Baltimore Urban League: Building Self-Esteem and Community

African-Americans and other minority groups learn the skills necessary to gain economic and professional freedom.

African-Americans and other minority groups learn the skills necessary to gain economic and professional freedom.
Baltimore Urban League

Students and adults alike participate in the many academic and computer courses and programs offered by the Balitmore Urban League.

Credit: Baltimore Urban League

In the mid-1800s, Baltimore's Orchard Street Church was part of Harriet Tubman's famed Underground Railroad, used to transport slaves to freedom. Today, that same church is home to the Baltimore Urban League (BUL), and has become a critical stop on the road to economic freedom for the city's African-Americans and other minority-group members.

Like National Urban League affiliates throughout the country, the Baltimore Urban League is dedicated to promoting, encouraging, and assisting area residents in their efforts to enhance their social and economic condition. The BUL's technology center and services play an integral role in that process.

Here in this state-of-the art computer facility, adults learn how to use a spreadsheet or other business applications, prepare or update their résumés, set up e-mail accounts, explore the Internet, and much more. Area youth receive help with homework, take courses in SAT preparation, and participate in a wide variety of activities designed to enrich and expand on their school day.

Baltimore Urban League

Originally part of the Underground Railroad, built in 1837 by former slaves and recently restored, Orchard Street Church now houses the Baltimore Urban League.

Credit: Baltimore Urban League

Coalitions Are Key

At home and at school, many area youth have only limited access to computers and related technology, says BUL's director of education, Cheryl Hart-Johnson -- a limitation that affects their academic performance, as well as future employment prospects. Her organization is working to alleviate the inequities through its ever-expanding program offerings, as well as its ongoing advocacy work on the local, state, and national levels.

"Among the many services for youth are an after-school computer club and a Saturday Academy, which offers a rich complement of math and science programs -- all designed to improve academic performance and foster personal growth among participating students," says Hart-Johnson.

"We're building self-esteem and building community while we're emphasizing the importance of math and science skills," emphasizes BUL President Roger Lyons as he talks about the recently established Saturday Academy. In just three short months, the program has grown from fifteen to seventy-five elementary, middle, and high school students. The success is due in no small part to the coalition of groups -- including NASA employees, Maryland MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement), and members of the Algebra Project, a national effort aimed at preparing all students to take college preparatory math courses -- working together to design and operate the academy.

Bringing Communities Together

The Saturday Academy is just one example of the Baltimore Urban League's coalition-building efforts. The League's technology center is part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Neighborhood Network, and is managed in part by residents of the two neighboring communities: McCulloh Homes and Orchard Mews.

"We're using technology to build bridges between two communities that rarely spoke to one another," explains Lyons, who says the participation of area residents has created a new sense of ownership and buy-in.

In serving as a resource for the entire community, the Baltimore Urban League has offered classes to help prepare area teachers for using computers and the Internet in their classrooms, and has worked closely with the City of Baltimore in designing BUL's many programs and services.

The organization has also taken a keen interest in servicing the needs of special education students and their families, a community that is often forgotten by policy and decision makers, says Hart-Johnson. "We're trying to create a dialogue, to help parents feel empowered to ask the right questions about the education their children are receiving," she explains. This fall, BUL offered a computer workshop for students with special needs and their parents, highlighting assistive technology and introducing parents to the many resources available to them on the Internet.

Whether it's planning an evening program for parents or designing a new component for the Saturday Academy, each of BUL's initiatives is built upon community partnerships.

"Everyone brings something to the table," says Lyons. "Without the coalition effort, we would not be where we are today."

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

This article originally published on 5/1/2000

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