For the past 6 months, Quinton Batts has been the Neighborhood Design Center’s Social Design Fellow. A recent graduate of MICA’s Social Design program, Quinton has spent his tenure at NDC working with longtime community partner Mr. Lewis Sharpe of the Duncan Street Miracle Garden. There, he has supported Mr. Sharpe’s efforts to make the farm a sustainable, happy place to grow vegetables and welcome neighborhood life. Last week, Quinton talked to NDC’s VISTA Maura Dwyer—with whom he’s collaborated on the Miracle Garden project—about his experience.
Maura Dwyer: Where are you from? What brought you to Baltimore?
Quinton Batts: I’m from Virginia, originally a small town of Petersburg, but I’ve been in Richmond for about 6 years. I’ve seen a lot of change in the community around me; rapid development is happening, especially around the downtown areas and campus. I graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, and the school has really changed over the years. Seeing that shift made me interested in urban development and how that affects people in surrounding areas. In my undergrad, I started doing more research on how equitable development can shift the rapid process that’s happening in Virginia.
MD: How did your experience at VCU influence your work in Baltimore?
QB: I studied small business management, mostly making business plans and finding creative solutions to business ventures. That foundation gave me skills to start doing deeper research, in a more human-centered way, focusing on complex problems and urban social issues more than just business development.
For example, the VCU campus was originally designed to be integrated into the heart of the city, with several local businesses like barbershops and family-owned restaurants strewn throughout. In the five years I was there, I saw the University slowly take over the whole downtown area, and push out the mom and pop shops and raise the rent to sky-high prices. It erases the indigenous value that area originally had.
With Baltimore, where MICA’s Social Design program comes in, is while it moves within the art and design sector, it’s more about building equity with those tools—bringing in community members, stakeholders, and activists as co-creators. You can see these similar values reflected in NDC.
MD: What is the fellowship program and why did you choose to work with NDC?
QB: The fellowship is a learning experience for us to put new skills into a higher level of practice, and actually see things come out of it that have social impact. With NDC, I had the opportunity to do a lot more organizing and planning. To me, those skills were incredibly useful coming from a business background where I was mainly working on business plans. This was more hands-on, grass-roots work to connect to people foremost and build relationships.
MD: What was your main goal with the NDC Fellowship?
QB: I was brought in to connect with the current community partners, especially in Broadway East, to deepen the resources NDC had already established in their relationship to the Duncan Street Miracle Garden.
MD: Coming from a business background, can you share why community development at Duncan St Miracle Garden sparked your interest?
QB: It’s sparked an interest in me because I’m from a rural setting originally. I came from a lot of gardening and farming. I grew up on a farm; my parents are farmers, my grandparents were famers, I have gardens at home and I have one here. It always felt natural to me to be around agriculture and bring the importance of it to the city. During my undergrad, I had the opportunity to research food deserts and sit down with local gardeners to help think through a sustainable business system for urban farming. Once I saw the opportunity with NDC to do something similar but more focused on youth and community capacity building, I saw an opportunity to use my skills in a different way. I really want to focus on a hands-on approach, building up from the ground level, something more grassroots. That’s where the impact has to start—for something really big to happen, it should start small, and give it time to grow. Coming from a similar background of communities that have been given the short end of the stick from the beginning, I understand how different processes affect people directly.
MD: Can you explain the process of your fellowship?
QB: When I first started, I had the opportunity to get to know the community. NDC gave me access. I sat down and talked with several residents and groups, especially people who have seen the garden transform over time and who have been working in the area for years.
My job was to help leverage my own connections and resources. Through my exposure at MICA, that opened me up to people that could help in various ways–sometimes mysterious ways that you would never have known otherwise! For example, I was given the charge of finding youth-based organizations that would like to participate in the upcoming Day of Play, an event at the end of summer to celebrate the garden. I was able to bring in BYKE, Baltimore Youth Kinetic Energy, an organization I learned about through several different projects at MICA.
It was a great connection because the owner was already interested in finding more places for kids to bike in that area, I just had to connect the dots.
I was also able to leverage MICA’s Day of Service in their Community Engagement Office. They have several days every year where they donate volunteers for community initiatives. They came to Duncan during the Day of Service this spring, and that’s something I’m hoping can continue moving forward each year. It’s more so about coming in and leveraging myself, and creating relationships that can move forward even if I’m not there.
MB: What is the next step to get ppl to commit to the garden?
QB: I think the next step is making sure Mr. Sharpe’s vision for the garden is widely known.
MD: Can you talk about how this fellowship influenced your thesis work at MASD?
QB: The transition looked like me actually being in the neighborhood more and becoming a face in the neighborhood, not as a NDC fellow, but as a resident of Baltimore. I worked hard to develop a relationship of authentic trust. I think that experience was the most valuable thing that came out of this fellowship.
MD: How did that experience connect to your thesis about slowing down gentrification?
QB: I saw an opportunity to mediate the conversation of gentrification around resident-centered community development. I want to make this a 360 cycle of communication and collaboration, and build a platform for an equity-centered design plan; a plan that could help prepare residents to be more involved in the neighborhood, and want to stay and grow with it at a steady pace. Gentrification speeds up the growth of the economy in a way that makes it impossible for the people who already live there to catch up. In any low-income city, people are always going to be playing a game of catch up because they’re three steps behind from the beginning.
I’m not anti-business and anti-development, but I want those things to work for the existing residents, the end-user. The tricky thing is, you can’t always know your end user, that can change over time.
MD: How does that view fit into Mr. Sharpe’s vision for the garden? He has no interest in making a profit with the food grown.
QB: I absolutely think a sustainable plan can be built for the garden, we just need a new model tailored for that space. Moving forward, I’m going to help craft that model as Mr. Sharpe’s right hand, doing ground-level advocating that can help make his dream come true.
MD: What’s one take away from working with NDC?
QB: I like how NDC works on social issues that vary across the board, but have the core value of partnering with existing community leaders. The direction of a project comes from building relationships, and seeing and taking hold of opportunities that arise. In my view, MASD is the people, NDC is the land, but really, the people are the land; the land is the people.