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Baltimore-based Scholar Returns to Amplify Her Hometown

April Yvonne Garrett Founder & President Civic Frame - Arianne Teeple
April Yvonne Garrett Founder & President Civic Frame - Arianne Teeple
April Yvonne Garrett doesn't need caffeine. She told me as much when we sat down to meet at Spoons in Federal Hill on a rainy Tuesday morning in November. I had finished my coffee and asked if she wanted some. Garrett said she didn't need it.

After a few minutes of hearing Garrett power through her story and her uncompromising approach to attacking social ills in Baltimore, I realized how right she was.

Garrett is the force behind Amplify Baltimore, a new project designed to bring together the people in Baltimore who have the knowledge, power, and resources to fix the city's problems. Recently named one of Maryland's Leading Women by the Maryland Daily Record, Garrett is the founder of Civic Frame, a non-profit organization with the goal of raising awareness of social issues and pushing people to get smart and active about the problems facing their communities.  

Garrett was born on Puget Street in Westport, and grew up in Northeast Baltimore with an older sister and a single mother who knew her precocious daughter was going to do big things, no matter the obstacles.

"I was in second grade (at Walter P. Carter elementary), and my mother was at school for parent-teacher conferences right before summer break," Garrett said. "My teacher told my mother she thought I was slow."

That summer, Garrett's mother made her read everything -- every book, road sign, every grocery item on her mother's list. The next school year, Garrett made the gifted and talented program.  

"I don't remember low expectations," Garrett said. "I don't remember anything like 'you're not going to do well because you don't have a dad in the house,' I just remember go and go hard."

Garrett listened. At age 12 she begged her way onto Del. Curt Anderson's campaign staff in 1982 when he shared the ticket with Julian Lapides. She handed out bumper stickers and lawn signs while other kids played away their summer vacations.  

"It was an interracial campaign in the early 80's, and it was a big deal for me to see that," Garrett said. "I don't think I realized until later how critical it was for my introduction to Baltimore politics to be interracial."

Garrett is a proud product of City College, where she managed the lacrosse team and was involved with the drama department, the student government, and the debate team. Somehow she made time to participate in the usher board and the choir, and found the NAACP chapter, at her church, Pleasant Hope Baptist, before her senior year.

"It was a great experience being at City, knowing I was a part of a larger tapestry with amazing people with great histories and stories," Garrett said. "In this process I had so many benevolent hands on me. The young people I'm working with now are longing for adults who care for them, who have their best interests at heart."

Garrett went away to school at Kenyon College in Ohio. By the time her sophomore year ended, she was reading the New York Times every morning, photocopying articles and taping them to her door. She became involved in political issues, and plugged herself into the campus scene.

She continued her activism at Columbia University in New York, where she spent a year earning her Master's in Higher and Adult Education, and at Harvard Divinity School where she studied African-American religious history. After running her academic gauntlet and living in several different places, Garrett felt the pull of her hometown.    

"There was this moment after I graduated from Harvard, it was a kind of spiritual move. I called my best friend Dimitris Spiliadis and said I'm moving back to Baltimore, you need to help me find an apartment," Garrett said. "It was the first time in my life I didn't have a road map. It was just like 'you need to go home.'"

The academic and work trajectory had taken Garrett away from her community of origin in a way that she wasn't comfortable with.  

"Some people make a choice of 'OK I'm in a different economic class. I go back and pay my family tithes by coming back and doing the holidays," Garrett said. "I was just not comfortable with that."

Garrett came home and started the non-profit Civic Frame, in part to create new ways of solving old problems. The organization has grown dramatically, but not before overcoming some limited thinking in the city's philanthropic community.  

"We sat down with organizations. They all said, 'lovely story,' but that's about it. I think there's a certain amount of pathology or exceptionalism people want to tap into. It can't be in between. It's either the exceptionalism of the poor black girl from Westport who went to Harvard, or its what is your sad story? I'm not really comfortable with either one."

Undeterred, Garrett hosted events with no funding. She brought together community thought leaders and attacked issues like the working poor, mental health, and offenders re-entering society in a fact-based way -- defining the problem and its causes, and how everyone can be a part of solving it.

Eventually, Garrett wanted to expand the circle. She leveraged her formidable Rolodex and organized an event this past November the Amplify Baltimore launch party, the first in a series of conversations to put issues of civic reform in the spotlight, with the city's most powerful players all watching.

"It was really about, how do we get these people in a room and get them to see that they're all interconnected and that we can move things forward," Garrett said.  "That what happens in East Baltimore and what happens in Roland Park has an impact on the whole city."

Garrett wants Amplify attendees to connect with the people on the ground in the city's government offices and non-profit organizations, so that they feel invested in progress and it's harder for leaders to ignore community ills. No matter what's next, Garrett isn't budging.

"Disappointing things happen and people want to run off.  No matter where you go, that's where you are, period. I'm here."

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Photos of April Yvonne Garrett, Founder & President of Civic Frame, by Arianne Teeple

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