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On saving boys from violence, 'We gotta be one city'

Mentoring boys is not about race, it's about caring and commitment

I asked Cameron Miles, who has been mentoring Baltimore boys for nearly 20 years, what a white guy can do. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has called for black men to enlist in a campaign against violence by mentoring boys and young men, and she drew a large crowd of potential volunteers, most of them black, to Empowerment Temple on Tuesday night.

Great. But what about us white guys?

The mayor's right: Intervening with boys and young men — getting them educated, getting them to manhood without killing or being killed — is urgent business. "We cannot afford to fail," the mayor said, and she was right about that, too.

The only problem is, her message suggests that violence, most of it black-on-black, is a black problem. She seems to be saying to white Baltimore: "Go on about your business, this is black Baltimore's problem. I got this."

Now I don't think most people who care about this city — those of us who live here and the many who work, go to school or get their entertainment here — believe that for a minute. But if you're a white guy, and not already a police officer, probation supervisor, public defender or schoolteacher, you might feel excluded from the call.

Or you might figure: How can I relate to a black kid in the city?

So that's why I went to Miles, a retired Army master sergeant who created Mentoring Male Teens in the Hood in 1996. It's an all-volunteer mentoring program that exposes groups of boys to role models and speakers and keeps them thinking about education and a positive future. About 3,000 kids have gone through the program.

"Many of the boys we've worked with have been disappointed and lied to over the years," says Miles. "Quite frankly, I've had boys say, 'I hate my father.' … They are crying out for someone to care for them. They are angry, and being angry causes them to look for love in all the wrong places."

In gangs, for instance.

"So, if you are a caring man — black, white or brown," says Miles, "and if you show you care about a young man, you are needed. But [mentoring] is a commitment. You have to be there."

More than breaching any racial divide, the hard sweat of mentoring is keeping a promise, not disappointing the many-times disappointed.

"After working all week long, you can't get to Saturday morning and say, 'I don't feel like' doing whatever was planned that day," says Miles. "If you say you're going to do something, you gotta do it. If you don't, then that just works into more anger and hatred."

And that goes for any man who steps up to mentor, no matter his race.

"We gotta be one city, Dan," says David Miller, founder of the Dare To Be King project, another Baltimore-based effort to help African-American boys navigate the hazards of growing up.

Miller trains community groups and schools to support at-risk boys. He's created a "survival workbook" to help boys avoid violence and deal with bullies, racism, poverty and "daddy rage."

Miller started down this path several years ago, after his friend Donald Bentley was gunned down in Baltimore during summer vacation from Morehouse College.

"I think it's great if the city can recruit large numbers of black men to serve as mentors, advocates, academic coaches," says Miller. "But there still needs to be a level of outrage and compassion that's not there now. Too many white people do not recognize the humanity of black boys.

"Of 211 homicides in Baltimore [in 2014], 189 were black males. Clearly that suggests a problem with inner-city violence. But this doesn't affect only black males. It affects the overall reputation of the city … and it affects all of us."

Miller agreed with Miles that men of all races have a role to play in the lives of boys growing up in low-income, single-parent households.

Skin color shouldn't matter. Commitment does. Caring does.

Three decades ago, Robert Bly, the poet and sage, challenged more men to become engaged in the lives of boys who are not their sons. In his famous "gatherings of men," dismissed by some as New Age-y group therapy, Bly convincingly traced the roots of violence and alcoholism to what he called "the absence of the father" — either physical or emotional separation that left painful wounds in the souls of young men.

"When you're looking at gangs of young men, you're looking at young men who have no older man in their life at all," Bly said in a PBS interview. "And when a young man feels unparented, he will try to burn your city down for you."

To keep boys and young men from falling into the gang life, Bly suggested identifying the wisest, most responsible older men in a neighborhood and challenging each to keep two boys from going to prison. "It's astonishing," he said, "how they will change when they realize there's older men who are interested in them."

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is also host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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