More than 150 black men and boys gathered around a boxing ring in the City Hall atrium Wednesday evening to begin three days of discussions aimed at improving their futures, from education and fatherhood to business and networking.
The event, called "Rumble Young Man, Rumble," opened with a symbolic ringing of a bell inside the ring. The "flyweights," teens and young men, and "heavyweights," those aged 21 and older, formed a semicircle to hear the goals of the gathering, to inspire and strategize.
"We didn't establish this meeting to focus on peril," said Steve Vassor, one of the event organizers. "When you focus on peril, you find exactly what you're looking for. If you're focused on promise, promise is coming."
Guided by values set forth by the late Muhammad Ali — confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality — the event will continue with closed-door sessions on Thursday and Friday. Its creed comes from a 1964 Ali quote: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Rumble, young man, rumble."
The event is organized by the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, a national organization launched about a decade ago by the Open Society Foundations. It seeks to strengthen a network of leaders and organizations to improve the lives of black men and boys.
A similarly themed gathering is held each year in Ali's hometown of Louisville, Ky. Wednesday's was the first of its kind in Baltimore.
Over the next two days, the men and boys will participate in workshops and debates that Vassor said are intended to create space to reflect, heal and explore solutions. Questions for discussion are purposefully left open-ended — "What do we believe about Baltimore? Why does that matter in our work?" — to draw out new solutions from participants.
Troy McGhee and Anthony Grant, students at Renaissance Academy High School, were among about 30 young men from their school who attended Friday's reception.
"I see everything as an opportunity and learn from it," said Grant, a 16-year-old junior.
"We're doing something positive," said McGhee, 18, a senior. "I never thought I would be inside City Hall."
Sadiq Ali, founder of Millionaire Manners Academy, an etiquette training and consulting firm, said he was eager to hear the impact and feedback from the young people.
"It's critically important: Too often we operate in our own individual worlds," Ali said. "Gatherings like this are the first step in knocking down those silos and beginning the collaborative process.
"It's been said, 'Have no conversation about me, without me.' You can't have a conversation about young black men without young black men in the building."
The sessions are not focused on improving certain statistical points, such as increasing graduation rates or reducing incarceration rates, Vassor said. Instead, he said, the purpose is to raise expectations to ensure that all positive outcomes are possible.
Baltimore has a "vast constellation" of men and boys at work who need to be connected and reminded they are part of a community, Vassor said. He called them the next generation of theologians, futurists, business owners, architects, homeowners and politicians.
"They are working under-resourced and they are fighting wounded," he said. "There is a need to gather together. We create a space for learning to occur.
"If you chase your dreams, you'll run into education. If you're rooted in your dreams, you'll stay out of jail."
Glenn R. Love, a senior fellow for the Aspen Institute and a lead organizer in Baltimore for President Barack Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative, said the Rumble events have been catalytic in other cities where they've been held. The most important outcome he hopes for in Baltimore is to identify systemic barriers and knit together a broader support network.
"This could become a very pivotal moment and reflection point," Love said. "People get down with the day-to-day and don't have an opportunity to heal or figure out what is happening in other spaces. This is a great opportunity for a city as heavily traumatized as Baltimore is and has been for a long time.
"This allows us to press pause."
Mayor Catherine Pugh said the gathering fits into a larger campaign in Baltimore to lift up black men and boys, among others. She noted her plan to employ the city's "Squeegee boys" at car washes, host ongoing job fairs and a push to make community college tuition free.
"When we think about African-American males and the need for those individuals to be recognized for what they're worth and what they can contribute and what they can do, this is the right movement," Pugh said.