Shortly before Rashad Hawkins was born, his family left one of Baltimore's toughest housing projects to seek a better life. Yet moving a few blocks away didn't negate the exposure to urban poverty, drugs and crime.
"The man that raised me as his own son since I was a toddler was murdered right before I started high school. I was about to turn 14," recalls Hawkins, now 22. "My family was struggling. I was working several part-time jobs to help out while trying to pass my classes."
It wasn't an easy time, but in his sophomore year, the teen met the team at Community Law In Action, founded in 1998 by Baltimore lawyer Terry Hickey.
The nonprofit trains young people to think critically, solve problems and promote positive change in their schools and communities, "giving them a voice," according to Corryne Deliberto, who recently took over as the organization's executive director. She replaced Hickey, who earlier this year was appointed president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Chesapeake.
"The average young person in Baltimore doesn't grow up feeling really valued in terms of having input," said Hawkins, who became a teen activist and also interned at City Hall. "It changed my life."
Headquartered in West Baltimore and affiliated with the nearby University of Maryland School of Law, Community Law In Action operates law and leadership academies at four public high schools citywide and has program models that range from worksite mentoring to youth justice initiatives.
"Last year, we worked with about 400 kids across all our programs," said Laura Furr, senior director of Youth Justice Initiatives, part of an eight-person team. "We have plenty of success stories."
About 98 percent of Community Law in Action's high school seniors graduated and went on to college, career institutes or the military, according to officials. Along the way, students completed hundreds of hours of community service and advocacy projects.
At a public meeting in February, Shannon Johnson and Gerleene Garcia of Patterson High School testified before the Baltimore City Planning Commission about a zoning measure that could reduce the number of businesses selling liquor in city neighborhoods.
"Liquor is so accessible that minors have a higher chance of obtaining it," Garcia, 17, of South Baltimore, said. "When you are raised in a community with crime, drugs and alcoholism, you begin to think it's acceptable."
While the planning commission approved the measure, the Baltimore City Council has yet to take final action; that is likely in 2014. Garcia said it was critical that she was able to express her opinion about the issue.
"It's really important for youth to step up," said Garcia, an aspiring lawyer who interned at the Attorney General's office through Community Law in Action. "Decision makers need to hear everyone's point of view."
That extends to youth who might not otherwise be heard. One recent internship program enabled 10 young people with ties to the drug trade to develop ideas that might deter others from taking the same path.
Supported by a grant from the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, the interns conducted research, then presented their findings and possible solutions to several members of the Baltimore City Council.
Afterward one young man wrote, "This job made me want to be the voice of the youth and made me realize how much my education is important to me. I have more confidence in myself."
Hawkins, who attends community college, also credits Community Law in Action with "polishing" his professional and interpersonal skills.
Today, he's a youth organizer with Community Law in Action's Just Kids Partnership, a collaborative project with the Public Justice Center, a legal advocacy group in Maryland.
"We're raising public awareness about youth incarceration, specifically, juveniles in the state charged as adults," Hawkins said, noting his involvement in organizing efforts to halt construction of a proposed youth jail in Baltimore.
In November, he walked the red carpet at the Charles Theater for the world premiere of "The Truth About Our Youth," a documentary that examines young people in Maryland's adult criminal justice system.
"The real issues are the systems in place that allow these cycles to continue," said Hawkins, who was among the voices featured in the film funded by Open Society Institute-Baltimore. "That's why I fight for youth justice reform and support other movements that are working to improve the lives of 'at-risk' communities and populations."
That sentiment is echoed by many Community Law in Action graduates, some of whom have launched their own organizations.
"We were shown how to make a difference," said Amanda Thompson, 30, who heads Strengthening Lives, a regional nonprofit that organizes concerts and other events to raise money for various causes.
"I'm determined to help my community and the world."