Storytelling school

Sharing her love for storytelling

In 2015, Lionel Foster received a treasured honor for Baltimore City College graduates: an invitation to be inducted into the high school alumni hall of fame. Foster accepted recognition from his alma mater with great pride, but also with the nauseating feeling that the strides he had made in nonprofit journalism and communications were no match for the accomplishments of his colleagues. inductees.

At the time, Foster, who earned her bachelor’s degree in writing seminars from Johns Hopkins University in 2002, was a communications manager at the Urban Institute, a research organization in Washington, D.C. that provides data and evidence to help advance upward mobility and equity. . He had also worked in public service journalism, dedicated to highlighting economic and racial inequality for outlets like the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore City Paperand the Townsman. Even so, Foster felt compelled to do more, and with his induction speech he launched the Baldwin Prize, an annual essay-writing competition for Baltimore City College students. Foster saw the contest as an opportunity to personally engage in community service, grounded in her love for the art of storytelling.

An unmissable experience

Baltimore City College alumni say that attending the school is a foundational experience comprised of three essential elements: academic rigor, school pride, and exceptional opportunities for students to grow. For Foster, “City was a combination of a safe space – a physically safe place, but also a place where I was intellectually challenged.” Of the many opportunities available to Foster, he credits City College with honing and developing his innate love of writing.

“I give credit to City, not least because I became a journalist,” he said. “City was where I really learned to write. I felt like really smart, caring people were teaching me what I now know to be the basics, but it was also like secrets to learn to do things right.”

Legend: City College students applaud during the 2022 Baldwin Prize ceremony.

Image credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

During his final year at City, Foster was presented with what he calls a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: a chance to use the curiosity about the world he picked up at City College to explore life and gain perspective at abroad as an exchange student in Germany. “In Germany, there was something incredibly revealing and liberating about being so young – I was 17 when I left – experiencing a different culture, having people who see me in a different day and, above all, to have the advantage of being able to see myself in a different light,” he says.

Foster says he had a similar experience when he went to Hopkins.

“I stayed local for college, but in some ways when I left Baltimore and the country for my senior year of high school, I felt like I was leaving the world behind,” Foster said. “But coming to Hopkins felt like the rest of the world was coming to me.” After graduating from Hopkins in 2002, Foster spent three years in London for her graduate studies. “From 17 to 25, I spent half my life abroad,” he says. “It was fantastic for me because it was those experiences and exposure to other ways of being and living that fueled my work in Baltimore. I saw how things can and should be and I wish that for my people.”

From two tries to thousands

This revelation followed Foster into early adulthood and led him to a career in public service journalism and the creation of the Baldwin Prize.

Named to honor the legacy of American writer James Baldwin, the Baldwin Prize was founded in 2015 as an essay-writing competition for ninth-graders at Baltimore City College. Students who entered the competition were judged on their ability to respond to this year’s prompt, which asked students to explore a truth about themselves that is seriously underestimated. That year, only two students participated in the competition. Since its inception, the Baldwin Prize has evolved into more than just an essay writing competition for underclassmen. It would become part of the curriculum.

“We really struggled to get students to participate in the Baldwin Prize our first year,” says Amy Sampson, head of the English department. “We realized that the students, especially because we were aiming for the lower class students, just needed a lot more support. The city students are juggling a very heavy workload, so adding something extra-curricular in addition to their studies required a lot.”

After integrating the contest into the core curriculum for ninth graders and a 12th grade class, the essay contest would generate thousands of essay submissions with the rigorous support of hundreds of volunteer essay consultants and judges. The 2022 competition garnered over 300 essay submissions.

“I originally envisioned it as an extracurricular add-on or opportunity, but it has become a core facet of our Grade 9 curriculum,” Sampson says. “And that’s something we’re all very proud of. When I talk about some of the things that make City unique and when I talk about reading and writing at City, I always point to the Baldwin Prize because it diversifies the type of writing our students can participate in.”

City College students were honored for their winning essays at the 2022 Baldwin Prize ceremony

Write on time

From September to October, Foster organizes workshops and refines the idea of ​​writing prompts with the teachers of the English department. In January, he goes to the school to present the opportunity to the participating classes. This year, ninth and final year students were asked to focus on the theme of reconnecting and had to interview someone they know or would like to get to know better – while younger students had to write about their interlocutor, upper-class students could choose to write an essay in the first person instead.

Each February, professional writers work with students as writing consultants and help develop student essays. Up to 50 professional writers worked with students, either in small groups or one-on-one. The essays are due in March, when judges from at least four different countries have less than two weeks to read and score the essays.

This year’s awards ceremony, held May 20, was attended by more than 100 students and celebrated the best series of essays he had seen in the history of the Baldwin Prize, Foster said. This prompted organizers to honor 32 writers with cash prizes this year instead of following the past pattern of selecting just three winners each from grades 9 and 12. In an email to her followers, Foster paid tribute to three of her favorite essays from 2022: “The voice in Iche’la Carter’s writing jumps off the page. Lillian Imhoff wrote about a house that has helped build family bonds. And Eli Weikert wrote about someone who has lost a lot to the pandemic but is forever grateful.” The finalists’ essays can be read online at the Baldwin Prize website.

Plan for the future

In the seventh year of the Baldwin Prize, Foster and other supporters envision the competition expanding beyond the simple essay. “Right now the trial is the end point, but it really needs to be the beginning,” says Foster, who now works in finance. “The Baldwin Prize should become a series of programs that support events and activities where the essay is the starting point.” Foster notes that the Baldwin Prize prompt is usually the first time students tackle something resembling a personal statement required for many college applications, so maybe they could look into that. Or perhaps they could create an edited volume of student essays, turn the essays into podcast material or student films, or collaborate with other youth programs to inspire other young writers to find their voices. Foster would also like to be able to offer larger prizes, he says: “The prizes we offer are relatively small, between $100 and a few thousand dollars. It would be great to provide resources that will make a meaningful financial difference to someone trying to go to college.”

New volunteers, from writing coaches to writing judges, are welcome to help move the award forward, says Foster.

“Anyone who has any experience in publishing their writing – if you have written and been edited – you are eligible to be an editorial consultant and we would love to have you,” he says. “We’re also moving towards a point where the Baldwin Prize will need an advisory board and there should be specific skills represented on that board – development/fundraising, web design, etc. – basically people Having expertise that can help me move the Baldwin Prize out of my bedroom and into an infrastructure that can be sustained is my call to action.”