Boys to men

December 28, 2005

Walker Gladden III, a youth coordinator in East Baltimore, is on a mission to have the city's astronomic murder rate declared a public health epidemic, particularly as it affects young African-American men between the ages of 14 and 24, the primary homicide victims. Mr. Gladden thinks the epidemic label would help bring more resources, and renewed attention, to Baltimore.

He's surely right that more financial resources, spent wisely, could help stem the tide of violence that has overwhelmed too many Baltimore neighborhoods. But Mr. Gladden exemplifies an equally important resource that is essential to the homicide- and violence-reduction effort: adult male mentors who can help needy young boys become responsible men.

Research and experience show that young black males face particular challenges. Studies of the criminal justice system have found that on any given day, one out of every eight black males in their 20s is incarcerated. The outlook is no less alarming in Baltimore, where the high school graduation rate for African-American males has stayed below 50 percent for the past three years. And young black males dominate the drug trade, from low-level runners to victims of disputes over money, turf and other hazards of the business.

That's why Mr. Gladden, a former dropout, drug dealer and prison inmate, took a van-load of young men to Baltimore Cemetery recently so they could see the ultimate result of the violence that surrounds them. As reported by The Sun's Sumathi Reddy, Mr. Gladden spends a lot of time talking and listening to young men, trying to keep them out of trouble or to help them recover from past criminal activity.

What does it take for disadvantaged youths to survive and thrive? Experts point to three key ingredients: enabling meaningful participation in activities, such as sports, music and the arts, which suggests that there should be a major expansion of after-school and other community-based programs; setting high expectations and helping youths rise to meet them; and, most important, fostering a caring relationship with at least one adult, whether it's a parent, other relative, teacher, coach, minister, social worker or youth coordinator.

While individual efforts are critical, Mr. Gladden rightly advocates for public health experts and city officials to push for more programs focused on education and employment. Keeping more black youths on the path to success is both a one-on-one and a collective enterprise.

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