Twelve community organizers and leaders shared their stories of inspiration, encouragement and commitment as they were celebrated as The Baltimore Banner’s inaugural class of Emerging Leaders on Wednesday night.
The event was designed to shine a light on the next generation of community leaders under the age of 40, who are making an impact in Baltimore and beyond. The group was honored at The Center Club in downtown Baltimore.
A selection committee chose the final group of honorees from nominations submitted by the community.
Learn more about the work each honoree is doing in the community below.
Van Brooks, founder, Safe Alternative Foundation for Education, Inc.
Van Brooks is the founder of Safe Alternative Foundation for Education, Inc., a program that aims to close gaps in education and training for young people ages 11-24.
Brooks runs the program in his West Baltimore community. He began his work at SAFE in 2012, eight years after the direction of his own life was changed in an instant.
At 16, Brooks was a three-sport athlete who suffered a spinal cord injury during a football game. The injury during a routine play paralyzed him from the neck down. He couldn’t talk, sit up, eat, write or walk for months. Doctors told him he would remain that way for the rest of his life.
Eventually, doctors discovered his spinal cord was compressed, not severed, giving Brooks a path to heal. In September 2012, Brooks took his first steps after months of rehabilitation.
Through his own experience, Brooks saw what was possible through hard work and dedication, and he wants to take that message to the young people of West Baltimore.
“Exposure leads to expansions,” he said.
Erika Chavarria, founder and executive Director, Columbia Community Care
Erika Chavarria founded Columbia Community Care in response to how vulnerable communities were affected by the pandemic.
Chavarria was concerned about what was happening to her high school students and put out a call for volunteers to provide local families with supplies such as food, household items and holiday toys.
What started in the classroom has evolved into a nonprofit with three sites, hundreds of volunteers, business sponsorships and more in the works. She has worked with Baltimoreans for Educational Equity, whose work included a campaign that secured roughly $30 million in new funding for schools from Baltimore City.
When she discusses her commitment to serving her community, she points back to her experiences growing up in New Mexico, influenced by her parents and surrounded by cultures that place great value on helping others.
“I grew up around a lot of elders, around Native cultures,” Chavarria said. “It instilled these lessons in me.”
Kimberly Coleman, president, B More Global
Kimberly Coleman is a special assistant to the chief of staff for Baltimore City Public Schools. But that is just one part of the work she is doing in the community.
Coleman founded and serves as the board President of B More Global, an all-volunteer-run organization that provides study-abroad experiences for Baltimore students. Coleman’s father wanted his kids to think beyond their expectations, and she now helps Baltimore students do just that by broadening their horizons through travel.
“Seeing the bigger world changed my viewpoints,” she said. The daughter of a welder, she says her father “wanted to make sure we were dreaming bigger.”
After 13 years as a Spanish teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools, she has spent the past five years expanding her leadership outside the classroom as a district leader.
According to her nominating letter, “Kim embodies a level of optimism about our shared future in Baltimore that is infectious to the people around her.”
Ashley Day-Gibbs, founder, Women Leading Baltimore
Ashley Day-Gibbs founded Women Leading Baltimore to provide girls with opportunities to find their strengths.
As a young Black woman in Baltimore, Day-Gibbs wished she had a program like this, so she created it herself. Women Leading Baltimore’s mission is to create space and opportunities for high school girls to embrace their power and authority through sisterhood, nurturing mentorship, and access to meaningful experiences.
She credits the women who were her teachers and professors at Western High School and at McDaniel College with helping her build a strong sense of self.
The lesson was, “I deserve to be in every space,” she says. The message was similar to what her mother always said.
“Her outlook was that I was enough for anything I wanted to be.”
Peter DeCandia, founder and CEO, Teacher Props
Peter DeCandia is the founder and CEO of Teacher Props, an organization that provides housing assistance to Baltimore teachers.
It now serves more than 2,000 teachers and has a presence at more than 300 properties. DeCandia is also leading a $5 million initiative to improve outcomes for Baltimore City Public Schools students through investments in athletics, academics and more.
“We don’t always do the best job of retaining our talent,” DeCandia said.
Teachers find their first years of teaching “incredibly stressful,” which means school systems and communities should be “making these great people feel welcome when they arrive,” he said.
DeCandia arrived in Baltimore as a young teacher in the Teach for America program. Soon after, he became aware of the challenge Baltimore faces in attracting and retaining teachers.
His work on these projects has been recognized, and he expresses a commitment to retaining young talent in Baltimore.
“The longer I stay here, the more I fall in love with it,” he said.
Marissa Jachman, executive director, Erin Levitas Foundation
Marissa Jachman is the executive director of the Erin Levitas Foundation. She is committed to “repairing the world” through the foundation’s work to prevent sexual assault.
The foundation launched in 2017 in honor of her cousin Erin Levitas, a rape survivor who lost her life to cancer. Naming the foundation after Erin is “a way for her legacy to live on,” Jachman said.
The Baltimore-based nonprofit provides early education to young people and their networks. The foundation works alongside the Levitas Initiative at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law to fund and develop sexual violence prevention curriculum for Baltimore City Public Schools.
Jachman also co-authored a book for children that teaches boundaries and body safety. She emphasizes healthy attitudes and communication skills among young people.
“I do want to make the world better than when I got here,” Jachman says.
Lt. Matthew Johnson, University of Maryland, Baltimore police community outreach commander
Matthew Johnson’s passion for policing started at a young age growing up in Baltimore.
After four years in the United States Marine Corps, he made his dream a reality. He is now the police community outreach commander for the University of Maryland Baltimore Police Department. He oversees the Community Outreach and Support Team, which aims to build relationships in the West Baltimore community through events, activities, and mentorships.
Johnson helped launch a police therapy dog program and a pilot program that pairs interns with police officers. Johnson’s dedication to connecting with the community is so strong that he changed his major from criminal justice to communications. He believes that effective communication is key to building trust between police and the community.
Johnson said he leans on his “outstanding team” to bring all of these programs together, from homeless outreach to the work of community liaisons and volunteers. “I’m just a guy in a room without them,” he said.
Tonee Lawson, founder and executive director, The Be .Org
Tonee Lawson discovered her love of STEM may have a genetic connection after her grandfather shared an old article about his research for the National Institutes of Health.
This realization fueled Lawson’s passion and inspired her to launch The Be. org, an organization that enriches children from kindergarten to 12th grade with lessons about leadership and skill development.
They reach students through workshops and conferences and include science, technology, engineering and math in their program. Just shy of its 10-year anniversary, TheBe .Org has served more than 2,500 students.
Lawson said: “We often measure impact in numbers, but I think that it goes far beyond the number of kids that we can serve. It is just being able to make an imprint on Baltimore and preparing our young people for better futures.”
Laura Starsoneck, assistant director at the Center for Women & Children, Helping Up Mission
Laura Starsoneck’s faith is a fundamental aspect of her life and work. After more than 10 years in ministry, she joined Helping Up Mission, a faith-based nonprofit that provides services to men and women seeking help with everything from homelessness to addiction.
As the assistant director of the Center for Women & Children, she supports up to 200 women and 50 children in the one-year Spiritual Recovery Program. Through her work, she aims to help people see themselves as God sees them, fostering integrity, care, and a sense of purpose. Her priority is to fight for those who have faced unimaginable struggles.
Starsoneck said: “I want to be that person to fight for them and help them see themselves for the better.”
Chaye Suber, transplant supervisor, University of Maryland Faculty Physicians, Inc.
Chaye Suber is a community health worker and transplant supervisor who goes beyond coordinating appointments at the University of Maryland Faculty Physicians, Inc. She connects patients with the resources they need, from health care to food pantries.
As a volunteer with organizations like the Junior League of Baltimore and the National Council of Negro Women, she builds a network to support her patients. Recently crowned the 2023 Miss Maryland Ambassador, Suber measures her impact in the thank you notes she receives.
“I always hope that when I make an impact on somebody, that they will pay it forward for the next person,” she said.
Patricia Swanson, director, Maryland government affairs, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield
When someone asks Patricia Swanson about her job, she encourages people to think about its impact.
As the director of Maryland government affairs for CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, Swanson frequently advocates for bringing people together.
During the pandemic, Swanson established a partnership between CareFirst and Prince George’s County Health Department to help the county reach its vaccination goals.
Swanson said the experience helped her think more about the ways data, when used responsibly, can improve outcomes.
Swanson’s work at the state level isn’t something she ever envisioned for herself. She grew up traveling between Montana and Maryland as her parents worked for the U.S. Forest Service.
Swanson is hoping to encourage others like her to take the same road.
“I really want to empower young people in this space and to understand that public policy isn’t this foreign educational concept,” Swanson said. “It’s something that you see in your everyday life and their voices are incredibly important now and into the future.”
Brittany Young, founder, B-360 Baltimore
Through her organization B-360, Brittany Young utilizes dirt bike culture to end the cycle of poverty, disrupt the prison pipeline and build bridges in communities.
Since 2017, B-360 has served more than 9,000 youths and adults, and the organization estimates it has decreased dirt bike arrests by 83 percent.
Young believes in elevating Black talent, genius and culture, and connecting them with resources and opportunities. Drawing on her experiences, she has developed a model for culturally relevant programming and curriculum.
Young is a “socioeconomic” engineer, striving to reimagine city planning and government best practices.