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Teen-led project seeks to promote respect in Baltimore Inner Harbor

The Baltimore Sun
With a "Code of Respect," local teens hope to encourage empathy in the Inner Harbor.

Like many teens in the city, Diamond Sampson enjoyed spending spend time in the Inner Harbor when high school let out. But she didn't always feel her presence was welcome.

"You would always get looks," said Sampson, 19, who said store owners and police seemed wary of the many high school students who congregate at the busy harbor. "The minute something would go wrong, it was automatically assumed that the kids had something to do with it."

Sampson and a group of her peers have been working through the nonprofit Inner Harbor Project to improve relations among the various groups that operate in the waterfront district.

One of the elements of that project is taking shape this weekend with the inauguration of the project's Code of Respect initiative, a set of guidelines for behavior emblazoned on a group of large heart-shaped sculptures in the neighborhood.

The code, part of a broader campaign to encourage respectful behavior in the area, consists of six recommendations centered on the themes of using appropriate language, acting considerately and avoiding conflict.

Those are goals that everyone in the neighborhood should strive for, said Sampson, who is now a student at Baltimore City Community College.

The code aims to promote "a deeper sense of empathy, respect and compassion in our day-to-day interactions," said Celia Neustadt, 26, executive director of The Inner Harbor Project, a youth-led group she founded in 2012 to help address issues at the harbor.

The Code of Respect initiative has the support of local businesses and civic groups such as the Waterfront Partnership.

"It's truly heartening to see how much these young people care about the Inner Harbor," Laurie Schwartz, president of the partnership, said in a statement.

The code's recommendations came about through three years of research — Sampson and others, under Neustadt's guidance, led focus groups with tourists, teenagers, business owners and police officers with a goal of trying to understand each party's idea of respect.

The young researchers quickly realized how much those ideas could differ.

Neustadt said some older people, for example, saw teenagers wearing pants low as disrespectful. Teenagers, meanwhile, saw a double standard in having to keep their shirts on during hot summer days while joggers weren't asked to do the same.

Desmond Campbell, a 19-year-old who also works with The Inner Harbor Project and helped design the Code of Respect, said he experienced that double standard himself.

"I didn't necessarily feel disrespected, but I did feel neglected as a patron of the area," said the Reservoir Hill native.

Neustadt said the number of teens congregating in the Inner Harbor increased when the city instituted a "choice school" program — meaning students such as Sampson, who lived on one side of the city but attended school on the other, had long commutes. The Inner Harbor became a common stop along the way.

Large assemblies of kids made shop owners uneasy, Neustadt said, which in turn caused teens to feel unwelcome. The situation was made worse by occasional fights that broke out, including some that resulted in injuries.

"When young people feel excluded and unwelcome," Neustadt said, "they can lash out in violent ways. We saw that in the uprising last year," she said, referring to the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray.

The Inner Harbor Project has worked hard to improve strained relations, she said. Neustadt said juvenile arrests have decreased in the area since the group began its work in 2012. She described the focus groups as productive — especially for police officers.

"For them it was a cathartic experience," she said. "Police officers feel very misunderstood."

She said she hopes the Code of Respect will further help improve understanding among people in the neighborhood, especially teens.

"Kids are really simple," Sampson said. "As long as they feel comfortable in a space, they'll enjoy it."

jcoburn@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jesse_coburn

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