Program envisions a chain of mentors pulling kids from street life

STEVEN "Take Back The City" Mitchell is certainly dedicated to the cause,and he's always trying to get other men - black, white, Asian, Republican orDemocrat, city or suburban - to join him in taking on one of the mostpersistent and daunting challenges in our midst. He's all about savingBaltimore kids from drugs, thugs and violence.

He frequently seeks attention and puts his own mug shot on press releases,but I don't think it's because he has political ambitions. It's because heneeds help, and the only way to recruit good people - particularly men who canbe positive influences - is to keep after the media in this town.

The media focus largely on what's wrong, with some elements perpetuatingold generalities or simply reacting to events, instead of advancingprovocative ideas or highlighting those engaged in the hard sweat of changinghuman behavior.

Talk is cheap, ridicule easy.

Making a difference in the lives of at-risk kids - that's the tough part.That's what Steve Mitchell is about.

A prosecutor in the juvenile division of the Baltimore state's attorney'soffice, Mitchell knows firsthand what's at stake. His anti-violence Take BackThe City campaign is about breaking a cycle and proving wrong the kind ofbleak prediction I heard Friday during an interview with a 26-year-old drugdealer:

"The kids coming up today, the young ones - the 14-, 16- year-olds -they're going to be worser. I'm tellin' you. We have 11-year-olds out heredoing reefer, Ecstasy, everything. We have kids who will pop one anotherbecause someone stepped on their shoes or looked at them wrong, becausethey're hatin'. The next generation comin' up - it's gonna be terrible." Ormaybe just as bad as what we've had in the city for at least two decades -young men who grow up in dysfunctional homes, who see addiction and violenceas normal, who drop out of school and, seeing no other option for themselves,hook into the street life. Gangsta is how they define manhood.

"They get into that gangsta lifestyle early because it's what they see andwhat they think is cool," says Mitchell. "We have to get to them before thatbecomes their mindset."

Mitchell formed his Take Back The City project 15 years ago, and he's comeup with different ways to pull people together for this effort. He's been apresence at countless stop-the-killing rallies and vigils.

He calls his latest endeavor the Winning Teams mentoring project. It's anapproach I've never seen before. Here's how it works:

Middle school pupils will be mentored by high school students, who will bementored by college students, who will be mentored by men and women who haveestablished careers.

This is a twist on traditional mentoring programs. Here's Mitchell'srationale:

"The best possible mentor for an elementary or middle school student is adedicated, committed, high school student, someone close enough to his or herage that that person can relate to them and the series of problems and issuesthat is unique to their age group.

"Similarly, the best mentor for a high school student is a college orgraduate student, someone who is either still in or close enough to thoseteenage years to understand ... someone who has graduated from high school,completed the college application process, and is moving forward.

"And the best mentor for a college or graduate student is a youngprofessional, someone who has successfully navigated the same course that thecollege student is now on and is moving ahead professionally."

Mitchell cites an additional benefit to using older kids as mentors: "Thatexperience of having a young person looking up to you and realizing that youractions and the impressions that you make will have an impact on someone closeto you."

Sometimes in juvenile proceedings, Mitchell says, a 9- or 10-year-old boywill appear, charged with a minor offense.

"When we were still in the old courthouse, I'd give the court master asignal - a wink or something - and we'd send the boy to the bullpen, juveniledetention, for an hour or two, where he'd be with the older kids," saysMitchell. "And he'd come back crying, and we expected that. But what we didn'texpect was the impact it had on the older kids. They didn't want the littleboy in there with them. Seeing the younger boy coming along made them thinkabout themselves and the example they had set."

Mitchell wants to put together 15 to 20 teams of mentors in the first yearof the program. "Right now we have more female volunteers than male," he says."We need men."

Hey guys, if you want to get involved in Mitchell's project, call443-263-8106, or visit Mitchell's Web site at www.

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