Ricardo Rowe calls two places home — his adopted hometown of Columbia, [Maryland] and his birthplace in Hanover, Jamaica.
To give back to both communities, the Oakland Mills resident has undertaken two wildly different projects.
Rowe has penned an autobiography that uses his life story to build a case for Columbia as the ultimate model of what a city can be. Meanwhile, he’s embarked on project to install miniature lending libraries on posts in impoverished areas of his homeland.
Rowe will give a 90-minute talk at 7 p.m. Thursday at the county’s Central Branch Library on “From Sugar Cane to Cotton: My Jamaican American Transition,” in which he writes about social issues such as poverty, race relations and the need for diverse communities.
For Rowe, the common denominator linking these disparate projects is Columbia’s founder, James W. Rouse.
So highly does Rowe revere Rouse’s vision for a planned city built on diversity and acceptance that he believes the late developer deserves a place in history alongside slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
He credits Rouse for inspiring him to quit his job in the automation department of a soda bottling company in 2013 to work full-time on his dream of installing and stocking community book repositories in poor neighborhoods in Jamaica.
“Rouse created Columbia in 1967 at the height of the civil rights movement. Just think about the forward-thinking it took to create a safe space for all races and cultures to come together and interact,” said Rowe, who immigrated to America at age 7.
Rowe and his mother arrived in Baltimore in 1980 on Thanksgiving Day, leaving behind his father and infant sister. His mother worked as a live-in maid and Rowe lived with an aunt.
Fearing that her young son wasn’t thriving under that arrangement, Rowe’s mother considered letting him return to Jamaica.
“My dad wrote my mom letters saying, ‘Don’t send him back; there’s nothing for him here,’” he recalled.
By 1983, the family was reunited in Baltimore and had moved to Columbia, where his father found work as a custodian.
As Rowe began making friends from all races and cultures at school — after never before interacting with anyone outside his race — “that’s when [the power of] diversity hit me,” he said.
He thrived in Columbia, especially during his years at Wilde Lake High School, where he obtained a football scholarship to Penn State University.
When he and his buddies got back together on college breaks, they quickly realized they’d reached the same conclusions about the world outside Columbia.
“I always knew there was a racial divide in the rest of the country, despite living most of my life in what some of us called ‘the Columbia bubble,’” said Rowe, who eventually transferred to the University of Pittsburgh. But witnessing it firsthand still caught him and his friends off-guard.
“Columbia had taught us that diversity and race relations matter,” he said.
Rick Wilson, first-year principal of Wilde Lake High School, was a science teacher and coach at the school in 1990 when Rowe was a senior. Though the educator has served multiple schools during his 30-year career in Howard County, Wilson stayed in touch with his former student over the decades.
“It’s been a powerful experience to know Rick as he was then and to see the man he has become,” said Wilson, who invited Rowe to address student athletes at a school event in November.
“Rick has always had a personality that draws people in, but it’s been inspiring to see him living his dream and to see people helping him move his vision forward,” he said.
Rowe said he’s doing a slow rollout of his book, which he self-published in July through an Amazon company called CreateSpace. He’s also using his speaking engagements to intertwine Columbia’s influence on his life with his decision to start his foundation, which was formalized just months ago.
Rowe said the foundation is registered with Fractured Atlas, an organization that provides fiscal sponsorship of fledgling operations that aren’t able to file for nonprofit status on their own, enabling them to collect donations and apply for grants.
Six of the wooden mini-library structures containing as many as 50 books have been installed and six more are waiting to be filled with donated books, said Rowe, who takes month-long trips to Jamaica four times a year.
Rowe said he is also working with Jamaican government officials to draw up a plan for situating 40-foot shipping containers around the island to serve as walk-in libraries.
Caroline Wiggan, a third-grade teacher in Hanover, Jamaica, and Rowe’s distant cousin, said Jamaicans are eager to take books home to read, a privilege that hadn’t been available to most residents of rural areas.
“It’s phenomenal to see these books being passed from hand to hand and from home to home,” she said. “People are really looking up to Ricardo for creating this platform to help kids.”
Rowe confessed that getting the project off the ground wasn’t easy.
“The momentum was hard to establish, but now that we have it we are riding the wave,” he said.
He still continues to cite the tremendous impact Columbia has had on his life as one of his major sources of inspiration.
“Columbia is ground-zero when it comes to building race relations and [instilling] compassion for others,” he said. “It should be a model for cities everywhere.”
If you go
Ricardo Rowe will talk about his autobiography and his foundation at an author event from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. April 12 at the Central Branch Library, 10375 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Preregister at hclibrary.org or call 410-313-7800.
By: Janene Holzberg