Settling into the daily routine of working in the city has been a new and exciting experience for me. All of the little things are falling into place – I’ve worked out the best route to take (across the rainbow bridge, go north first not west), I’m getting to know everyone at the office, and I finally got my key fob to get in the building properly. But most importantly, my work itself excites me, and the work environment is awesome. I walk into the OpenWorks building every day with purpose in my step because I know that I will be doing work that I’m passionate about, contributing to the success of Innovation Works (IW), and learning a whole lot from everyone around me.

It’s energizing to be working at a relatively young social enterprise accelerator, surrounded by a very small team. To say that the IW team is working hard is an understatement; everyone is exceeding their job descriptions in some way, and they’re doing it all because they believe in the power of Innovation Works to transform the way people think about Baltimore. It’s inspiring to see the passion my coworkers have for seeking out the untapped potential of the city they’ve lived in for years, or even generations; and those generations are tired of seeing a whole lot of funding go nowhere in solving the racial wealth divide.

Although Innovation Works has been over two years in the making, it’s technically only been operational for about six months, and IW is a team of just 8 people. But you can bet that they’ve accomplished great feats in those 6 months, and they haven’t slowed down since I’ve arrived; if anything, we’ve sped up with the implementation of Miller Center’s programs on top of everything else. In just the past six months, those 8 people have engaged with over 156 community members and prospective social entrepreneurs through outreach events, information sessions, and one-on-one meetings, and 81 social entrepreneurs are already actively engaged in their pipeline. These SEs are receiving support from nearly 30 local mentors....the list of statistics and milestones goes on. It’s really quite impressive, especially considering the general skepticism that Baltimore even has any social entrepreneurs to begin with.

Not just any old 9-to-5.

It feels strange to say that I like how my schedule works here more than when I’m in college. At first, I had to keep reminding myself that I’m not inundated with the usual homework each night; I can actually take a break when I get home for the day. It feels like a luxury, and definitely has me excited for the post-grad life, at a time when thinking about the post-grad life usually terrifies me. One of the most unique parts of the Fellowship is that the placement gives us a taste of real-world work. My final deliverables are constantly being re-shaped by the work I’m doing in the field. And it’s not like a college essay; there’s no long and detailed prompt telling me exactly what to produce and what the parameters are. I have to work closely with the people at my host organization to make sure that the work I’m doing is exactly what they need, and that it will be valuable to them moving forward. Shaping the form and direction of my own project is simultaneously liberating and terrifying, but I’m constantly reminded of my support system at Innovation Works, Miller Center, and back home. And every bit of progress validates the skills I've gained from my seemingly odd assortment of majors. If I can double major in dance and political science, minor in women's and gender studies, and discover a burning passion for accelerating social entrepreneurship, then who knows what's next. ("Burning passion for social entrepreneurship" sounds incredibly strange when I say it out loud, but who cares—it's true! I love my work!)

On a typical workday in the Innovation Works office, my hours may generally be around 9-5 (usually less than that, occasionally more if there’s an event), but it’s far from the usual office environment. There’s plenty of work to be done and meetings to be had at our home base, particularly in the aftermath of the Boost program, but I’m starting to see just how closely IW is tied directly to community engagement. I’ve gone on several unexpected and spontaneous adventures accompanying Jay, Sally, and Nick, including but not limited to: a meeting at the University of Baltimore discussing a new community mapping tool that’s in the works, a SOCAP 365 event at the Impact Hub, and a pizza-fueled design thinking workshop. Although these events and side-projects might not be directly related to my work surrounding the curriculum of the Miller Center and IW partnership, just getting to talk to so many different people in the city has been valuable. While I’m here, my goal is to learn, observe, absorb, and experience as much as I can that can only be had while I’m in Baltimore.

This is right outside our studio space at OpenWorks--check out the wooden cubicles!

This is right outside our studio space at OpenWorks--check out the wooden cubicles!

I’m even finding myself not so far removed from the arts & social justice scene that I love to be a part of. OpenWorks, the building where IW rents its office space, is an incredible maker space for Baltimore’s creative professionals. Every day in the office, we’re surrounded by entrepreneurs, designers, crafters, inventors, painters, leather workers, sewists, and even drone builders in the cubicles surrounding ours. Just downstairs you can find all the metalworking, woodworking, and sewing equipment that’s been made accessible to OpenWorks members. Some of my personal favorite products that come out of the businesses here include custom-made backpacks for dogs, and real, life-sized versions of swords from the Legend of Zelda! Even the cubicles (“studios”) were crafted right here in the shop, made from repurposed wood panels. It’s certainly a unique and energizing space to work in, even on quieter days.

One of the most inspiring parts of OpenWorks is the collaborative atmosphere and knowledge exchange that takes place here. The shared spaces are key to learning from one another, and makers with adjacent cubicles and similar products sometimes adopt each other’s innovative techniques. OpenWorks offers classes and workshops to the general public in its classroom spaces as well, and I’m determined to take a stab at one of the foundational courses before I leave (Will it be Photoshop? Embroidery? Maybe 3-D printing??).

This is part of a compelling set of pieces on display at Baltimore's Impact Hub.

This is part of a compelling set of pieces on display at Baltimore's Impact Hub.

The Impact Hub is another key spot for creative and entrepreneurial minds to gather in the same space, collaborate, and grow alongside one another. Aside from Boost and the SOCAP event, I've gone there several times just to work in their space for the day, surrounded by beautiful artwork, hardworking entrepreneurs, and even a few familiar faces from other events. Jay dared me to meet a new person every time I spend time there, and let's just say I have a lot of room for growth in the networking department...I'm working on it, I promise! There are Impact Hubs around the world, but this one specifically features the redlining exhibit which catches your eye right when you walk in. The exhibit spans several walls, visualizing not just the history of gentrification and the racial wealth divide in Baltimore, but the way that history continues to manifest in the present day. Everyone in Baltimore has heard of the "white L" and "black butterfly" shaped gentrification, and although the shape itself was new to me, I'd heard about the sharply divided lines. Baltimore is clearly divided racially and economically to this day; and it's gotten progressively worse.

The left image is unemployment data, and the right is demographic.

These images are not from Impact Hub, but you can clearly see the "L" and the "butterfly".

The racial wealth divide is by no means unique to Baltimore. It's been the root of many other problems in the city, and it's persisted after generations of both internal and external efforts towards change, for a host of complex reasons. But there's plenty of bad news (or no news) about Baltimore already, to the point where most people are jaded, and many have simply come to expect no better from their hometown. Innovation Works and everyone they work with are telling a different story. IW is shining a light on all of the aspiring and already-inspiring social entrepreneurs, connecting them to each other so that they can collaborate for greater impact, and walking with them to support their work. Transforming the city sounds impossible, but what happens when you start with just one small plot of an urban farm, one daycare center, or one after school program? What can happen when 28 of them gather in the same room? What happens when they leverage the tools of social entrepreneurship to start expanding the depth of their impact, partnering to meet each other's needs, and inspiring the incubation of even more social entrepreneurs? There's so much work to be done, but there's no doubt that it's happening here, and it's something truly special. (And there's no doubt that Jay and Sally don't seem to need sleep like other people!)

Baltimore's community assets.

What makes IW's work unique is that they're creating a complete pipeline of support for Baltimore's change-makers, starting even before an idea is formed. IW engages with people at five key levels of innovation: Ignite, Ideate, Create, Grow, and Scale. This is huge. No one is turned away who is looking for some kind of support, and each stage is meant to prepare you for the next one when you're ready. Whether you’re just a person with a crazy idea for helping your community, or an experienced social enterprise looking to scale your impact, IW will meet you right where you are and help you get where you need to go. Miller Center’s resources come in mainly at the grow and scale stages, but it’s been valuable to see how IW engages with people even prior to the ideation stage, when they’re just identifying a problem (aka an opportunity) in their neighborhood.

One of IW's four "Ignite Hubs," Fayette Street Outreach, is a key spot for fostering—you guessed it—the Ignite stage of innovation. Before people start sharing ideas, it's important to take a step back and look at what's already available to use as an asset in the community, from churches to black-owned businesses to parks and community centers. We wouldn't want to end up with two competing businesses on the same block, when the real problem at hand doesn't even require starting a business. As a part of the exercise, each group described the daily life of someone of a particular age group from their own community. It quickly felt personal, and the real-life stories that came out of the discussion were both moving and crucial to the way they were able to articulate the problems and opportunities in their neighborhood. In the end, we circled back to how the community assets could play a role in providing solutions.

Naming positive community assets that people are proud of requires a significant mindset shift from typical community association meetings, but that mindset shift is the first key step in working towards grassroots solutions. The FSO members who attended the design thinking workshop were able to take that first step. I'm excited to see where it leads in the future.

Photos are courtesy of Nicholas Mitchel. Check out the video recap he made of the event as well!


About the Author

Avery Rissling is currently a junior at Santa Clara University studying Political Science, Dance, and Women’s and Gender Studies. Her passion for civic engagement, interest in sustainable social impact, and background as a visual and performing artist have inspired her to pursue opportunities in innovation for social justice, whether it be in public policy, business, or the arts. She is a strong believer that the personal is political, and that art has the power to transform communities and bring people together.