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Creating face shields and systems change from the ground up in Baltimore
4 May 2020 - Irene Bantigue

SOCAP365’s Radical Collaboration series elevates stories of partners coming together in unconventional ways to solve for critical issues and drive impact. This series will highlight examples that inspire and offer insights, tools, and ideas where market-based solutions are busting open silos and working across sectors in new ways. Irene Bantigue, Events & Communications Manager at Impact Hub Baltimore, shares key learnings and updates from the series’ opening conversation centered on response efforts in Baltimore, Maryland.

How can we come together and reimagine our work in response to an unprecedented global pandemic and rapidly evolving economic landscape? 

For better or worse, the pandemic has highlighted exactly why connecting visionary leaders working across multiple sectors, issues, and geographies to one another is critical for building stronger communities. Part One of the Radical Collaboration series explores this need in the context of the rapid response unfolding in Baltimore.

More than 80 virtual attendees learned how a collaborative consisting of Impact Hub Baltimore, Open Works, Innovation Works, SewLab USA, Made In Baltimore, Baltimore Creatives Accelerator Network, and the Baltimore Small Business Support Fund are working together to address national demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) at the local level. The conversation also highlighted what gaps remain unfilled, the role that creatives and philanthropists can play, as well as how communities elsewhere can lay the groundwork for collaboration beyond the global community’s present challenges. 

A shared vision for a more just and equitable economy in Baltimore that includes makers, creatives, and social entrepreneurs who are stepping up right now to respond

This particular group are not exactly strangers to one another. “[We’ve] been in collaboration in many cases for over five years,” says Michelle Geiss, Executive Director of Impact Hub Baltimore, a coworking space and community for social entrepreneurs. Michelle adds that as Impact Hub began scaling back its own operations, the group’s combined networks enabled deeper insights into the ways in which many small businesses and organizations across the city have been impacted by COVID-19. She also prefaces that the group’s rapid response is largely rooted in the deep sense of trust and mutual values that each organization brings—”a shared vision for a more just and equitable economy in Baltimore that includes makers, creatives, and social entrepreneurs who are stepping up right now to respond.”

Open Works and SewLab USA are among the makers charging PPE efforts in Baltimore. 

Open Works, a nonprofit maker space providing membership and programming, saw an opportunity to address the local PPE shortage by repurposing its dozen 3D printers to create face shields; but they knew that they would need more help.They were met with an overwhelming response after posting a call online for makers to get involved. “We received parts from over 200 homes, libraries, schools, and military bases across Maryland,” shares Will Holman, Executive Director of Open Works.

SewLab USA, a Baltimore-based manufacturing company, is similarly addressing the PPE demand by creating face masks which accompany the face shields that Open Works produces. SewLab USA’s Co-Owner, Jeremiah Jones, noted that the company began production with material already available. At the time of the call, Jeremiah shared that the vision for the next phase would include an increase in their production capacity, as well as a more optimal mask design. 

We’re seeing that community-building and trusted relationships are more crucial than ever as this rapid response needs to happen

Critical to Open Works and SewLab USA’s ability to focus on manufacturing efforts are organizations like Innovation Works and Made In Baltimore. During normal times, Innovation Works teams with social entrepreneurs to support the sustainability of neighborhood economies. The team now finds themselves managing Open Works’ business function, interfacing with nonprofits and hospitals seeking PPE for frontline workers. Made In Baltimore, a branding program for locally-made products, has also seen its role as a support system for local makers and businesses heighten in the past weeks. “We’re seeing that community-building and trusted relationships are more crucial than ever as this rapid response needs to happen,” says Andy Cook, Made In Baltimore’s Campaign Director.

There’s a beautiful story coming out of Baltimore for what it means for folks to rally together

The delegation of coordination efforts to organizations like Innovation Works and Made in Baltimore have enabled makers across the city to rapidly reimagine their work with less administrative burden. “I think there’s a beautiful story coming out of Baltimore for what it means for folks to rally together and support folks like SewLab and Open Works,” says Jay Nwachu, Innovation Works’ President & Chief Innovation Officer. But Jay also presents another critical thought: “How can we make this [response] a permanent versus a crisis thing?”

To that end, creative entrepreneurs and philanthropic groups are critical voices in developing sustainable solutions. Maggie Villegas is the Executive Director of the Baltimore Creatives Accelerator Network, which provides business support to creatives across the city of all disciplines and backgrounds. Maggie emphasizes the importance of having multiple players to fill gaps strategically and intentionally, sharing that “we need all the community assets to come together and solve these crises.” This sentiment was echoed in Erika Davies’ response when asked about the role of philanthropy in ensuring organizations can respond as rapidly in the future. 

We need all the community assets to come together and solve these crises

Erika leads the roll-out of the Baltimore Small Business Support Fund—a collaborative fund and technical assistance cohort convened by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. She shares that philanthropy’s role right now is to ensure that groups have the stability necessary to serve their communities. This means activating funding mechanisms to provide operational support as needed. Yet perhaps what is more important is how foundations can take action on the gaps that remain unfilled. “Who’s supporting the barbers and restaurants in East Baltimore? How do we reach black communities? It’s important to keep challenges at the center of conversations so things don’t get lost,” Erika shares.

What began as a collaborative effort among a small group of longtime partners has since grown to include the local government, more maker businesses, grassroots organizations, and city agencies across Baltimore. This group’s shared ability to tap into existing relationships and have trusted conversations has served as an important catalyst for the city’s response. As critical intermediaries between the city’s businesses and institutions, they advocate for additional bandwidth support on the people’s behalf. The city can then absorb this feedback to intentionally build out the infrastructure needed for leaders to continue relief efforts and support their communities. 

Ongoing support subsequently enabled Open Works to hit its goal of producing 10,000 face shields in just under a month since their initial call-to-action. Innovation Works continues to rapidly coordinate PPE needs across the city, with 900 masks being delivered to frontline workers as recently as last week.

The Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts established its Artist Emergency Relief Fund, with panelists Andy, Michelle, and Maggie, as well as Impact Hub’s Marketing & Outreach Manager Alanah Nichole Davis among its collaborators. SewLab USA became one of nine Baltimore-based businesses to receive grants from the PPE Manufacturing Fund, a $50K pilot program established by the city and the Baltimore Development Corporation. The second iteration has since increased its investment tenfold, with the city dedicating $100K for additional grants to PPE efforts and $400K for procurement—all of which has quickly developed within weeks of SOCAP’s initial conversation. 

Start where you can

There is undoubtedly great work taking place in Baltimore right now as the city’s leaders are grappling with a new standard: action or inaction. The crisis can serve as fertile soil to plant new infrastructure. We have an opportunity to build stronger and better systems as leaders and organizations engage more black and brown businesses to ensure the city’s response is equitable and accessible.

When asked, “How can you work together when your community is not as connected?”, the group’s response was clear and simple: “start where you can.”

It is about making what you can with what you have and who you already work with. Acknowledging where opportunities exist and where connections between grassroots leaders and individuals with more privilege can be made. The “right” solution is challenging to achieve during a time of deep uncertainty, but the case of Baltimore demonstrates that when many leaders with diverse backgrounds and resources come together, we can certainly get close.

Catch up on the full conversation here.