’re so fond of William Donald Schaefer. He was the quintessential cheerleader of Baltimore. I think non-profit leaders have to be enthusiastic and keep their staffs motivated.

Tenacity is really important. You’ve got to show up, know what the goals are we created to begin with, and keep your eye on them. Be tenacious and model that for everybody else. Someone says, no, keep going.

Which leads me to the nos. I feel like you have to use your voice. Maybe it’s speaking truth to power and knowing what your power is. Do you have power? Do you have influence? Not being afraid to use it. When you don’t use it, you lose it. It’s important to be clear about your voice. This is what we’re (GH) working towards and it does tie into this element of tenacity.

The other piece, for an organization as old as we are, is staying nimble and flexible. You’re right, things have changed. How people communicate is much different. As community organizers we have to be able to use technology and get all the benefits of it and still recognize when it is a detriment to the fabric of building social networks.

Those are the things I think of around leadership.

What makes you the right person to lead this complex organization?

I have 35 years experience working in complex government agencies in New York as well as working in non-profits.

About 70% of this job I know how to do. The kind of organizing we do, the consensus building. I come in knowing a lot of the programming. About 25% of the job is very challenging. When I first got to GHCC 7 years ago, I didn’t know anything about adult literacy. But, I know enough about program development. The remaining 5% of the job, I have no clue. But, I’m comfortable enough, thanks to experience, to know that’s okay. You can’t know everything.

I knew nothing about running a recreational center. I just knew I didn’t want to see the rec center on 29th Street go dark. Was GH willing to take on a whole new idea, how a rec center could be turned into a community center with a very different model? Why not? While I didn’t ever do that before, the things I did do translated.

This organization requires being tenacious. The leader of it has to be able to connect dots. You have to see things as a whole. We do holistic community development. The common denominator is that I’m trying to stay curious and open to things. Look at things differently. How we can do something better? If there’s a better, more efficient way of doing something, you have to look at what that might be.

If GHCC is the answer what’s the problem?

The problems we address are attracting people to the city and keeping them here, building community to prevent crime, and strengthening schools. People are leaving the city because of either the reality or the perception of crime and the reality or perception of poor quality schools.

What does GH do about crime? We look at holistic community development. Do we have enriching constructive after school programs? Do we have real employment opportunities for the hardest to employ? What are we doing about vacant property in blighted neighborhoods? What about social connections? These are some of the factors that contribute to crime. We work on those.

We have to know when we don’t have a quality school. And what do we do to fix that? GH has been very involved in creating business and community partnerships to support Principals. We are advocates making sure we have good leadership in the schools. In the cases where the schools are not adequate it makes sense people don’t want to send their kids there. At the same time, there are a lot of schools that are pretty good. People assume all Baltimore schools are bad. Then it becomes a marketing issue. That’s something we are very involved with as well.

Another issue is that we’re not retaining enough of the university students who come here to study. We (GH) work in this education corridor that includes University of Maryland, MICA, University of Baltimore, Hopkins, Peabody, Loyola, Notre Dame, Goucher, and Morgan. I’m very aware of students, seniors, and whether they are making Baltimore their home. We’ve been talking about growing the city’s population. The problem is doing enough to retain these students and their energy. People who could make Baltimore their home, they’re already here. Are we really marketing to these students about making Baltimore their home? Transit is a big issue for them. They’re interested in transit for environmental reasons. Plus, students have big loans and don’t want to add a car loan. If they are going to take on another loan they’d rather it was for a house than a car. The issues with transportation are about attracting and retaining talent.

Baltimore has a lot going for it. It should be very appealing to a younger generation. It’s a quirky city with an interesting arts scene. People newest here seem to love it the most. We need to amplify the wonderful elements and steadfastly work on things that are detriments.

How do you decide what’s the right thing to do when there are so many people, issues, and circumstances to consider?

That is a hard question to answer. We are an intermediary. We’re in that space between a neighborhood association and anchor institutions like a big university, a hospital, or a city government agency. What is right? Every one of these entities thinks their own truth, their own perspective is right. And they are. For us, given what we’re doing, the question becomes how do we take all these layers of self interest and improve a general area in a way that is sustainable. It’s risky putting yourself in the role of interpreting and analyzing. Are you always going to be right? No matter what you decide some people will be mad at you. So, we look at the whole picture and dare to take a stand. We listen hard and bring people together. You can make a decision and not be self righteous.

How does an organization confirm fundamental beliefs and principals?

Four years ago we came up with a living document, a set of beliefs. We worked hard on it. Took it to senior staff and kept honing it. Asking ourselves do we really believe in it? How do we know that? Then we took it to the board. Where we thought, if this is what we believe in, how do we operate? We want our beliefs to drive our operations. Then we worked on another set of operational tenets. It took about a year to do the whole Identity Statement. That’s what we call it.

We needed to get straight with ourselves. It was an exercise that was empowering to everyone on the staff. We keep going back to it. It has stayed remarkably intact. These things transcend.

Besides work, what moves you?

I do not make the distinction between my work life and my other life. I feel that my work life, my family life, my play life, my spiritual life are very interrelated. What moves me? I think of myself as a community builder, a connector, someone who really enjoys people and making connections. I don’t think of it as my work and other. I think of it as inside and outside, your internal and your external.

I do believe that if you are very extroverted and externally oriented, which I need to be in my work, you need to find a place where you can go internally. I started a meditation practice recently. It’s very centering and gives me a deep sense of gratitude. To me it’s really important to take the time to have that internal centering I get much energy from it. I can see a big difference when I don’t make the time for it.

I had an opportunity recently to share my experiences with young VISTA alumnus looking for careers in the non-profit world. They’re so eager to make change. I got so much energy from them when sharing my stories. They remind you why you’re doing this hard work. They moved me.

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My goal with the leadership column is to create a bridge between the up and coming cultural creatives and entrepreneurs driving the Baltimore Renaissance and established leaders who have made an impact in the world. We have much to learn from each other.

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