How Dirt Bikes and Flower Gardens are Helping Rebuild Baltimore
Innovators are taking back their city with social programs that employ ex-offenders and encourage STEM education.
Image via Facebook
When you hear the word Baltimore, what's the first thing that pops into your head? If it's fields of flowers growing where vacant lots used to be, or kids taking apart dirt bike engines to re-imagine their future with a STEM career, you're right up to speed. Even as the national news reports on the very real failings of Baltimore, social innovators and grassroots activists are looking to repaint the images you may have in your head about "Charm City".
When the Amaphiko Academy -- Red Bull's forum to help social entrepreneurs create change -- landed its first U.S.-based 10-day immersion in Baltimore last August, it brought together many of the city's brightest young entrepreneurs for collaboration, inspiration, and innovation.
"It changed my outlook on everything," said Walker Marsh, founder of Tha Flower Factory, a business devoted to beautifying the vacant stretches of Baltimore while mentoring teenagers with criminal records in urban farming and gardening, through a youth employment program facilitated by Common Ground Youth Farming.
"My whole goal was to create spaces of beauty and change the landscape of unused empty lots."
Where Marsh started out thinking that Tha Flower Factory was specific to Baltimore, he realized by talking to people from all over the world that the need for meaningful employment opportunities is a global imperative.
"The Amaphiko Academy gave me a worldly perspective on how I wanted to do my business," he said.
He also started thinking hard about what Tha Flower Factory stood for. Where it started out as a cut flower farm selling bouquets, Marsh wanted it to be more sustainable and symbolic of lasting change.
"My whole goal was to create spaces of beauty and change the landscape of unused empty lots," he said. "I want growth to be synonymous with Tha Flower Factory. How can I speak of growth if I'm selling you something that's going to die in a few days?"
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So he is shifting his business model to a seed farm, and he plans to sell the seeds along with a journal, so people can watch their seeds grow and document the process. He sees the growth of a seed into a flower as a metaphor for the kids he works with, 90 percent of whom have been in the criminal system.
"It's about youth employment and reaching underserved teenagers," said Marsh. "Putting their hands in dirt, and watching a plant grow, I see pride in their eyes. That ownership that they created something."
Brittany Young, founder of B-360, felt like attending the Amaphiko Academy was a time warp – ten days out of real life to set big goals and find big inspiration.
"We received so much knowledge and met so many people," said Young, "and learned how to maintain our wellbeing for ourselves and our organization."
B-360 is an organization that looks to channel the energy of a population that's significant in Baltimore and other cities around the U.S., a population that often ends up in the prison system but, Young argues, could just as easily end up as engineers.
"Dirt bike riders are a part of black culture in Baltimore," said Young. "Summer in Baltimore is dirt bikes."
She saw the positive relationships watching older riders teach younger kids to ride, and also the mechanical thinking required to fix engines, and she saw opportunities. She also saw how important it was for people as a stress-reliever.
"The way people relieve stress in Baltimore is they ride dirt bikes," said Young.
But unfortunately, the law saw crime, and a path into the prison pipeline.
"I thought there was a better way to work with the city, to work with the riders, and to work with the community," she said. "If you train a child that if they ride dirt bikes they'll be criminals, they become criminals. But if you train them that it leads to stem careers, it does."
People are starting to listen. Young has connected with local councilmen and the police commissioner, and they are willing to talk. Laws still need to change, and spaces need to be designated if riders are going to be able to pursue their passion legally. But in the meantime, B-360 has taught 1,400 kids about the connection between dirt biking and STEM education.
"You see a lot that's been vacant for years, and there's a feeling of hopelessness, like nothing else can happen. I correlate these empty lots to these kids – they commit a crime and go to jail and become career criminals and they think nothing can be done. But we step in and change that."
"In Baltimore we have 122,000 stem careers where you don't need a four year degree," said Young. "We are teaching kids about how dirt bikes can prepare them for a STEM career. In the summer we took kids outside the city to ride, and we had classes on engineering and design, how to ride safely, and focusing on mechanics and electronics."
For both of these entrepreneurs, it's about opportunity and hope. At Tha Flower Factory, the visual that the work presents says it all.
"You see a lot that's been vacant for years," said Marsh. "And there's a feeling of hopelessness, like nothing else can happen. I correlate these empty lots to these kids – they commit a crime and go to jail and become career criminals and they think nothing can be done. But we step in and change that."
He said that many of the teenagers he mentors feel they're finally able to be soft when they're working with flowers. They're finally able to be kids.
"When they first start, they don't want to talk, or express themselves," said Marsh, "but as time goes by, they open up more and more. They see aspects of themselves they didn't think they had."