I WAS in the Lafayette Park projects the other day, just hanging around, uninvited but unopposed, when the stereotypical police cruisers came roaring in on a drug raid.
I was still there when they brought out the suspects and when a sniper opened fire on them from some perch up the wire-mesh face of the high rise. More police converged, a copter, all the neighbors and, of course, the news crews.
The whole event brought life and power to the projects; kids surrounded a TV newsman as though he were a pop star. But that's a grim kind of notoriety; the residents who hurried inside to watch their neighborhood on the TV news must have done so with mixed feelings.
I've been working on a report about five gifted and talented black teens in Baltimore, and even though I am neither gifted nor black, the experience has been sensitizing me to the problem of how often Baltimore's African-American community is publicized for its trouble and how seldom for its accomplishments. It's the only public picture we get anymore of black youth: sons being frisked for drugs and led away in handcuffs, single mothers in welfare flats, shotgun gangs and neglected infants who fall from apartment windows. How many times can black kids see that stuff without becoming discouraged -- or enraged?
In the course of my work, I have been talking with two guys who are asking the same question but who, unlike me, have the
genius and the guts to cultivate some solutions. They simply ignore the media stereotypes and the street hype and go straight to the heart.
One is Richard Rowe, whose acclaimed Project RAISE finds local corporations and organizations to sponsor mentors for city kids who are at risk of falling into the urban quagmire. So passionate is Rowe's defense of positive mentoring for black youth that each of our one-hour appointments together has stretched to three hours. RAISE actually stands for "Raising Ambition Increases Self-esteem," and that's also the Rowe motto, especially concerning Baltimore's most maligned constituency, young black males.
Rowe is a former Urban League executive, and when he talks about losing a whole generation of kids to the streets, he takes it personally. His solution is to reach out directly, one on one, to the hardened (yet vulnerable) kids of the inner city, the "under city," and to prove to them that there are positive role models, goal models, worth living for.
The other guy is Louis Barnett, a volunteer publicity manager for the NAACP's "ACT-SO" program, an annual competition rewarding black student accomplishments in science, arts and humanities. His ideal is to identify and involve Baltimore's talented black teens, give them a forum to display their specialty, then hold them up as examples to the rest of the community.
"Our ACT-SO kids are a positive group," Barnett says. One is a classical pianist, one a fiction writer, one an architectural designer. They are out there challenging themselves and, by extension, daring us to notice them.
But who sees that face of black Baltimore? "What if inner-city kids had these examples on TV to emulate?" Barnett asks. He is trying to make that happen through sheer determination, his willingness to get involved personally. He juggles a citywide network of promotion and scouting to get the ACT-SO message out. And once kids are involved, he personalizes the experience for them, finds coaching for their projects, even goes to applicants' houses the night before a submission deadline to make sure things are done on time. The only way to fight the negative images is to replace them, Barnett would say, with overwhelmingly positive ones.
Rowe and Barnett may come at the same problem from opposite directions, but they represent high standards of personal commitment at a time when black husbands and fathers are being criticized for a lack of involvement with youth.
In either case, the important thing, the urgent thing now, is to get more of those positive black images out there, publicizing programs like ACT-SO and RAISE in the neighborhoods, in schools, on TV, before it is too late in the brief, impressionable lives of these kids.
It's painful to watch teens of great potential leaning against the dumpsters of Lafayette Park, waiting for something to happen. This generation, whose parents grew up in the dynamic 1960s, has some of the most creative and charismatic young pople we've ever had.
How can we let them lapse like this?
John Caps writes from Glen Burnie.