Jonathan Erwin, Social Design Fellow

Photo of Vincent Purcell of Erwin with Beth Myers-Edwards from Banner Neighborhoods

Photo by Vincent Purcell of Erwin with Beth Myers-Edwards from Banner Neighborhoods

Jonathan Erwin sat across the round table with a big smile, eagerly sharing clips from a community newsletter called The McElderry Park Star, which he launched in collaboration with other community organizers and residents, including the Amazing Grace Lutheran Church.

Erwin has a lot to be proud of because over the past ten months he has worked to invigorate the east Baltimore neighborhood of McElderry Park through a practice that calls “Social Resiliency.” As a Robert W. Deutsch Fellow and a graduate of MICA’s Master of Arts in Social Design program, Erwin has helped form connections amongst several of the East Baltimore neighborhood’s groups including the Center for Grace-Full Living at Amazing Grace, the neighborhood association and most importantly, community residents, who have seen their neighborhood, which sits in the shadow of Johns Hopkins Medical complex, become increasingly blighted and dis-invested over the years.

Erwin’s fellowship started with a focus on climate resiliency in east Baltimore, helping to unify residents in the neighborhood with effective ways to keep cool and preserve green space. That has since expanded to include the improvement and general well being of the entire community, something he didn’t see coming back in May, 2013.

“My work started with the heat discussion in East Baltimore,” said Erwin. “It then morphed into climate adaptation and then social resilience and how to build social bonds.”

That path led Erwin to the McElderry Park Star, which just released their its issue. Erwin and the rest of the team working on the newsletter have been forced to adapt with each issue and step back to ask questions like “What is the expanding definition of a community?”

“The first issue was light and fun, kind of like, ‘Hey, we’re doing this!'” Said Erwin. “The second one started to get more serious and the third issue has 24 pages a cover, and a lot of the organizations, residents and different movements are represented.”

The third issue has an editorial from an ex-prisoner, who spent three decades in the system. “It’s a very truthful interpretation of what’s going on,” said Erwin.


Erwin credits the Center for Grace-Full Living for being the driving force behind the newsletter’s organization but others have come on board, like Banner Neighborhoods and the Monument Main Street Revitalization Committee. According to Erwin, the ultimate goal is to have residents lead the charge.

While Erwin’s current focus is on social resilience, he hasn’t abandoned the climate discussion by any means. When he first started the fellowship almost a year ago, he helped set up a climate resilient block in McElderry Park, a project that saw great community and resident participation.

“I am still participating in conversations with greening groups in Baltimore, I’m still working in urban spaces,” said Erwin.

Another goal of Erwin’s is to help expand the discussion of social literacy and empathy within architecture, which he studied in college. “I want architects to think beyond the building envelope. How physical interventions can engage and impact a community from a comprehensive viewpoint, as well as invite architects and designers to rethink the whole discussion on community engagement and participatory design.”

He just returned from the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia where he spent a week with thousands of other social designers, policy makers, and government representatives from across the globe. He hopes to bring lessons from around the world back to Baltimore through his work.

“I think Baltimore has the potential to lead the conversation on post-industrial cities on a global scale. If we can learn from our city’s failures, and strive to be inclusive and equitable in the future, Baltimore is poised for greatness.”

– TD



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