Edna Manns-Lake didn’t know much about being a leader when she and other parents wanted to address kids being unfairly put out of class and generally poor leadership at Lockerman Bundy Elementary School in West Baltimore in the 1990s.
A colleague suggested she connect with then-Delegate Elijah Cummings for help getting a meeting with the school system. The meeting eventually led to changes at the school.
It would also be the start of a decadeslong career in advocacy and nonprofit work for Manns-Lake who, after the experience, started an organization that she recently celebrated heading for 30 years.
It wasn’t lost on Cummings that Manns-Lake’s neighborhood needed to more formally organize to address other issues in the community and pursue funding to help. He asked her if she’d be willing to step up to the plate.
She was hesitant at first, but soon found her feet firmly planted in advocacy, and has grown along with Fayette Street Outreach — with many successes, but also hiccups and lessons learned along the way.
“Sometimes other people see in you a spark. … that was a test for her to get involved,” said Timothy Bridges, Fayette Street Outreach’s vice president.
The nonprofit has since led many initiatives to clean up and beautify the neighborhood, created job and mentorship opportunities for youths and renovated vacant rowhomes into a community center.
What Mann-Lake knows for certain after all these years is that she hasn’t lost her passion or steam.
“I can’t stop because I love my community and every fight is a fight for my community to make my community better,” Manns-Lake said.
Manns-Lake had to consider what was on her plate before stepping into a community leadership role. At the time, she worked at Johns Hopkins, served as a union delegate and had a son to care for.
She gathered the elders in her neighborhood after the call from Cummings for insights and blessings. They were the same elders in the close-knit community who looked after her as a child when her mother was away laboring as a domestic worker and her father worked long hours at Bethlehem Steel.
They were the elders who would tell on her if she misbehaved — they were her village. Manns-Lake sat back and listened as they talked about the trash in the neighborhood, how they didn’t feel safe walking up their blocks and how kids needed a place to go.
“They believed in this woman who wanted to make changes in her community and refused to allow things to stay the same. She was willing to take a stand,” Cummings told The Baltimore Sun in 2002.
The meeting in her mother’s living room spearheaded Fayette Street Outreach.
From community clean-ups, STEM programming, registering people to vote and job training, the nonprofit helps meet all the neighborhood’s needs. The community center, which took over five years to redevelop, is currently used for events and workshops. It’s a far cry from the one-room office in Manns-Lake’s rowhouse where the nonprofit started.
“When I walk into this building, it’s almost like a spirit that comes over me. A spirit of joy, a spirit of happiness … it just surrounds me,” Manns-Lake said.
Her office chronicles the organization’s history. There’s a check for its first $100,000 grant and certificates of recognition and citations from government officials on the walls and a handwritten thank you letter from her granddaughter for sponsoring a trip to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
But talk to Manns-Lake about her successes and one will immediately recognize her humble spirit. Instead of talking about herself, she often pivots the conversation to others who’ve been involved with the organization.
George Kleb, executive director of Bon Secours Community Works, met Manns-Lake when she first started Fayette Street Outreach. The Bon Secours organization focuses on economic development, youth and family services, and housing and community development. When Bon Secours wanted to build a community center, Manns-Lake and the nonprofit helped them engage the community about its best uses. They’ve also worked alongside on a coalition, Operation ReachOut Southwest, to create plans for neighborhood revitalization.
Bon Secours relied on her for leadership and guidance because “she’s good at it, and she’s been doing it for a long time,” Kleb said. With “a firm, but kind hand,” she makes sure all voices are heard during meetings, he said, and good listening contributes to her longevity.
She and the nonprofit have also stayed persistent in the face of adversity.
“It’s very easy to get mired in negativity, especially for a community association leader. They’re dealing with quality of life issues a lot of times,” Kleb said.
Manns-Lake said it hasn’t always been easy dealing with the entrenched problems of a city neighborhood. Some days she gets depressed. Thoughts about the neighborhood never changing creep in, she said. But she tries to counteract the negative thoughts with positive energy. After all, she grew up in the neighborhood, she isn’t fighting for nothing, and the non-profit has a board she’s proud of, she said.
Andre Scroggins, Manns-Lake’s son, sees the same relentlessness — and stubbornness — in his mom that he saw in his grandma. Maybe it was passed on in the genes.
“She’s always gonna try to find a way to get it done. It might take a month or a few years, but she’s gonna get it done for the community,” he said.
It’s enough to make him tear up. His mother is the “humblest and most beautiful person in the world,” Scroggins said.
She’s also tough.
Manns-Lake remembers once standing her ground and locking eyes with a drug dealer in the neighborhood. She and the organization’s lawyer were blocking access to pay phones often used and overrun by drug dealers to get rid of the open-air drug market. The problem was so bad that one hot spot, at Fayette Street and Monroe Street, was depicted on HBO’s “The Corner.” She recalled the moment at a 30-year anniversary celebration for Fayette Street Outreach in August at Bon Secours Community Resource Center.
Manns-Lake worked the room at the event, welcoming residents and partners. She brought several people in for a hug against her silver sequined jacket and blush romper. Shante Gilmore, a former childhood volunteer with Fayette Street Outreach, said the organization helped lay the foundation for her success. She got a scholarship from the nonprofit and went on to get her bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in public health from Morgan State University.
“If I didn’t have an organization like FSO to volunteer [for], I don’t know where I’d be today,” Gilmore said.
Manns-Lake said she hopes the organization attracts younger people who want to lead and have the same vision to move the neighborhood forward. Manns-Lake doesn’t have any current plans for retirement, and she still wants to see more significant changes in her community. “
It would be “a bit like heaven” if the neighborhood was redeveloped without displacement, vacant homes were eradicated and new businesses moved in, she said.
As she looked around at the anniversary celebration, she felt in good company.
“I have no words, because it’s so real and a lot of people that have supported me since the beginning of my journey are here,” Manns-Lake said, once again shifting the spotlight from herself and onto the people she’s dedicated herself to the last 30 years.