As I watched the media coverage of the uprising in my hometown of Baltimore over the past few weeks, I became increasingly frustrated.
It started with coverage of a “riot”—which the media blamed on high school youth, who had been doing what they do every day, until they were greeted by a flank of police at their bus stop. There is no definitive account of how this confrontation really went down—were the teens aggressors, or did the police escalate the situation?—yet even the mayor of Baltimore herself felt free to quickly label these teens as “thugs.”
With this “riot” footage in hand, the news had no problem following a familiar script, painting Baltimore as a city that was lost and broken, burned out and hopeless. Nowhere to be found were stories about the many who are helping Baltimore thrive, through volunteer mentoring programs, family relationship building organizations, civil rights groups, after-school enrichment centers, or research on the problems that plague the city and their potential solutions.
Not all news media stuck with images of burning cars. In a more useful turn, some started digging deeper into Baltimore’s egregious past to find the roots of the current unrest—after all, these events didn’t come out of nowhere. In particular, news stories have covered Baltimore’s history of legalized racial segregation, the displacement of African American communities through numerous urban renewal projects, the wealth-stripping of black neighborhoods by predatory lending institutions, and finally, the most recently covered (but not new) consequences of aggressive “zero tolerance” police tactics.
But, of course, prominent journalists and their news outlets also turned to hackneyed cultural explanations to blame the poor, or equally tired rhetoric to blame the government for spending on social programs. David Brooks wrote that “the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology.” A month before, he wrote that the problem was norms and standards and that we should ask youth, “Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?”
But what are the norms of youth in Baltimore? No one bothered to ask. Instead, pundits and writers who have never set foot in the city (or did so only for a few minutes, just this week) blew hard about their opinions. Or worse, they relied on scenes from television shows about Baltimore to stand in for the voices of real youth. But no one turned to the youth to ask them who they are, what they’re doing, and what they want.
If we want to move forward, there lies our potential. And the potential is large and real. I know, because I’ve seen it.
My colleagues, my students, and I have spent over a decade in Baltimore’s poorest communities, following families and youth who originally hailed from many of the public housing high rises that were eventually demolished in the late 1990s. What we learned might surprise you.
We found that the “game” of street life and drug hustling does draw in some lost youth, but it is the exception. In fact, growing up “street” doesn’t even come close to describing the passage into adulthood for most youth in Baltimore. If anything, most youth we talked to are actively fighting the street, struggling to become something else—and frequently succeeding. They use what little resources they have and avoid those who threaten their futures.
As Ashanti, 22, told us, “As far as friends, I don’t surround myself with people that do illegal things.” Larry, 21, points out, “You see other people that was on the corners, and I’m tryin’ to make myself better [than that].” They are taking action not to get “caught up” or “become a statistic.” In fact, most of them actively scorn the drug dealers and hustlers they see in favor of the certified nursing assistants and business owners they hope to emulate one day. Youth growing up in the inner city aspire to be nurses, forensic scientists, lawyers, musicians, bus drivers, painters, dentists, carpenters, cosmetologists, good mothers and fathers, social workers, military officers, and chefs.
Among these youth—born in some of Baltimore’s worst housing projects—seventy percent finished high school, and about as many went on to college or trade school. Eighty percent held jobs in the years after high school. And they did all this while surviving families plagued with drug and alcohol addiction, incarceration, and severe financial shortages.
Of the 150 youth we studied, only 25 ever sold drugs—and only 9 for more than a temporary stint. In other words, most young people are hungry for education, work, and meaning—desperate for a sign that they are somebody and can be somebody even better. Norms are not the issue—they are on board with the American dream and want to be, as Marcus, 19, says, “out of trouble, and still in school,” and do what they’re “supposed to do.”
If you live in Baltimore, you might not recognize these youth, even though they’re hanging out at the Inner Harbor, people watching, or finding escape and a tasty treat at the local shopping centers. You know, just like “normal” youth. But the truth is that many of them are fighting battles that most of us will never see. Hailing from some of the highest-poverty communities in the country, they find motivation and inspiration anywhere they can.
Antonio, 23, suffered a traumatic childhood in the housing projects, as he watched his mother struggle severe depression and domestic violence, only to lose her, after she was killed one day in a drive-by shooting. But even in high school, Antonio understood the value of real work compared to street life, as he recounts, “I felt more better walking to work with the McDonald’s uniform on, opposed to selling weed.” He now proudly wears a uniform and works as a security guard at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a job he obtained only after ten interviews. He got the job using the connections of other security guards he didn’t know but walked up to on the street, asking them to be his references. Marcus is desperate to be as lucky as Antonio, as he searches everywhere for a job. “I just go inside every store and ask for applications . . . lookin’ for a job, it don’t matter [where].”
Dana, now 23, had a father who was in and out of jail when she was growing up, and by the time she was 16, three of her half-siblings were already dead—two from drug-related violence and one from AIDS. Dana helped care for her half-sister as she was dying—an experience that provided the wellspring for her desire to become a nurse. She completed a CNA certificate and currently works with disabled adults. Most recently, she enrolled in an EMT certification course to continue building her medical skill set.
Cody, 19, went to live with his grandmother after surviving physical abuse from his mother and dealing with the drug addictions of both parents. After years of therapy and hard work in school, he is proud to have earned his high school diploma—no one else in his family ever has. Cody’s dream is to become a police officer. Think about that for a minute. He is especially concerned about how people view his city:
Actually, I wanted to become a police officer just from seeing what’s going on in Baltimore every day. Seeing what people think about Baltimore out of the state. They think badly about Baltimore. So, me looking at that and me living in Baltimore for nineteen years, I want to change that. . . . I want to achieve, the gang violence and the drugs—knock it off the streets.
Amera, 19, also felt that inner drive to go beyond where she came from. Her mother dropped out of high school but was very supportive. Amera’s love for school made it paramount that she avoid friends who “weren’t headed in the right direction.” Despite her family’s lack of education, she stayed the course, “I just guided me through, did my homework by myself. I just knew I was gonna be like, I don’t know, like smart.”
Unfortunately, these stories are rendered invisible when the media report only the most sensational aspects of inner city life. When covering an isolated incident of looting, it is easier for viewers to believe that the extreme is the norm—and harder to see that most of these families and youth in Baltimore actually want what everyone wants.
This is not to say that Baltimore doesn’t have challenges. Just last week media outlets were ablaze with new research on the relationship between where you grow up and your chances to achieve as an adult. Children growing up in Baltimore face the lowest odds in the country in terms of escaping poverty.This newsflash, however, simply points to the work we have ahead of us to prevent structural barriers from neutralizing the grit and determination that so many Baltimore youth show us every day.
In other words, it’s not the youth of Baltimore that need improving—it’s the opportunities that they have in front of them.
In Baltimore City, less than a third of four year college students ever get a degree; only 11% complete a two-year credential. Rhiannon, 22, was one of the few youth who finished a bachelor’s degree. She attributes this in part to the support of schools and local programs. “Someone saw potential in me, a program for underprivileged children who were excelling.” We saw many other youth latch on to both academic and extracurricular activities, such as debate, dance, poetry, and carpentry. For some, these activities made all the difference between sticking it out in school and starting careers, instead of a life on the street or dropping out.
When our city’s leaders call youth “thugs,” it is an insult to the youth here who struggle everyday to survive, beat the streets, finish school, and find work—often on their own. It takes away from the incredible potential of a city that has been struggling and fighting for everything it has, even after decades of population decline, the crack epidemic, the loss of its major industries, the subprime lending crisis, and, it seems, policing tactics that have proven aggressive enough to warrant federal investigation.
My Baltimore has changed and developed in ways I never imagined since I moved here thirteen years ago. But the benefits of progress have not been distributed equally. This is a moment for Baltimore to shine, to make a national statement, to give back power, life, and healing to a city whose youth are ready to launch.
Dear Baltimore Youth: We see your incredible promise. We will not give up on you.
Note: The findings presented here are based on a forthcoming book that Stefanie DeLuca is writing with colleagues Susan Clampet-Lundquist and Kathryn Edin. The data was collected with the generous support of the William T. Grant Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation, and writing time was supported by The Century Foundation.