Post-Freddie-Gray, interviewers want to hear what Baltimore teens have to say

Some astute interviewers are giving voice and unexpected opportunities to West Baltimore teens.

On April 27, when the Baltimore rioting began, CNN anchor-reporter Victor Blackwell was perched in a Marriott Hotel bar in Port-au-Prince on vacation. A TV broadcast footage of teens and others battling police.

"I was watching Mondawmin Mall being looted and sitting next to Haitians who were looking at my hometown and going, 'Tsk, tsk, tsk. What is going on?" Blackwell said. "And I'm thinking, 'Mondawmin Mall: That's where I bought the shoes for my prom.' I know these places. I know these people."

Blackwell didn't get to Baltimore until April 30, but that knowledge of the city and the residents of West Baltimore helped him more than make up for his late arrival. He conducted an interview that day with three students from Carver Vocational-Technical High School and then took viewers on a tour of his old neighborhood that explained the psychology of the teens at Mondawmin Mall in a way that nothing on cable TV had — for all its hours of nonstop coverage.

With an inspirational follow-up report this month on CNN about how the Carver students' lives had changed as a result of the interview, Blackwell joined a host of interviewers ranging from Brookings Institution fellows to Sonja Sohn and Maria Broom, of HBO's "The Wire," who are bringing their microphones, recording devices and cameras to West Baltimore for conversations with the young adults living there.

While much of the media regularly show up only to cover the violence and then move on with no interest in the people or deeper sociological issues left behind, that has decidedly not been the case in West Baltimore since the death of Freddie Gray. The question is why are some members of the media showing a stronger sense of social consciousness in this case — and will any of this talk with teens in West Baltimore make any difference to anyone?

"In my case, my bosses know that I was born and reared in Baltimore, and so they assigned this to me," Blackwell said in a Sun interview this week. "And what I wanted to do was two things: Show them the backdrop of the unrest, which included all those abandoned homes along North Avenue, and then explore that moment in which Freddie Gray reportedly locked eyes with an officer and ran. I wanted to offer some context to the people asking the question, 'If you've done nothing wrong, why run? And why confront? Why protest?"

Blackwell said he contacted a friend who works for Baltimore's school system and asked her, "Can you get me some 16-or 17-year-old black males who can talk to me about that moment, who can take me into that second and give me the context?"

That "was the point of the interview," he said. But once Kyrique Jones, Terry Brown and Jamel Phillips addressed those questions, something unexpected happened.

"After about 10 or 15 minutes, it became obvious that it was more cathartic," Blackwell said. "No one had ever asked these questions about their feelings. Of course, their parents and families care, but they care about keeping them off the drugs, off the streets, in school and getting them to graduation. But it seems like there hadn't been a larger conversation asking them, 'What does it feel like?' And that was really cathartic for them."

The sense of hopelessness they sounded was profound.

"Going to Carver, you get certified in a certain trade, but once you get out of high school, you have no exposure, no experience, as in Freddie Gray," the 17-year-old Jones told Blackwell on camera. "He didn't have a job as a carpenter. Carver alumni, certified in carpentry — where was his job?"

"Do you want to leave West Baltimore?" Blackwell asked the three.

"I dream about leaving, but I'm not going to say it's a reality for me now," said Jones, who was about to graduate.

"How do you have hope?" Blackwell asks.

"You can have as much hope as you want," replied Phillips. "That don't mean it's going to change."

In an interview with The Sun, Jones explained his willingness to open up to Blackwell:

"I was kind of surprised that CNN wanted to know how the people felt. I just thought they were there for this scoop on how everybody was getting the footage of what was going on in the streets. But when they said they wanted to know what we felt about what was happening in the streets and in our lives, we just told them."

Sonja Sohn, the 51-year-old actress who played Detective Shakima Greggs on HBO's "The Wire," has been interviewing Baltimore teens this summer as well. She and her fellow "Wire" colleague, Maria Broom, have gone for a deeper, ethnographic form of interviewing developed in workshop settings.

I sat in one of the sessions last month that included teens and took place in a cool, quiet room upstairs at the Penn North Recovery Center — just a block away from the CVS drugstore that burned during the riots. Meditation and memory exercises helped participants focus on their recollections and find their voices as they talked about their feelings during the unrest.

"One of the things we hear over and over in the workshops is that people felt they weren't being heard before the riots, and that is part of what ignited the unrest," Sohn said during a break in the meeting she had with teens. "OK, that is something we know about as performing artists: helping people find their voices and giving them a platform."

Some of the stories told in the workshops were performed by cast members from "The Wire" at a soldout event July 18 during Artscape at the Lyric Opera House.

Makayla Gilliam-Price, a 17-year-old rising senior at City College, was one of the featured storytellers and performers at that event, and she delivered a powerful presentation.

"I got a ton out of the workshops," Gilliam-Price said in a Sun interview this week. "I don't want to say I wasn't heard before … because I've always been taught to make a platform for myself to speak regardless of the space that I am in. But the platform has definitely grown."

Gilliam-Price, who received a Youth Leadership in Activism Award at the "Wired Up!" event, said the workshops taught her that "each of those bodies marching with you" in a protest movement is a "life story that's not being told."

George Burroughs, creative director of the Brookings Institution Creative Lab, said his team came to Baltimore to hear some of those stories firsthand. The Brookings team, he said, wanted to "take the data" that the think tank had on lack of opportunities for West Baltimore teens and "see if it lined up" with what the teens themselves are feeling and living.

"If you meet these teens and talk to them and look at the data Brookings has, you realize that the only difference between these kids in West Baltimore and those in other Baltimore neighborhoods or out in the suburbs like Howard County is opportunity," he said.

"These are smart kids," added Burroughs, who produced a video now on YouTube that features some of those students. "Our hope with our video is for people to take a look at our data about the lack of opportunity and then listen to the kids. We just asked the questions and listened. These kids do have goals, but unfortunately ... opportunities aren't there and it keeps them stuck."

The three Carver students Blackwell interviewed have already become un-stuck thanks to their conversation with him.

Edison O. Jackson, president of Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, saw the CNN interview and was "touched and moved."

"These young men have potential, but not opportunity," Jackson says in Blackwell's follow-up video. "And the comment that struck me is, 'There's no way out.' They felt trapped. So, the question is: 'President Jackson, what are you going to do?'"

What he did was fly the three down to the Daytona Beach campus, interview them and then offer them admission and the promise that the school would pay for any university costs not covered by federal grants. Two of the three had never been on a plane.

Brown and Jones are already on campus and rooming together. Phillips, who is a rising senior at Carver, will join them next fall. The university and Blackwell are both offering mentorship.

One of the reasons for the focus on teens in the post-Freddie-Gray interview projects, interviewers said, are those dramatic and disturbing images of students battling police at Mondawmin Mall. Like Blackwell's supervisors at CNN, they wanted to know how the teens in the street got there and how representative they were — or were not — of their communities.

Perhaps the most important difference between the superficial coverage of Fox News or MSNBC, for example, and the kinds of nuanced West Baltimore stories told by CNN, Brookings, Sohn and Broom is familiarity and knowledge of the city.

Burroughs said he and his wife were homeowners in Baltimore for six years before recently moving to the D.C. area. Sohn lived here six years while filming "The Wire" and "feels parts of Baltimore are woven into" who she is today. Blackwell spent the first 18 years of his life here before going to Howard University.

"I don't even know if I could have told the story this way if I tried to do it in Ferguson or Sanford or New York or in North Charleston," Blackwell said this week. "I think because I know this city, I know this place, then I was able to relay that emotion."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/davidzurawik

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