Given the chance to reach more than 1,400 young people at the Baltimore Convention Center yesterday, organizers of the Youth Explosion 2004 leadership conference tried to impart as many positive messages as they could.
Workshops focused on business skills, college preparation, spirituality, dating violence and hip-hop music. Speakers encouraged the almost completely African-American crowd to love, respect themselves, take care of and think for themselves. Keynote speaker Afeni Shakur, mother of slain rapper Tupac Shakur -- who attended the School for the Arts in Baltimore in the late '80s.
She touched on the importance of religion, helping one's community and stopping violence.
The goal of all the approaches "is to inspire the young people to get active about their own lives," said Regina Salliey, director of special programs and services for the lead organizer, the Urban Leadership Institute. "This is just kind of to get them started."
The conference, in its fifth year, has grown from a few hundred attendees through partnerships with government and community organizations and word of mouth, Salliey said. Seventeen sponsors made it possible to offer free admission to participants.
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele gave the opening remarks yesterday, and Shakur offered an impassioned presentation at lunchtime.
"There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel small around you," Shakur said. She used her own drug use as an example, praising her son for shunning drug dealers who sold to her and embracing the friends who told him what she was doing.
Shakur helped found a record label that has released several albums of Tupac's music since he was shot in Las Vegas in 1996. She also founded the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation, which runs an youth arts camp and is raising money to build a performing arts center in Georgia.
In her remarks, she returned several times to the topic of violence, saying that the responsibility for ending what she called "a war on young people" lies with the youths themselves. "I want you to know that this is a crisis and you have to take control," she said. "Me and [other adults], we failed you. ... You have to take the bull by the horns."
One strategy she offered was to get involved with neighbors and community groups. "You've got to get up off your tuchis and care about someone else," she said. "I challenge you ... to get up tomorrow morning and show up for life."
Calvin Thomas III, 18, is a fan of Tupac's music and called Afeni Shakur "very inspiring."
"I respect her opinion," he said. "I think she can inspire people, especially because of Tupac's story." The rapper achieved fame and success despite growing up with poverty and violence, said Thomas, a student at the Community College of Baltimore County who also raps. "It makes me want to do [music] even more. It makes me believe in myself."
Simone Leeds, 16, of Woodlawn said that she learned some practical skills at the conference about conflict management and dealing with stress in school.
Leeds, a junior at City College, also said, "This [conference] brings a lot of youth together from different places. From hearing what they go through, I can learn."
The conference "is a safe haven for young people," said Antoine Taylor, 18, a part-time program assistant with the institute. "It's a day to express themselves."
He said, "young people can do something. Just trust them, and they can work it out."