`There has to be a sense of urgency'

For activist Powers, the time is now to fight to improve city schools

February 11, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

In many ways, violence helped shape Tyrone Powers.

He'll tell you it was his mother - her unfailing love and uncompromising conviction.

Or he'll say it was faith in a powerful God who protects and provides deliverance.

In part, that's true. But the passion that drives Powers to fight for a better education for Baltimore's children - and inspired him to persuade hundreds to take over a city block last month - was born from a desire to prevent young people from experiencing the kind of violent incidents that have become milestones in his life.

"I understand what it is our young people are dealing with on a day-to-day basis and how important education is in order to allow them to overcome the odds," said Powers, a broad-shouldered man with big hands and a gentle smile. "I have no political ambition. That's my only ambition, and that's my passion."

To some, Powers, 41, came to local prominence just recently - first, during the summer, when he presented a 10-point "People's Plan" to reduce crime at City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.'s summit on solutions to crime.

Powers' plan made its way into the final 40-page report that the councilman presented to Mayor Martin O'Malley for consideration.

Then, Powers re-emerged last month, when - outraged by news of the struggling city school system's dismal financial picture - he pulled together one of the most well-attended school rallies in recent history, urging parents, religious leaders and community members to demand that a first-class education program be state and local political leaders' first priority.

As with his crime plan, Powers offered some solutions - not just criticism - regarding city schools.

He thinks control of the schools should be returned to Baltimore, shedding the current supervisory partnership of city and state. He also believes "massive amounts of money" should be redirected to schools from other programs and agencies.

"I don't think our children have been our priority," he said. "But this is the year of education in Baltimore."

Despite holding a full-time position at Anne Arundel Community College and a schedule packed with radio shows and speaking engagements across the country, the father of four (the youngest is named for Malcolm X) has determined that his primary work this year will be helping to improve public education.

On a recent Marc Steiner radio call-in program on WYPR, Steiner called Powers "the leader of the new grass-roots movement," to reform city schools.

But leaders in Baltimore say Powers isn't new and that he had been an activist long before he was drawn to the issue of public education.

"If you're here in Baltimore and you don't know Tyrone Powers, then I have to ask, `Well, were you really here in Baltimore City?'" said Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the city Board of Elections. "He's a leader's leader. In times of need, when you pick up the phone and call certain folks, the question isn't whether they're going to be out there with you, the question is how soon are they going to be there. ... Tyrone can call on other people, and they will come."

At least 400 came Jan. 21 when Powers mobilized a rally on behalf of the city's 96,000 schoolchildren - who may be facing increased class sizes because of a multimillion-dollar budget deficit.

Christopher N. Maher, the education director of Advocates for Children and Youth, said Powers' rally was significant, particularly because the school system stands to receive more than an additional $250 million per year once Thornton Commission legislation is implemented.

Rallying for education

"Getting hundreds of people to rally for public education in the freezing rain is a good sign that the people of Baltimore are ready to fight for adequate funding for their children's education," Maher said.

The road to leading an emotional crowd to the steps of the city school district's North Avenue headquarters began for Powers 34 years ago, at another emotional event - one at which Powers could do nothing.

At the age of 7, when he was a second-grader at Bentalou Elementary School, Powers froze, powerless, while witnessing the rape of a close relative.

"I stood and watched and didn't do anything to stop that from happening," Powers said. "I ... made a decision at that point that I would never let fear or threats stop me from doing the right thing."

Powers, his sister and three brothers quietly struggled through the next few years, which included the separation of their parents.

"It was a difficult time for all of us," Powers said. It turned out to be particularly difficult for Powers' elder brother, Cornelius "Nate" Powers.

While Powers, who went to Southwestern High School, was earning a bachelor's degree from Coppin State College, a master's from the University of Cincinnati and was forging a career in law enforcement, Nate was falling into a world of drugs and crime.

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