Standing before some 30 activists and Union Square neighbors Saturday in a neon orange T-shirt with the words "I am Baltimore," 16-year-old Antonio Ellis recited a gritty poem about how the city appears through his eyes.
"Born and raised in the city, where youth are always misunderstood. / Being judged based on skin color or because they're from the 'hood," the Reginald F. Lewis High School sophomore said in a lyrical rhythm. "Living in the city, where there is little chance to succeed. / Not having enough opportunity or resources that we need. / Youth in large numbers are turning to the streets. … / people beaten and broken, like they're not human beings. / I'll keep my head up high, cause I know change will come. …"
Antonio said the attention he got at a city recreational center helped him shift from a "troubled child" to an aspiring University of Alabama law student.
He wants other Baltimore children and teens to have the same opportunities, and he used his voice to call on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the City Council to pump $10.2 million more into after-school activities and summer internships over the next year. The city's $3 billion budget — which must balance a nearly $50 million shortfall — is expected to be finalized in June.
The call to action, part of the Safe and Sound Campaign, kicks off a series of outreach efforts to last through the month. Activists will speak to Baltimoreans in neighborhoods and shopping centers and barber shops to call attention to their cause.
Chris Taylor, president of the Union Square community association, said row after row of abandoned houses and prison cells filled with dozens and dozens of young men and women provide evidence that the city is not doing enough to nurture its own.
"It makes no sense. We know how to solve these problems," Taylor said. "It is not a race downtown. It is not another new hotel for tourists. It is not another prison for our children. Quite simply, we must provide opportunities so they can know their potential."
Taylor said residents can't blame elected officials for not meeting certain priorities, because, by not participating in the process, "we have let them off the hook."
Tyrone Barnwell, an organizer with the Safe and Sound Campaign, said activists have the commitment from five of 15 council members to vote against the city's budget if the additional youth spending is not included. Eight members are needed to successfully hold up the budget over the spending.
The council members who support insisting on the spending are Bernard C. "Jack" Young, council president; Bill Henry, District 4; William "Pete" Welch, District 9; Carl Stokes, District 12; and Mary Pat Clarke, District 15.
Ryan O'Doherty, the mayor's spokesman, said among Rawlings-Blake's commitments to youth is her plan to invest up to $300 million in school construction and renovations and to increase funding by $3.4 million for public schools. She also plans to bolster money for the YouthWorks program by working with public and private employers to make 5,000 summer jobs available, he said.
The mayor's budget also sets aside another $130,000 for 350 youths in year-round employment, O'Doherty said.
Rawlings-Blake wants to spend $4.6 million to support a new strategy by the Family League to increase after-school program participation by 5,400 to 8,000 children, he said. That amount drops current spending by about $200,000.
Baltimore has had about 50 recreational centers. The city is spending more than $19 million to build another three centers and renovate a fourth. But the mayor has also recommended permanently closing four West Baltimore recreation centers in late August, under a two-year plan to spend recreational funds more effectively. Overall, the mayor's budget calls for about $11 million to run the recreational centers, which is an increase of $730,000 from the current year's spending.
O'Doherty challenged the group to recognize the budget deficit and identify additional sources for cash or list items to cut.
Barnwell, the campaign organizer, said the $10.2 million for after-school programs and summer internships — on top of the mayor's spending proposals — is imperative. He suggested the mayor shift priorities, such as diverting spending from the Grand Prix, or taking some cash from public safety, such as police cameras, and investing the money in youth.
"We stand here because we want our council members to use their power and we want the citizens … to use (their) power as well," Barnwell said.