Joni Holifield in Baltimore

Heartbeat of Baltimore

With fierce love and deep commitment, Joni Holifield helps trauma-burdened Baltimore youth become “lifepreneurs.”

By Laura Wexler

“When we lived here I never used the front door. I was so embarrassed of where we lived.” 

It’s a chilly afternoon in December, and Joni Holifield is standing in front of a three-story brick rowhouse at 2429 Reisterstown Road. She grew up here from age 3 to 15. The house is vacant, its front door boarded up, like many on the block and across the street. 

She walks past the corner store, into the alley, and points to a window. “That was my bedroom. That’s where I looked out and saw rapes and shootings. Dead bodies.” Pointing to another window, she says, “That’s where the bullets would come flying through. They’d shoot down the alley. My mother trained us to get down.” 

Holifield gestures to a side door blocked by a mountain of trash. This was the door she used on a regular basis—and it was the door she ran through after a group of female gang members chased her with a knife when she was 13. Holifield had lived around violence all her life, but that was the closest she’d come to death. “That’s the time I remember feeling the most fear,” she says. She didn’t share that fear with anyone because, “What was there to do about it?” She kept going, all the while driven by her mantra: “Get out of poverty. Get out of Baltimore.”

She did both. By her late 30s, she was making six figures as a Comcast manager and vacationing in the Bahamas. While there in April 2015, she turned on the TV and saw footage of the neighborhood she’d fled. Freddie Gray had been arrested less than a mile from her house. The youth who gathered at nearby Mondawmin Mall walked right past the door she never used, on their way to Pennsylvania Avenue, and then downtown.   

“I’m looking at their eyes on the TV. They’re burning police cars, attacking businesses, and burning down their own neighborhoods,” she says. “They’re trapped. I know because that used to be me.” 

Holifield, 42, had planned to stay at Comcast and retire as a vice president. But six months after the uprising, she resigned to start a nonprofit to serve youth in Baltimore neighborhoods like the one she’d grown up in. “People were like, ‘Joni, you’re so effin’ dumb,’” she says. “They begged me not to do it. They saw how hard I’d worked to climb my way up in corporate America. I literally came from nothing and got out. There are not many people who can say that.”

But starting HeartSmiles was the closest thing she’d ever felt to a calling—even though she had no experience working with youth, no experience in nonprofits, and no funding. Four years after she started it, HeartSmiles is considered one of the most successful youth development organizations in the city, supporting a network of 3,000 young people to become leaders, business owners, and what Holifield calls “lifepreneurs”—people who apply an entrepreneurial spirit to their lives. 

I’m looking at their eyes on the TV. They’re burning police cars, attacking businesses, and burning down their own neighborhoods. They’re trapped. I know because that used to be me.

“Joni’s a rock star,” says Jason Perkins-Cohen, director of the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of Employment Development. “And HeartSmiles is an organization of rock stars.” 

But if HeartSmiles only provided leadership opportunities and workforce development, it would not be the force it is, says Philip Leaf, PhD, MS, a professor in Mental Health and former director of the Center for Adolescent Health at the Bloomberg School. “It’s more than a group,” says Leaf. “It’s a healing organizational system.”

Nearly one-third of children in Baltimore City grow up in poverty, and nearly one-third are dealing with a combination of one or more adverse childhood experiences, known as ACEs, that can have a profound effect on development. ACEs include extreme poverty and family problems, violence, abuse, and racial discrimination. Some members of HeartSmiles contend with more extreme situations than even these statistics communicate. “On any given day, one of the kids in HeartSmiles might have experienced a sibling being shot or a parent overdosing on opioids,” says Leaf, who has helped support the growth of HeartSmiles. “It’s not a rare occurrence. It happens continuously.”

HeartSmiles is a refuge from the trauma, a safe place for the youth to share their struggles—and a place to tap into their potential. “We listen and support each other,” says Holifield. “And we look for ways to shift that negative experience to help others and to use it as fuel for their dreams.”

Taylor Clinton
Taylor Clinton, 18, found her fellow Heartbeats “were ready to win.” Photo by Chris Hartlove

Holifield started HeartSmiles with an emphasis on business and leadership development because that was her path out of poverty. After negative experiences with teachers and fellow students, she stopped attending school regularly in ninth grade and barely managed to graduate from high school. She began working at McDonald’s at age 16, rose to manager, and by the time she left five years later she was training managers and crew leaders at various locations. “Working at McDonald’s was the first place someone called me a leader. I couldn’t read all the manuals, but you show me how to do something, I got it,” she says. “And I could teach 10 other people.”

In 2001, at age 23, she applied for a call center job at Comcast—even though it required a bachelor’s degree and a knowledge of technology. She had neither. The man interviewing her looked at her résumé and said, “I can’t interview you.” She convinced him to give her a chance, and over the next 14 years, she rose to become the director of one of Comcast’s top-performing technical support call centers. She supervised people who had master’s degrees; she was often the only Black person and only woman in the room. 

“I had an attitude of entrepreneurship,” she says. “Even if I didn’t own the space, I owned the culture.” Owning the culture meant identifying her employees’ potential and training them to develop that potential into success. “She had a way of finding the people who were really, really good at what they were doing but may not necessarily know it,” says Jason Altland, who worked under Holifield at Comcast’s call center in York, Pennsylvania, and now works as the director of patient access at a pediatric surgery center. “She really inspired me to want to apply for a higher position.”

Holifield infuses HeartSmiles with that same culture, something Taylor Clinton recognized right away. Clinton, now 18 and a senior at Baltimore’s Youth Opportunity Academy, walked into an entrepreneurship class Holifield offered on Saturdays in 2016 and sensed an energy in the room. “The youth there were ready to win,” she says. “They knew they wanted more than the opportunities they’d been given.” 

After Clinton graduated from that five-week business course, Holifield invited her to join the Youth Advisory Board (YAB) of the Center for Adolescent Health, which Holifield has led since 2018, when Katrina Brooks, MHS, the Center’s community relations director, learned about her work. Through the YAB, Clinton and roughly 20 other Heartbeats selected by Holifield attend biweekly meetings to offer their perspective on the Center’s work, participate in research, and collaborate to develop interventions. The youth earn $30 per meeting for their time and expertise, and are paid for other contributions.

In 2018, Center director Tamar Mendelson, PhD, MA,  and her colleague Kristin Mmari, DrPH, MA, an associate professor in Population, Family and Reproductive Health, trained four YAB members as co-investigators on a qualitative study of food insecurity among adolescents in Baltimore that was published in Public Health Nutrition. The YAB members helped enroll participants and facilitated focus groups. Young people said they resorted to prostitution, selling drugs, and stealing in order to eat, says Mendelson, a Bloomberg Professor of American Health. “The data that came out of that study were really raw and honest,” she says—a fact she attributes in part to the involvement of the young co-investigators.

Sydney Johnson
In HeartSmiles, Sydney Johnson, 15, found her “safe place.” Photo by Chris Hartlove

Alarmed by the study findings, the Heartbeats collaborated with the Center to develop The Granny Project, a program in which older adults (“grannies”) teach young people to prepare quick, healthy meals. The Heartbeats planned and raised funds for the project, developed partnerships with local kitchens, and hosted a cooking event in 2019 attended by more than 400 people. After the pandemic began, the Heartbeats transformed The Granny Project into a virtual program that included workouts and wellness tips as well as cooking demos. It’s one of Mendelson’s favorite projects, an example of what she calls the “transformative” influence of HeartSmiles on both the Center’s work and her own. “I grapple a lot with how to make sure I’m supporting young people and not inadvertently doing harm or trying to be a white savior and imposing my views,” she says. “The Heartbeats and YAB members have so much to say and give as emerging leaders.”

Clinton is also part of the Healing Youth Alliance, an organization created by a group of Heartbeats that provides youth-serving agencies a youth perspective on mental health. To do that, the Heartbeats draw on both personal experience and training from the University of Maryland School of Social Work and the Black Mental Health Alliance. The Healing Youth Alliance planned and presented the inaugural youth day for the 2021 Healing City Summit, a citywide initiative to heal from trauma, violence, and racial inequity. During one online session, Holifield DJ-ed while youth freestyled about growing up in Baltimore. 

In addition to serving in leadership positions with the Center for Adolescent Health, Heartbeats serve on projects with the Mayor’s Office, Family League, Baltimore City Public Schools, the Baltimore City Health Department—and, most recently, with the New York City–based organization Hip Hop Public Health, whose mission is to foster positive health behaviors through the power of hip-hop. Four Heartbeats helped create Baltimore’s version of an animated video called “Community Immunity” in which rapper DMC encourages people to get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

When Holifield started HeartSmiles, she’d never heard of public health. “But having a better understanding of what public health is, I can now see things through that lens,” she says. “Murder, drug [addiction], poverty, not getting enough to eat—that’s a public health crisis.” 

She passes that knowledge on to the Heartbeats. “Part of what Joni is doing is informally teaching them that this is happening to them, it isn’t what they did,” says Leaf. “It’s not their family or their parents’ fault. It’s structural and systemic.” 

Donte Matthews
Donte Matthews, 15, learned consistency from “Ms. Joni” in HeartSmiles. Photo by Chris Hartlove

The Heartbeats use the words “love” and “family” again and again to describe the safety and comfort they get through HeartSmiles. “A super important aspect of what Joni’s doing is to provide a supportive peer network,” says Mendelson. “Young people feel safe and able to talk about things that are happening to them that they can’t talk about elsewhere.” 

During one HeartSmiles meeting, Sydney Johnson talked about how the murder of her brother in 2015 nearly destroyed her family. “At first I wasn’t going to share because there’s a lot that’s really deep,” says Johnson, 15, a sophomore at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. “Then I heard the other Heartbeats talk, and I realized it was a safe place. It’s crazy how much all the Heartbeats can relate. People have lost their moms and dads. Some people talked about how their mother gave them away or their dad kicked them out. We all have some kind of pain or trauma in common.”

“Joni’s created an environment that is really trauma-sensitive. But it’s not all about processing trauma. She helps young people to discover and tap into their potential,” says Mendelson. “A lot of these youth may not have been told they can do great things. She pushes them and instills confidence and they see their peers doing great things.”

Thirty youths have started businesses through HeartSmiles, including ones selling smoothies, clothing, jewelry, and essential oils, and others in the field of music production. Johnson, who is part of the second cohort of Heartbeats going through an entrepreneur class taught by two Heartbeats, ages 16 and 18, who run successful businesses, developed a business called The Service Sisters, which offers household services such as cleaning, organizing, and interior paint and design. That is a first step toward her goal of becoming a real estate agent so she can buy and renovate vacant houses in Baltimore City and sell them for affordable rates to reduce homelessness. “The OG [older] Heartbeats know the culture and pass it down to the newer Heartbeats and they pass it on,” says HeartSmiles program manager Morgan Prioleau. 

The bedrock of the culture is discipline and accountability. At one meeting several members gently chided a fellow member for failing to fulfill his responsibilities as the father of a newborn baby. “Every single one of the Heartbeats has respect for Joni,” says Prioleau. “But it means something different when your peers pull you up and say, ‘This is not what you should be doing. I’m pouring into you. I care about you, I love you ... and this right here we need to fix.’”

At another meeting, the group confronted two members who had a public argument on Instagram that the group felt sullied the HeartSmiles brand. “We had a very, very tough conversation in front of 50 Heartbeats online. I started the conversation but their peers really handled it,” says Holifield. “I’m really big on tough love. I believe accountability is another word for love.”

Tamar Mendelson at the Bloomberg School
Working with Heartbeats has been “transformative” for researcher Tamar Mendelson. Photo by Will Kirk

For the first three years, Holifield funded HeartSmiles through a leadership consulting business she started—but she burned through her 401K and her savings and, at one point, faced eviction from the home she’d bought near Hamilton. “It was gut-wrenching,” she says, to have escaped poverty only to be on the brink of it again. Then, in 2018, Nanette Smith, who works for Bloomberg Philanthropies doing philanthropy and engagement in Baltimore, saw Holifield and several Heartbeats on a panel at the inaugural Bloomberg American Health Summit—and knew she wanted to support them.

“There is Joni with four youth sitting on the stage, and she started to draw them out in talking about their trauma. Three of the youth had lost parents to gun violence. One young woman went to school one day, and her mother came to get her later to tell her that her father had been murdered,” says Smith. “I watched Joni with them and thought, ‘What an incredible individual.’”

In 2019, Bloomberg Philanthropies began providing financial support to HeartSmiles and has been a core funder of their operations since. This support has in part allowed Holifield to bring on Prioleau, a former research assistant at the School, pay for transportation and food for the Heartbeats—and pay herself. “Joni is special,” says Smith, who talks with Holifield practically every day and proudly serves as a comrade in arms. “What distinguishes her from other youth providers is she really listens to young people. And she brings them to the table. There’s no middleman. They really take ownership.”

Before the pandemic, Holifield held HeartSmiles meetings in person twice weekly at the Bloomberg School, where she’s had an office since she started leading the Youth Advisory Board in 2018. After the pandemic began, she shifted all meetings to virtual, showing up online in her trademark HeartSmiles hoodie and greeting everyone with infectious enthusiasm. “What’s up y’all? How you doing? Yo, how you feelin’ today?” And, within a few weeks of schools closing in March 2020, Holifield had created Success Sessions, a daily virtual program to offer structure, community, and academic and emotional support at a time when most teenagers were suddenly without any of that. The program was so successful that Perkins-Cohen at the Mayor’s Office placed 100 students from YouthWorks, a state-funded youth employment program, with HeartSmiles during summer 2020, where they were exposed to innovative and diverse speakers, financial literacy, résumé development, and more. Some of the YouthWorks kids stayed on with HeartSmiles even after their summer job was over—drawn in by the safety, the energy, and the fun. “On the one hand there’s a lot of hardship and poverty, and coping with difficult things, and the need for mentors and organizations to support them,” says Mendelson. “On the other hand, there’s a lot of joy and cool teenage things and talent and hope. And love.”  

Joni Holifield holding a microphone
Joni Holifield opens up at the 2019 Bloomberg American Health Summit. Photo by Larry Canner

Donte Matthews, 15, was placed at HeartSmiles through YouthWorks—and hasn’t left. He joined the Youth Advisory Board even though he’d never spoken to “professional people” before. “During my first meeting, Ms. Joni said, ‘You’re a new Heartbeat, you’re on your grind. You’re crushing it.’” He consistently attended the HeartSmiles virtual programs and posted Daily Jewels on Instagram—motivational messages that Holifield began sharing on Instagram that offer advice on everything from overcoming difficulties to choosing friends to the importance of creativity in business and leadership. After Matthews missed a few days, “Ms. Joni said, ‘What’s up?’ She told me to reflect on my actions,” he says. “Ms. Joni is heavy on consistency, being there, paying attention, and getting something out of it.”

Since that first day in 2016, Clinton has been there, paying attention, and getting everything she can out of HeartSmiles. This past year, she took an SAT class through HeartSmiles and has been meeting regularly with her HeartSmiles mentors (many of them volunteers) to get help with her college applications. Next fall, she will become the first person in her family to attend college. “I’ve been wanting to go to college since I was in fifth grade,” says Clinton, who says her top choice is Spelman College. “I had discipline and motivation. I just didn’t have anyone like HeartSmiles to help bring it out of me.”

When Holifield was growing up, she believed the only way she could have a better life was to escape everything she knew. Now her mission is to show the Heartbeats that whether they choose to stay in Baltimore or leave, they can have more than they’ve been given; they can become more than what they see around them. “You own your life. You own whatever life gives you,” she says. “That’s the key.”