A passion for helping youths

Mentor: The co-founder of the Urban Leadership Institute is on a mission to help youths steer clear of trouble.

January 03, 2004|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

David Miller walks into the classroom and gets right to it, writing several words on the board that he says "challenge" young males, among them pistol and prison.

"Why is the word pistol up here?" Miller asks the boys ages 14 to 17, who attend Eager Street Academy, a school housed in the Baltimore City Detention Center. "If you're a man who's living right, you're sober, responsible, taking care of your commitments and working legally, do you still need a gun? No."

Miller doesn't mince words when talking with the boys, who have been charged with offenses including carjacking and attempted murder. He works with youths regularly and knows it's best to be straight with them.

The way he sees it, too many people - from parents to politicians - sugarcoat things when speaking to children.

So Miller, who grew up in Northwest Baltimore and knows from experience the trouble that lurks on city streets, pulls no punches.

He hopes his candor will get through to some of the children before it's too late, before they're facing life in prison or, worse, their names are added to the city's homicide list.

Miller, 35, is co-founder of the Urban Leadership Institute, a consulting firm that designs programs for children and families. He was once director of Youth Links, a Johns Hopkins University-sponsored program that develops nontraditional approaches to stopping youth violence.

A former Baltimore public school teacher - he taught at Calverton Middle School - Miller has spent his adult life working with children. Trying to save youths, particularly black boys, has become his passion.

He gets paid for his efforts, but those who know him say it's not the money that drives him. In the end, Miller wants to know that he has made a difference in a child's life.

"He's constantly trying to educate," said John Zesiger, a Lombard Middle School teacher who met Miller when he enrolled in his human learning class at the Johns Hopkins University in the fall of last year.

"He's constantly trying to inform. He's constantly trying to mentor, especially with young men."

Zesiger thought Miller could be instrumental in his efforts to reach his Lombard pupils, "to allow them to express themselves and their ideas in ways that they're generally not allowed to."

They decided Miller would come to Zesiger's class every Thursday to talk with his pupils and listen to them. In June, the children produced, with Miller's help, a 32-page book in which they wrote poetry and expressed their views on violence.

The children talked freely about violence and death; most of them have lost friends or relatives to homicide. Miller found it hard to listen to them for eight consecutive weeks and said he sometimes sat in his car and cried while replaying their stories in his mind.

Despite the pain his work sometimes brings, Miller is committed.

"If I didn't do the things I do, there would be one more innocent bystander carjacked or pistol-whipped," Miller said recently during an interview.

"I'm not the only person who does what I do. But we gotta do it more, and we gotta do it more often, and we gotta do it better. If we don't meet the kids in environments we can control -schools, churches, community centers - then we will meet them when we're coming out of Reisterstown Road Plaza at 7:30 at night with a handful of packages, and they'll have a pistol cocked to our heads."

Spreading a message

Miller will spread his message anywhere there's a listening ear. In October, he and Darnell Lamarr Shields, co-founder of Urban Leadership Institute, held a daylong workshop in Annapolis for about 250 students from across the state. Topics ranged from hip-hop music to civic responsibility.

Miller has visited nearly every prison and detention center in Maryland, talking to boys and young men about life and pitfalls to watch out for.

At 5 feet 8 inches, Miller doesn't have a commanding presence. But he gets respect. Perhaps that's because he was once headed for the life he tries to steer juveniles away from.

As a teen-ager, Miller was arrested on charges of aggravated assault and fighting. He credits his parents, Peter and Carol Miller, with helping him set his life straight. His father is a retired postal worker; his mother is a retired school teacher.

"They provided me with the foundation to be successful," Miller said.

"They were my role models. You know, it means a lot for a black male in this society to grow up with a father. You can't measure the impact that a sober, responsible, spiritually guided father can have in your life."

Miller's parents couldn't prepare him for the biggest tragedy of his life, seeing his best friend get shot and killed in 1989.

"We were at a nightclub in West Baltimore, and some guys tried to rob us," Miller said. "Shots were fired. He was killed. I lived. It had a profound impact on the way that I view the world. That incident took a lot out of me when it happened. It's something I think about every day."

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