Five years ago I was the last man standing at the bar one night, and so Rich selected me to be the next Executive Director of The 6th Branch. I wasn’t sure that I was the right person for the job, but anyone who knows Rich will agree that he has an incredible gift for making people believe in themselves and that they can achieve literally anything. So (obviously), I accepted. I’ve given The 6th Branch everything I’ve had, and led us to the best of my abilities. And it’s been a busy five years. We’ve worked hard, achieved some real progress, created meaningful relationships, and won the trust and respect of those who matter most. Our organization has taken some big strides recently, but whenever I look back on the last five years, two very early memories stand out the most. I’ll share those reflections here, as well as an invitation to join The 6th Branch and send our organization securely into its next exciting chapter by becoming a recurring donor.
As a team leader at one of our very first volunteer events in Oliver, I was provided about 20 volunteers and a vacant lot that had been neglected for some time and told simply to “fix it.” My volunteers and I attacked the space with what have become the weapons of choice for us at The 6th Branch: shovels and rakes, weed-whackers and handsaws, and a shit-load of trash bags. We had been at it for about two hours when I noticed an older man, clearly a neighbor and clearly unhappy about something, who had approached a few volunteers and begun gesturing at our activities with both hands. As I walked over I remember noting that my heart rate had increased and I had assumed a defensive posture – silly, but this was perhaps only our second volunteer event and Oliver may as well have been Mogadishu for all I knew about it. I soon realized that the gentleman wasn’t gesturing to any volunteer in particular, but to a stand of trees next to the alley that formed sort of an alcove that was rather difficult to see into or out of. He was demonstrating that, due to this lack of visibility, the space was a regular hangout for drug dealers and users and prostitutes and their customers, and hosted many other activities that nobody wants in their backyard. As unacceptable as that would be in any neighborhood, this particular lot was adjacent to a playground where preschoolers play every afternoon. With that in mind our team went to work trimming, chopping, and cutting, until what was left was a fairly nice looking stand of trees through which one could see in every direction. The gentleman was pleased and so were we to have changed the dynamic within that space, if only for a short period of time. The space wasn’t any more than 100 square feet in a neighborhood that covers well over 100 acres in a city of ~230 neighborhoods, but the process was definitive: a neighbor presented us with a problem and together we solved it. Five years later, we’ve built our organization into a light community development operation focusing on the rapid, semi-permanent transformation of neglected open spaces – led by veterans, powered by volunteers, and guided by our neighbors.
Another memory that stands out from the rest is of a long conversation I had one evening, years ago, with another neighbor from Oliver. We were standing on the corner of Bond and Hoffman, just across from where we would soon build the Oliver Community Farm. As most conversations did back then, it began with him asking me what my white butt was doing there, and my pre-packaged introduction to The 6th Branch in reply. He responded by describing to me a general weariness felt by most long-tenured community members – there was a certain trend that had been occurring in Oliver for years, whereby a nonprofit or otherwise well-intentioned group would assert themselves, preaching hope and change, but then pack up and leave at the first sign of adversity, their empty promises left blowing in the wind. I agreed with him that this did indeed seem counterproductive, but that (and the whiskey drinks I had been working on) only served to embolden me. “We’re military veterans,” I thought, “we’ve seen adversity before. That’s the whole point.” Before I could catch myself I said to the man: “Well, we’re different and we’re not going anywhere,” and then to myself: “well, shit. Now we’re committed.” I vowed to myself then that The 6th Branch would never be one of those organizations that he described, and I’ve come back to that conversation a number of times over the years. It has served as a sort of mental tether for me whenever I’ve felt that The 6th Branch may be in danger of drifting away from Oliver, which has happened a time or two. Adversity abounds in Oliver, and it truly is a difficult place in which to try to do good work. It’s hard to develop trusting relationships with folks whose community has been treated as a test-bed for every civic and social program you can think of. But here we remain, with two feet set firmly in the Oliver community with no intention of evacuating. Sure, we’ve expanded our scope to neighboring communities and we’ve grown and developed and learned and even celebrated a few times, but I am very proud of the fact that we have kept our promise to devote our organization to contributing in a meaningful way to the neighborhood revitalization of East Baltimore. In fact, I believe that we’ve doubled down on that promise, by increasing our capacity and injecting our organization with a measure of internal stability to make sure that we are prepared to carry on with our work for years to come. The challenges facing Oliver and her neighbors are vast, complex, and deeply rooted. Sometimes they are simply overwhelming. So, our foundation must be equally strong and our effort must be equally as comprehensive and robust if the tide of decades upon decades of decline are to be mitigated and reversed.
At the very heart of our work is the incredible efforts of thousands of volunteers who continue to trek to East Baltimore to grab a shovel and dig in alongside us. Without a doubt our endeavors would be dead in the water without your devotion to our beloved communities. Without you, the Bethel Street Playscape and the Oliver Community Farm would simply not exist, and Ambrose Kennedy Park would still be a disaster area. Without you, the Re-Build Johnston Square Neighborhood Organization and our dear neighbors in Darley Park might still be alone in their efforts to reclaim their communities. There’s no other way to say it: without you there would be no T6B. I offer my most heartfelt thanks to all of you who have given so generously of your hearts and minds over the past five years; you have helped build something truly special.
Our progress might be diminished, however, if we fail to capitalize on all of this positive energy. For our efforts to continue to bear fruit and be truly meaningful, we have to dig even deeper to permanently root The 6th Branch into the Baltimore community landscape for years to come. When I took the reigns from Rich five years ago, he hopped on his bike and pedaled all the way to Washington State, raising $6,000 for The 6th Branch along the way. I’m not going to do that, because I learned a long time ago that there is only one Rich Moore, and I couldn’t fill his shoes if I tried. This philosophy has served me fairly well over the years as the Executive Director of The 6th Branch, and so I apply it to my departure as well. Though I won’t be pedaling off into the sunset, I would like to use the occasion of my departure to issue a challenge to each and every member of our incredible family of supporters: Join The 6th Branch.
We are launching a new campaign this year – nothing new there, but this one will be slightly different from the fundraisers that you’re used to seeing from us. The goal for this particular campaign is to register as many supporters as we can to donate on a recurring, monthly basis to our organization. Your support in this new endeavor will serve our organization in three ways: 1) Funding – plain and simple. Despite our growth we are still a start-up nonprofit and we rely on the generosity of others to sustain our efforts. 2) Budgeting – a monthly commitment of just five or ten dollars will help us forecast and plan our expenses and look further into our future than ever before. 3) Leverage – being able to display a broad base of individual supporters will help us demonstrate how much support exists for our work and just how expansive The 6th Branch family really is. In this manner we can and will leverage your support into stronger commitments from the larger philanthropic community. So again, I invite you to join The 6th Branch by adding your name to the incredible foundation that will anchor our efforts in East Baltimore for years to come. Every dollar truly does count, and when we can see it coming every month, it counts double, perhaps even triple.
Standing on the corner of Bond and Hoffman five years ago I promised that gentleman that change was coming and The 6th Branch was here to stay. Please help me keep that promise by registering your support with a monthly donation. Our organization is small, but with you on our team we are mighty. And though we understand that our effort is just one piece of the great East Baltimore puzzle, our accomplishments are true, and there is so much work left to do. Thanks.