Seeking a Better World

From left: Brian Smith, Dana Stein, Harry Kuttner, Aniyah Taylor and Travis Tooks work on a lot at Washington and Gay streets.

On a clear day, the view from the top of Clifton Mansion’s 80-foot Italianate tower affords a 360-degree view of Baltimore, across the green and lush Clifton Park and beyond, to the city skyline. An even closer look would reveal the many blocks and neighborhoods where Civic Works, the nonprofit that occupies the restored historic mansion, has made a difference for the past 25 years.

One such area is just a few blocks away, where the organization’s Community Lot Team is busy on a recent fall afternoon tidying up beds of sunflowers and other plants in a triangle of green that was once a brown and abandoned parcel. It’s just one of 240 vacant lots that Civic Works’ teams of AmeriCorps members have transformed since the organization’s founding by Dana Stein and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 1993.

Brian Smith started working with Civic Works when he was still in high school at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. Now 21, he recently signed up for a year with the Community Lot program.

“Because of the opportunities, there’s a lot of benefits from it as well as giving back to the city,” said Smith, who plans to continue his studies at Morgan State University. “That pretty much motivated me to want to stay longer and see more done for the city, as far as building up our community for the future.”

Civic Works provides a number of services through its dozen programs, including AmeriCorps opportunities, such as job training, skills development and environmental education, urban farming, senior services and volunteer opportunities.

Travis Tooks, 23, started his Civic Works service with the Cities for All Ages program, which helps Baltimore residents over 65 with safety upgrades and repairs, fall-prevention education and referrals to supportive services. He also signed up recently for a year on the Community Lot team and is considering a career in landscaping or construction.

“I like being outdoors, and what I’m trying to do is get more in touch with my community and the landscaping part,” Tooks said. “There’s a garden in my backyard that I want to do something with for my mom, so I know dealing with this is going to help me with that.”

“We and the neighborhood and the city together procure funding, we help construct the spaces and we help the community transition into maintenance. And we continue to support the communities until they can handle it on their own.” — Community Lot Team supervisor Harry Kuttner

An interest in oceanography and a deep concern for the environment was sparked when Aniyah Taylor, 19, watched a documentary about the ocean. She is studying biology at Coppin State University, but took a break to work at Civic Works and earn some money toward her next semester’s tuition and to help her community.

“I realized that I actually wanted to make a difference and I can’t make a difference without my education,” she said. “When we have volunteer groups and the community comes out to help us, that’s my favorite. I know it takes small steps to fix the environment, so the little stuff matters. I can say that I had input in trying to rebuild my community and there’s nothing better than that.”

These are exactly the kinds of stories that Stein, executive director of Civic Works, loves to hear, because it’s exactly why he started the organization in the first place: to help people build better lives while helping build better communities and a better city.

The spark of an idea

A recent gala held at Baltimore Center Stage to celebrate Civic Work’s quarter century included a one-man show by public radio personality Ira Glass. Townsend and Glass, like many of the speakers — including U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. John Sarbanes — said the country needs more organizations like Civic Works that bring people together.

“What we need is people like Dana Stein and each of you to say, ‘We can work together and we can help one another and we can have a different type of country,’” Townsend said. “What Dana has done and what all of you have done is to say what we can do to be kind to one another, to work for our country and to love one another.”

Back in 1990, Stein, then a corporate lawyer in Washington, D.C., read a New York Times article about a youth service program in Boston.

“Like a number of young lawyers, I was working at a big practice, working pretty hard, not thinking that I was making a big difference in the world. So I started thinking about other things to do,” he said. “I just happened to read an article about this Boston-based youth corps, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is a really neat idea,’ engaging young adults in meaningful service projects.”

“I can say that I had input in trying to rebuild my community and there’s nothing better than that.” — AmeriCorps member Aniyah Taylor. 

Stein, who grew up in a politically active household and started a recycling program as a student at Milford Mill High School, had always been interested in the history of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and its Civilian Conservation Corps public works relief program, which offered work and training to millions of unemployed young men during the Great Depression. Stein wondered if the city had a similar program.

“Turned out, it didn’t,” Stein remembered. “But what really improved the chances of setting something up was when I talked with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. And she said, ‘Sure, sounds like a great idea.’”

Townsend was working at the Maryland State Department of Education on a student service learning project, which eventually became the requirement for community service hours in public schools. Townsend secured the funding for Stein’s Baltimore-based service corps idea so he could begin working part-time out of MSDE’s downtown offices. Townsend has supported the organization ever since, although she is not on staff. Stein continued working part-time as a lawyer, and in 1992 moved back to Baltimore.

When things started to take off, Stein went looking for a building.

Building the foundation

In January 1993, the newly formed Civic Works moved into the neglected Clifton Mansion that had been the home to city offices and eventually the clubhouse for the adjacent golf course.

Over the ensuing decades, Civic Works grew from just a half-dozen staff members to a staff of 100 and from one service program and a handful of AmeriCorps members to a corps of 250 and 120 job trainees, with more than 3,000 volunteers engaged each year in an array of programs. On the grounds of Clifton Park, Civic Works also operates a 500-student high school called the REACH! Partnership School, a public high school that prepares students for college and careers in health care and construction.

While all this work goes on, Stein, Civic Works and the Friends of Clifton Mansion continue to transform the historic structure.

“What Dana has done and what all of you have done is to say what we can do to be kind to one another, to work for our country and to love one another.”— Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

When Stein first got a look at the mansion in 1992, he was taken aback by its condition. Built in 1802 by merchant Henry Thompson, the mansion was redesigned as an Italian-style villa by Johns Hopkins and was purchased by the city in 1895. Over the next hundred years, it would be used and abused with layers of paint covering up original wall decorations and murals, while drop ceilings hid intricate wood-carved and plaster ceiling adornments. In the tower and within the ceilings, pigeons roosted and nested, leaving behind decades of waste.

“It’s nice to get it renovated. Back then, in my office, it had a drop ceiling and the pigeons were able to get in through the side of the building. I could hear them hopping around in my ceiling,” Stein said with a wry smile. “And one day one just plopped through the ceiling tile onto my desk while we’re sitting there. And we shooed it away. It’s much better now.”

The mansion was renovated using foundation and private funds and tax credits; now, it’s in the final stages of historic restoration — a work in progress not unlike the organization it houses.

Numbers tell the story of Civic Works’ first 25 years, with more than 56,000 students tutored and mentored, close to 600 individuals placed in green careers, more than 181,000 pounds of food grown and distributed from its Real Food Farm, 240 vacant lots transformed and about 17,500 homes made more energy efficient. About 2,600 older adults have received safety upgrades and services. More than 5,100 AmeriCorps members have served with the organization and more than 47,000 volunteers have engaged in projects.

The man behind the curtain

Dana Stein is executive director of Civic Works.

Since walking away from his legal career to found Civic Works, Stein has kept engaged with the legal system as a Maryland State Delegate for District 11, where he lives in Stevenson with his wife, Margaret, and their three children. They are members of Temple Oheb Shalom.

Growing up in Milford Mill, Stein had an early interest in government and the environment. He participated in the first Earth Day and established a recycling center while at Milford Mill High School, which would eventually help lead to countywide curbside pickup. After high school, Stein got his bachelor’s degree in government at Harvard University before attaining his joint degree in law and public affairs in 1985 at Princeton and Columbia universities.

His first stab at running for office was for county council in 1994 against Kevin Kamenetz, who beat him and went on to the county executive seat. He was appointed to the District 11 delegate seat for a partial term and won the seat in 2006 when then-Del. Bobby Zirkin ran for and won the 11th District Senate seat.

Zirkin, 47, credits his first foray in politics to Stein — as Stein’s county council race campaign manager. “We lost. But we ran a hell of a race,” Zirkin remembered. “Four years later, he helped me run for the House of Delegates.”

After being General Assembly colleagues and friends for more than two decades, Zirkin is unabashed in his praise for Stein.

“If you had to construct a representative that you’d be proud of, he would be the model for it,” Zirkin said. “He’s so good on so many levels, and he’s calm and he works hard. He is so respected in Annapolis and admired and for good reason. He just wants to get it right, he’s not at all partisan and he just cares about helping people. He’s really a rare breed of public servant and friend.”

This American Life host Ira Glass has been friends with Stein since they wound up in AP chemistry class together at Milford Mill High School. Even then, Glass said, Stein was serious and dedicated. But the two had their share of fun, Stein recalled, including kidnapping their chemistry teacher’s “pet rock.”

Glass has returned often for Civic Works fundraisers and wanted to be there when the organization marked its quarter century.

“I just feel like he’s done something really incredible,” Glass said. “To make an organization that’s served so many people and helped so many people, changed their lives. To have that kind of impact on hundreds and hundreds of people over the course of 25 years, it’s a remarkable thing.”

Civic Works and Clifton Park are part of Del. Talmadge Branch’s 45th District. As Stein’s colleague in the General Assembly, Branch said he has seen him grow and mature as a delegate.

“I’ve watched him over the years with Civic Works. I’ve watched the many people that he’s put to work. I’ve watched the people that they’ve employed and even those who just volunteer,” Branch said. “In the legislature, I got an opportunity to watch him come up through the ranks and become a great leader there. He’s a good person, somebody I admire.”

Last year, Branch’s 22-year-old grandson Tyrone Ray was shot and killed in Baltimore, which prompted Stein to reach out to Branch and his family and have a memorial constructed in Clifton Park to honor Ray.

“We planted three magnolia trees as a family, in his memory and spirit, and one year later we put the bench in and now it’s all complete. It’s in an excellent spot for solitude,” Branch said.

At Christian Temple in Catonsville, the Rev. Rick Powell and his wife, Jayna, a Civic Works board member, have been organizing volunteer groups for Civic Works projects for decades.

“I have been a part of Civic Works for all of its 25 years,” Rev. Powell said. “We’re very involved in community service. We’re right on the edge of the city. We continue to send groups to volunteer there, and we go to all their things and we’re friends with Dana. We love everything about it.”

Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer was at the gala “to support the great work of Civic Works and celebrate the occasion of my good friend Dana Stein and his 25 years of service,” he said. “Our districts border each other, so anytime there’s something going on in my district, it could also be affecting their district. We collaborate a lot on various community initiatives as well as things that affect the region as a whole.”

Civic Works Special Projects Director John Ciekot oversees the Community Lot program. He is also heading up the transformation of a firehouse into a construction skills-training center and manages the renovation of Clifton Mansion. He has known Stein since they volunteered together at the recycling center, and was one of Civic Works’ earliest staffers.

“I wanted to apply my knowledge of getting things done in construction and landscaping fieldwork in environmentally responsible ways to some mechanism to move our society forward,” Ciekot said. “Especially for people who might learn by doing rather than through schooling.”

He is proud of the results that Civic Works has achieved, especially at its Real Food Farm. The organization’s impact on Baltimoreans is what has kept him there for 25 years.

“Civic Works developed the first multi-acre farm in our city that is still in production and educating a new generation of farmers and informed food consumers,” Ciekot said. “As Dana invented it, Civic Works was a novel way, in Baltimore, of working and learning. As we evolved, we continued to create new ways of doing a wide range of good things through the minds and hands of our city’s young adults. That experience of creating new ways to enhance someone’s experience, while repairing the world or bringing new things to life, is entrancing.”

For Stein, 60, all the many parts of his work and life seem to dovetail under the same mission that Ciekot mentioned — creating new ways to enhance people’s experience while repairing the world.

“The general concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world, as well as the Jewish precepts about preserving the earth from one generation to the next, those are certainly part of the motivation for the work,” Stein said. Many synagogues and Jewish organizations, such as Jewish Volunteer Connection and Repair the World, send volunteers to Civic Works’ programs.

Looking ahead, Stein hopes to expand many of Civic Works’ initiatives, including tiny house and tiny office construction, its Cities for All Ages elder services and the continuing restoration of the mansion.

“We all want to feel like we’re trying to make a better world. So this is my way of doing that,” Stein said. “And we have a few graduates who have set up their own farms. That is very gratifying, when people are successful in their careers and come back and partner with us.”

“There are lots of challenges, there are lots of needs. But I do feel like every day we’re making a difference,” he added. “It’s a great feeling to come to work with people who feel the same way, who have that same sense of idealism and try to show that despite the rampant cynicism of our times, that optimism and idealism can prevail, especially through our work with young people.

“We all need to pull together and try to change the world for the better. As Tennyson said, ‘It’s not too late to seek a better world.’”

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