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300 Men March anti-violence model gets international audience

Munir Bahar, co-founder of Baltimore's 300 Men March organization, right, discusses the organization's approach with a contingent of international visitors at the 300 Men March headquarters in Pigtown.
Munir Bahar, co-founder of Baltimore's 300 Men March organization, right, discusses the organization's approach with a contingent of international visitors at the 300 Men March headquarters in Pigtown. (Kevin Rector / Baltimore Sun)

At home in Pakistan, Ammar Zafarullah works with the organization Pakistan Youth Change Advocates to prevent "well-to-do educated youth" from being recruited as the future financiers and social media gurus of extremist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

On Thursday, he listened intently as Baltimore's Munir Bahar talked about the 300 Men March organization, and how it does similar work keeping at-risk youth away from the city's street gangs and gun violence.

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"It's very impressive," Zafarullah said, as Bahar discussed the broad network of volunteers that facilitate the work.

Zafarullah was one of 11 international visitors to the 300 Men March headquarters in Pigtown from a smattering of central and south Asian countries — including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Maldives — for a cross-cultural exchange of ideas organized through the State Department and the World Trade Center Institute.

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Seated in a circle of folding chairs, the diplomats and grass-roots advocates peppered Bahar, 300 Men March co-founder City Councilman Brandon Scott, other group leaders and representatives from the Baltimore Police Department with questions related to fundraising, confronting crime and the lack of community trust in police, and steering young people toward a more productive life.

"It's multiple approaches," Bahar said. "It's not just one."

Each year, the World Trade Center Institute connects hundreds of foreign leaders with local organizations in Baltimore and across the state through the International Visitor Leadership Program at the State Department, said Leslie Rankin, an institute spokeswoman. For the current group, which is studying ways to counter violence and extremism, the 300 Men March organization came to mind as a perfect local counterpart and host, she said.

The 300 Men March group has held regular anti-violence marches and "street engagement" initiatives since 2013, highlighting the message now seen on black-and-white posters throughout some of the city's deadliest neighborhoods: "We must stop killing each other." And when Baltimore's streets erupted in rioting in April after Freddie Gray's death from injuries sustained in police custody, its volunteers took to the streets wearing distinctive black shirts with the group's name emblazoned on the front to try to help restore order and prevent damage to neighborhood businesses.

Images showing them standing as a buffer between protesters and police during tense moments were beamed around the world, and the group's profile exploded.

Since then, Bahar has leveraged the attention to spread the group's message and attract funding.

Last month, he led about 40 men on a 35-mile march from Baltimore to Washington, where he and Scott met with representatives from My Brother's Keeper, the initiative launched by President Barack Obama to address opportunity gaps faced by young boys and men of color. The group simultaneously released an 11-page "Emergency Operating Plan" geared toward raising $1.7 million for the creation of operation centers in five of Baltimore's most violent neighborhoods.

"Our method is guiding youth away from criminal behavior by providing constructive and meaningful opportunities," the plan reads.

On Wednesday, that message resonated with the group's foreign counterparts and drove the conversation.

At one point, Santosh Acharya, president of the Youth Initiative in Nepal, asked Bahar how to give hope to young people with criminal records. "It's very hard for them to gain trust, because he or she is known as a bad guy," Acharya said.

"You have to get others who were on the wrong track and who are on the right track now to engage them," said Bahar, who recalled dealing drugs and spending time in jail during his teenage years before turning his life around. "They have to understand that trust has to be earned."

Ahmed Shuhad, superintendent of the Maldives Police Service, said he was most impressed by the ability of 300 Men March to overcome obstacles to attracting troubled or at-risk youth to a program about discipline and doing the right thing.

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"I thought that the problem lies only in the Maldives, but I see it exists here," he said. "I'm very interested in their approach."

"It has been a very insightful session," Zafarullah said at its conclusion, as the group gathered for photographs. "I think the type of model they have can be replicated in areas that are conflict-prone."

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