Free Your Voice began as an informal after-school program inside Baltimore’s Benjamin Franklin High School. It has evolved into a powerful youth-led movement to end incineration, build community land trusts, and push for zero waste and just transition in Baltimore.
The group organized between 2012 and 2015 when students learned that a trash-to-energy incinerator would be built in the Curtis Bay neighborhood of South Baltimore, less than a mile from their high school. They sought to inform the broader community of the City’s proposal and the public-health threats it posed. They started with door-knocking, wrote letters to public officials, collected photos and thousands of signatures for a photo petition, and held a “Stop the Incinerator” march. Unable to rally enough support to end the City’s plan, the group shifted its strategy towards disinvestment. By encouraging public entities not to buy “dirty energy,” they worked to end the project by making it unprofitable. Once Baltimore City Schools withdrew from its contract to buy “clean” energy from the trash burning, Free Your Voice escalated its tactics and organized a massive demonstration in front of the Maryland Department of the Environment, where seven protestors were arrested for civil disobedience (Shen, 2015). When, as a result, Baltimore City and Maryland Department of the Environment terminated the project in March of 2015, the youth organizers knew they had to propose a new system of economic development in place of the dirty, extractive industries that took a serious toll on their health.
Land use, land rights, and control over development decisions were the big issues emerging from the campaign. South Baltimore has historically served as the city’s dumping ground for waste. For decades, Baltimore’s waste system has created and perpetuated racialized economic and health disparities while advancing an environmental crisis. The concentration of pollution has compounding effects that shape poor-quality housing, lack of adequate health care, and lack of retail food stores to buy fresh fruit and vegetables.
The South Baltimore Community Land Trust (SBCLT)—founded by the Free Your Voice youth who brought an end to the incinerator—is a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization committed to development without displacement and to leading a just transition to zero waste. The SBCLT is poised to create eight new affordable housing units that will boost homeownership for a population that may have never envisioned owning a home. The SBCLT works to ensure long-term homeownership for working-class families by using a program of long-term renewable leases instead of traditional sales. When the homeowner sells, the family captures a limited portion of the increased equity; the intent is to manage the cost of land and homeownership so that it is affordable to working class and poor residents rather than allowing prices to fluctuate in the real-estate market.
In an environmentally toxic community, it was never enough to simply provide permanently affordable and energy-efficient housing. The plan for development had to also include ideas for just transitions to zero waste. These young organizers realized that the systemic problems and persistent issues were about how land and communities had become dumping grounds.
Baltimore’s Zero-Waste Plan underscores the importance of fair development, an idea that came out of earlier conversations within the Baltimore Housing Roundtable (now the Fair Development Roundtable). This group was formed to create “development without displacement” and promote community development that “highlights [the] key benefits of community ownership strategies” (read their full report here). The plan also involved significant community input leading to an extensive report entitled “Baltimore’s Fair Development Plan for Zero Waste,” released by United Workers in spring 2020. This will be the first zero-waste plan for “fair development” crafted by and for grassroots communities in the US. Like broader national conversations around a Green New Deal, this plan lays out how Baltimore can create a just transition from an economy of extraction to that of reuse and regeneration. More specifically, it outlines the priorities of a zero-waste system and how to achieve clean air, community power, less waste, clean communities, and more jobs. It calls for 90% of all materials discarded in the city to be diverted from landfills and incinerators by 2040, and for the City to contract with mission-based or worker-owned recycling and compost operators, and enterprises that hire local residents and pay family-sustaining wages. It also promises to establish a close partnership between elected officials, public housing and school systems, community groups, businesses, and universities and other anchor institutions throughout Baltimore City and County.
I interviewed Terriq Thompson and Carlos Sanchez, two youth organizers from Free Your Voice and the South Baltimore Land Trust. They started movement work through a class that Free Your Voice, Towson University, and Benjamin Franklin High School offer on environmental injustice. The class is a laboratory for creative thinking about how to understand the political economy of environmental injustice and then how to address interlocking and systemic inequalities through designing alternatives. Students pose their own questions, conduct both qualitative and quantitative research, and disseminate findings to the broader community. Many of the youth have subsequently been hired by the South Baltimore Land Trust (which received City funding) to do youth organizing work around community land trusts and zero waste in the Curtis Bay community. Through our participatory action-research collaboration, many youths have begun the process of inquiry in the classroom (or in the field, which, for us, is out in the community where urban gardens, Baltimore Compost Collective, and land trusts become spaces and live classrooms for exploring alternatives) and continued on through movement work.
Nicole Fabricant: How did you both get involved in Free Your Voice?
Terriq Thompson: I heard of Free Your Voice when I started high school. This was back when we had the first incinerator fight. I was taking science classes, learning about the environment and my community. I knew what pollution was, but I didn’t know what the incinerator was or where my trash went, like a lot of people. I’m not from Curtis Bay, but learning about it was so interesting. It’s what drew me to continue this work and make things better. I wanted to make sure that there is a generation of kids that doesn’t have to worry about asthma or going to a school with an entire soccer or football team that has asthma. That’s what drew me—a lot of things, along with having asthma myself and wondering why things are that way. I wanted to change it.
Nicole: Carlos, how did you get involved?
Carlos Sanchez: I joined Free Your Voice because I saw an opportunity to make a difference. I remember looking into my parents’ eyes when things weren’t going as planned financially, and being able to feel and see the pain that was inside of them because of all of these things we had to pay, like the mortgage and water bills, and not being able to do anything about it. It was really stressful. I know that we aren’t the only people who go through that, that there are others who have kids and have nothing to live off of. Some people end up having to live in the streets with their kids. That is the sad reality that we live in. When it gets to that point, it’s hard to come back from it. That’s why I joined Free Your Voice—it’s doing these things to make a change so most people don’t have to go through these same things.
Free Your Voice is really friendly and inspiring. Lots of people come from different backgrounds, like me and Terriq. When I first joined, I didn’t understand what was going on with everybody’s background. But the more I worked with them and interacted with them, you can connect with people. There was a transparency that we were together and we could communicate with each other. It makes me feel welcome. It makes me feel safe. It takes the feeling of being judged away.
Nicole: You have both talked about how much you love Free Your Voice and you feel it’s a safe space. How does Free Your Voice build that? How do they build trust? What are some of the strategies you have utilized for building that sense of community?
Terriq: All of us pretty much come from South Baltimore and we have a lot of the same struggles. Carlos talked about his struggles, and I can relate. When you tell stories like this to one another, you get more comfortable. I don’t think I would be able to feel the same way with some rich person. Carlos and I are on the same team trying to make sure other people don’t face the struggles we did. We know the same values we have and that makes us stronger. We’re not just doing all this [organizing] stuff constantly. We’re also bonding. We’re doing a lot of housing development work and that takes physical labor, so just getting that time together is where you really get to know people. Shoveling a lot of mulch is very therapeutic [laughs].
Carlos: We’re all people who’ve gone through a struggle in our lives. No matter how big a problem it is, it can always put stress on a person. Knowing that you’re not the only one in this, that you’ve got support, that helps you. If I can build that connection, they may have tips on what to do. Especially joining Free Your Voice and having that common goal to make a change—that’s driving you to have a common goal and something you really want to do. When you put the effort in and spend all that time together, you little by little start trusting each other. By having that same goal, we started communicating and building that unity to the point where I can express myself freely and I know I have a team with me and that will support me in any way that they can.
Nicole: What are some of the common problems or themes that you think run through South Baltimore communities? What are some of the issues that you struggle with?
Terriq: In Cherry Hill,  it’s not really a housing problem, like rent being too high. In certain areas, that’s a problem, but if you live in, like, the projects, like I do, the rent is dirt-cheap. However, there is a reason it is cheap. For example, when I moved there to finish the rest of my high school, we experienced mold and leaking until I graduated; it was never fixed. The refrigerator always leaked. There was mold in the shower. There was always a problem. Rolling blackouts is a thing. Honestly, a lot of this stuff is normal to me because I lived there most of my life. Especially the blackouts. I learned to just live with it. Showers were never hot. You have to have constant inspections—they say they are checking their equipment, but you know they’re always checking your house. So you have to, in certain households, live under fear and worry, like, “Oh god, is this correct?”.
Nicole: And what was Mom doing at the time, Terriq? What jobs was she working?
Terriq: She’s been working for the government for 15 years now. She earns a decent amount of money, but for three kids it’s not enough. She was paying, say, $800 more than she could afford. It was too much. We had multiple problems there as well. Once, there was a hurricane and our basement flooded. They said the two maintenance men couldn’t get out there, yeah…
Nicole: So you started working in high school to help your mother, right? I remember having you in class talking about your experiences working for Chick‑fil‑A and some of the fast-food industries.
Terriq: Yeah, I got a job at Chick‑fil‑A in the 10th grade. It’s a lot for a high-school student. There was low staff, low pay, and mostly minorities working there.
Nicole: So it’s housing and jobs to supplement parents’ salaries. Carlos, what else would you say in Lakeland are the main problems you see you facing?
Carlos: Unaffordable housing. The low income spread across South Baltimore drives youth to look at reality in a negative way. Most people believe no kid is born bad, right? There are people who have a single parent, or their parents don’t have a way to sustain the way their kids live. That makes their kids wanna help out in any way they can. They’ll turn to illegal actions because there’s nothing else they can do. They might not be able to get a job. A lot of students drop out of school just to get a job or help out with things around the house to support their families. That could really change mentally the way someone lives forever.
Nicole: That’s right. A lot of the kids at the high school support their families, right? Would you say a lot falls on the shoulders of youth to solve certain adult problems in households?
Carlos: Yeah, I have seen some of that. A bunch of my friends have to go to school and the moment they leave school they have to go to work so they can help out their families. That can really affect them in school. Maybe they won’t focus on school or [they’ll] fall asleep and miss a lesson. It’s not like they can just stop working. That puts stress on the youth, especially for those who are the only source of income, or a great help to the income in their household.
Nicole: In terms of the land-trust work you both are involved in, why would you say land trusts are important for communities like Curtis Bay?
Terriq: One, affordable rent, because rent is high in Baltimore City and it’s scary. Two, if the land is owned by a community, that would make communities safer because we would talk more. If someone’s causing crime in your community, they wouldn’t do it in the same community they live in if they’re going to a meeting with everyone in their community. You wouldn’t rob someone you’re going to see later on when everyone knows you robbed that person, y’know? Dudley Street in Boston is an amazing example of how to do land-trust work that includes the community and that provides services for the community.
Communities can be more successful on their own land, like if we wanted a park or something. Look at how the [land-trust] lot went. I wouldn’t have wanted chess pieces and golf courses but everyone else did! If you give [control] back to the community, you’ll get some really great ideas and perspectives.
Nicole: It’s important to have people participating in the construction of those spaces and the houses they could live in. I know that you guys moved so much. Cherry Hill was just one of the many places where you’ve lived. Your experiences with public housing have been frustrating in terms of how it is organized and the landlords. Do you think the land trust gives people more choice, more autonomy, more power?
Terriq: Definitely. So far, it’s been mostly working with the rent. Like, if there’s a problem with the house and we fix it ourselves, it makes sense for something to be knocked off. That’s what happened. That’s why it’s so good. We didn’t have the option to fix certain things in one of our houses where we used to live, but even then, our rent would never be knocked off and you can’t negotiate. Even when they did fix certain things, it was always late. When we lived on Cherry Hill Road, our basement flooded from a hurricane. They couldn’t send anyone out that night or that next day. With the land trust, it would be more immediate. With the land trust, people are more aware we’re all human.
Nicole: Terriq, you live in the first land-trust house in Curtis Bay. Have you been happy there thus far?
Terriq: It’s really great. It’s not always the best home, but it’s way better than anything we’ve had that’s affordable. We are very comfortable here. The rent is very affordable, it’s stable, you don’t have to think or worry about it. I help out because I’m at that age now. But it’s not where we have struggled a lot.
Land trusts are very important. A lot of youths have to work a lot, and sometimes in this area people have to do certain things to get money. Often, it’s violent. With the land-trust model, you don’t have to do that because you have a stable home. With a lot of examples of land trusts out there, there is a lot less crime. Everyone knows each other. No one is better than anyone else. No one will say, “Oh, so-and-so can’t pay their rent.” And it helps build income as well.
Carlos: Land trusts are important because not everybody in the Latino community makes a lot of money. Some have to work two or three jobs. Some people don’t have the proper paperwork. [With the land-trust model, t]hey can work one or two jobs and still be able to own a house. Community land trusts give the opportunity to be a homeowner. The house I’m living in is owned, but there’s a mortgage. My dad still pays a lot. All my family has to pitch in $100. In my household right now, there are seven people living here, and only three are working. That can put a stress on a family. A community land trust is beneficial for everybody and everybody will be better off.
Nicole: What do you hope for in terms of the organizing work you’re doing?
Terriq: Constant training would be great for the new youth. And I’d like to focus on the housing work—I wanna see how the development and the people work. But the first reason I joined was zero waste. I’d like to focus on how my city is changing since I started. Another thing is being an electrician or contractor working with the land trust. I wanna build my life around that.
Carlos: My hope is for less youth worrying about paying rent or helping out their families, maybe having more than 10 units of affordable housing. Having Curtis Bay create that sustainability where affordable housing isn’t a problem and there aren’t people left homeless.
- Shen, Fern. 2015. “Opponents press state to declare Fairfield incinerator project dead”, Baltimore Brew [online], 23 November. Accessed 15 March 2021, URL: https://www.baltimorebrew.com/2015/11/23/opponents-press-state-to-declare-fairfield-incinerator-project-dead.