Can it be that a hobby makes a difference? That a passion for dance or raising pigeons or Shakespeare can help kids from poor families in Baltimore finish high school and get on track for a life better than the one they were born into?
The findings of a 10-year study of 150 young adults — all of them African-American, all born in the late 1980s or early 1990s into families that resided, at least for a time, in the city's public housing projects — seem to suggest exactly that.
Ninety-four percent of the young adults who were considered "on track" — working or in school — by the end of that study had what researchers call an "identity project."
It might have been an interest in music (recording rap songs, creating "beats" online and selling them for a few bucks) or playing games. It might have been a hobby, volunteering to help others, or getting involved in a club of some kind (not a gang). Whatever form it took, the "identity project" appeared to be a powerful influence.
The researchers say these activities are "life preservers [that] keep young people psychologically afloat while they resist the pull of the street."
And the street was a real threat. The young people in the study all started life in some of the toughest, most violent stretches of the city.
"For the youth in our study," researchers say, "identity projects were virtually always cast in sharp opposition to the street. They informed the young person's sense of self and the course to follow, as well as those to avoid. … We argue that identity projects work because they inspire grit, which is then deployed to pursue a brighter future."
To be clear: This was not some sociological hypothesis that academics set out to prove. The "identity project" thing just kept showing up during the study.
"We were very surprised," says Stefanie DeLuca, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist and one of the authors of the study. "It was a concept that emerged from the research.
"We went in to learn about neighborhoods and social contexts, not youth development per se. But it leapt out at us during the fieldwork and during the analysis. It could not be ignored.
"What was also surprising was that, while identity work is central to adolescence and the transition to adulthood, for youth this poor, it was more than that. It was a means of survival, a spark to ignite grit in the face of daunting neighborhood violence, underperforming schools and disadvantaged home lives."
The study was published by the Russell Sage Foundation as a book titled "Coming of Age in the Other America."
DeLuca's co-authors are Susan Clampet-Lundquist, an associate professor of sociology at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, and Kathryn Edin, a Hopkins sociologist whose 2015 book, "$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America," presents an intimate and disturbing portrait of modern poverty. (Edin found hundreds of thousands of American households getting by on $2 per person per day.)
For the new book, the researchers conducted interviews with the children of men and women who, in 1990s, had either qualified for housing assistance under the federal Moving To Opportunity program or who had found themselves displaced by the demolition of the city's high-rise projects.
The interviews were conducted in 2010, with some follow-up in 2012. The book was published a year after the civil unrest that hit Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody.
The authors object strongly to the use of the term "thug," which was invoked by both President Barack Obama and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to describe young people who took part in rioting in West Baltimore.
Most of the young men and women the authors met during the study defied that description.
In fact, more than 80 percent of the group was considered "on track" at the end of the study, and, with the help of "identity projects" and other positive forces, some 70 percent had a high school diploma. Contrast that with their parents' high school graduation rate — 25 percent — and it's a huge leap.
"Contrary to the conventional wisdom," DeLuca, Edin and Clampet-Lundquist write, "getting 'caught up' in 'the game' was far from the norm. By their own accounts, fewer than one in five had been 'in the street' for even a brief time. Instead, the large majority were actively resisting the street, determined to be 'about something else' and hungry for post-secondary education and careers."
While these young adults showed plenty of resolve, grit and imagination, they could have used a lot more help — back in high school, says DeLuca — in making life choices.
They needed help in understanding how to obtain degrees or certifications toward careers that offer wages that put them higher up the economic ladder, not stuck on the minimum-wage rung.
More to the story: You can listen to my conversation with DeLuca in the next episode of the Roughly Speaking podcast, available Monday at baltimoresun.com/roughlyspeaking.