The mission of Baltimore’s Center for Urban Families (CFUF) is not reducing or disrupting poverty, but dismantling it. As a fearless leader in Baltimore and the nation, they develop workforces and empower communities, and their work with fathers and families is moving the needle to end the cycle of poverty. In 2009, we worked with them to develop their first permanent home and in the process, restore an important corner in West Baltimore into a hub for the entire community. Founded in 1999 by Joe Jones, CFUF started as a set of programs run by the Baltimore City Health Department for fathers looking for a new lease on life, including training them for employment opportunities. Joe saw the immense need to focus on the social and economic wellbeing of fathers as a way of driving holistic change for families and communities, and with the blessing of the City, Joe and his team spun CFUF off as its own nonprofit. Over the past 20 years, they’ve built a world-class set of programs and services helping individuals and families achieve economic success and self-sufficiency. After 10 years in a building they leased from the City, CFUF knew it was time to find a home for the next chapter of their history. We helped them identify The Coliseum at 2201 N. Monroe Street in the Greater Mondawmin area, just down the road from their original offices, as a potential space. The Coliseum had been home to a professional basketball team, the Baltimore Bullets (now the Washington Wizards), in the 1940s and 50s, and was then turned into a roller rink in the 60s; people in the community remembered the rink as a true mainstay of Baltimore life. But, for many years, the building sat vacant and eventually went up for sale. When the building’s owner met Joe and learned CFUF’s mission, the purpose of the organization resonated so deeply that he offered to lower the purchase price. CFUF was able to purchase the building and asked us to work with them to design, finance, and ultimately construct their new home. The completed 32,000-square-foot headquarters now proudly serves as the home for their growing staff, programs, and clients. In true CFUF fashion, they worked with the HVAC contractor on the job to train a number of the men in their workforce program to complete the installation work, and many of them continued their training – leading to gainful employment. CFUF’s work in Baltimore is vast – impacting nearly 30,000 men and women who have secured more than 4,500 jobs; it’s an honor to be their partner. In Joe’s words, the building that we built together “reflects how we [CFUF] want people to feel about the quality of life in the community, creating a beautiful place for themselves, their children, and families.”
This is the difference at the Center for Urban Families: we don’t just give people a fish; we teach them to fish. This innovative approach empowers people with the resources they need to become change agents in their own right - changing their lives, families, communities, and Baltimore, the city that I love.
Can we reshape and re-articulate the way in which human services are delivered and can we convince policymakers and philanthropy that our business model and the cost associated with it are replicable? I think we can.
Founder, President and CEO of the Center for Urban Families
Joe Jones is the founder, president and CEO of the groundbreaking Center for Urban Families. From the first moment we met Joe, we knew that the work he was doing for the children and families of Baltimore City was something we had to support in any way possible. When they began thinking about finding a permanent home for their organization, we came alongside them as a development partner - and now, we watch in awe as they continue their work dismantling poverty.
Tell us a bit about your path to founding the Center for Urban Families (CFUF) and how your own story plays a role in the work that you all do.
As a kid growing up in Baltimore City, I was exposed to a lot of what was going on in the streets around me, mainly illicit drugs. I got wrapped up in that lifestyle, and by the time I was in my 20s, I had a significant criminal background but had taken steps to really turn my life around. I took a number of different jobs and one of them was working with adults with mental disabilities. I got the itch for human services and one thing led to another, and I ended up working at the [Baltimore City] Health Department. That’s really where I grew up personally and professionally. I had incredible mentors, and they gave me cover to do work that I might not have been able to do anywhere else.
And what was that work focused on?
At the Health Department, we started to approach decreasing the infant mortality problem in Baltimore City through the lens of fathers, and really focusing on the whole family. That evolved into a lot of work around fatherhood and realizing that in order to truly impact a child’s life, you had to also focus on fathers.
So is that where the Center for Urban Families work really started?
Yes. At that time, I realized we could really expand this work. I went to the City [of Baltimore] and asked if I could take my programs and staff and establish a non-profit organization. With their blessing, we did that, and the Center for Urban Families was established in 1999. I had about eight or 10 staff and a $250,000 annual budget. The City was nice enough to lease us an unused building they owned for just $1 a year. From that space, we launched many of our programs honed in on our mission of dismantling poverty by working with fathers and families facing some of the most difficult circumstances of anyone in our city.
How did partnership with Seawall on finding, designing, and developing a new headquarters for CFUF?
By 2005 or 2006, we knew we were outgrowing the building originally gifted to us by the City. I knew Seawall from serving on a board with Donald, and we asked them to help us start looking for buildings. We were really looking to lease, not own, but then we came across the old Coliseum building on Monroe. It was just down the street from our current building. We sat down with the building’s owner and after telling him about our mission and history, he agreed to lower the purchase price to a range that we could potentially afford. We were able to buy it and began working with Seawall on the plan for our new headquarters. After a lot of environmental study, we realized that it was going to be too costly to restore that building, so we decided to demolish it and contract with Seawall to design and build a new 32,000-square-foot structure for our staff and programs.
How did that process go?
We wanted to really infuse the CFUF mission into the construction process, so we worked with one of the biggest contractors on the job, the one working on HVAC, to see if he could train and hire some people from our programs to do the install on the project. He pushed back a little, but eventually agreed and ended up paying for them to get their journeyman licenses. Those guys were able to continue using those skills even after the work on our building, and many of them are now homeowners and have really achieved economic stability that they never had before.
And what about the building, how did that change things for CFUF and help you further your work?
We went from having 4,000 square feet to 32,000. We now have room for all of the staff and programs that make us who we are. Most importantly, we have a building that reflects how we want people to feel about the quality of life in the community. They should have a beautiful place for themselves and their children and families.
So what’s next for CFUF? You’re 20 years into this work, and it seems like you just keep gathering steam.
Our goal has always been not to just disrupt or decrease poverty, but to dismantle it. We have seen people that I call “recovering knuckleheads,” like myself, do complete turnarounds. We have done this with minimal programs, and our big bet is that we can truly dismantle poverty at scale. And that might not necessarily mean doing it for more people, but going deeper for those who are already in the labor market and helping them advance. If we can do that, can we reshape and re-articulate the way in which human services are delivered and can we convince policymakers and philanthropy that our business model and the cost associated with it are replicable? I think we can.