Wesley Hawkins, a youth mentor who runs a social service program called the Nolita Project, speaks to the Wear Orange youth summit on gun violence at Coppin State University.
Wesley Hawkins, a youth mentor who runs a social service program called the Nolita Project, speaks to the Wear Orange youth summit on gun violence at Coppin State University. (Jonathan Pitts / Baltimore Sun)

Wesley Hawkins has earned the right to speak out on gun violence.

He grew up in a neighborhood where hustlers worked the street corners and shootings were not uncommon. He has lost several friends to gunplay, including one as recently as Friday. He once took a bullet to the shoulder himself.

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Now a youth mentor, Hawkins asks his fellow Baltimoreans to pitch in and tackle the deeper conditions that give rise to the scourge that routinely kills more than 300 people a year in the city.

“Killing is always wrong, but we have to address the issues that lead up to gun violence,” he told a crowd of about 100 at a youth summit on the subject Saturday at Coppin State University. “We can no longer just complain. We have to do the work.”

His address was one of several at the first Baltimore Youth Summit and Rally Against Gun Violence, one of about a dozen events set to take place in Maryland on Friday and Saturday as part of a coast-to-coast anti-gun-violence initiative, “Wear Orange Weekend.”

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Attendees at events in Annapolis, Cambridge, Frederick, Columbia, Edgewood and Silver Spring donned orange T-shirts, hats, bracelets and pins, enjoyed arrangements of orange balloons and flowers, and heard proclamations, speeches and music as part of a nationwide program by Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit group that aims to “encourage Americans to work together to end gun violence and build safer communities.”

The organization includes subgroups such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, whose Maryland chapter organized several of the events in the state; the Everytown Survivor Network, which comprises gun violence survivors; and Students Demand Action, a group whose brand-new Baltimore chapter organized the rally as the first event in its history.

Nineteen-year-old Joshua Turner, an Army veteran and a graduate of Overlea High School, is its executive director.

Turner and chapter co-founder Antonio Moore, also 19, were among the teens who set the tone for the day, taking the microphone to urge guests to get involved in the kinds of community efforts that can reverse the generationally negative attitudes and expectations that can make it seem normal to live in an environment where gun violence is commonplace.

Moore got things started by pointing out how many of those killed in gun violence are young people — of the 684 killed by guns in Baltimore in the last three calendar years, he said, 220 were age 24 or younger, and of the 115 killed so far this year, three were children.

“It’s important that young leaders step forward and demand action, and it’s just as important that the conversations we have today are continued,” he said.

Turner said the group, which was born only six months ago, had hoped to draw as many as 500 for its first event, but he saw Saturday’s attendance as a good start for its a long-term mission.

Students Demand Action Baltimore has set a goal of reducing reported instances of gun violence by 10 percent over three years — 3 1/3 percent per year — and with young people carrying the message into their own circles of influence, Turner said he was confident things were moving in the right direction.

He described the “roots and branches” metaphor the new chapter has chosen to use as a way of describing its goal of attacking the deeper issues that lead to a culture of violence — improving public-school education and lack of economic opportunity through policy pushes, for example — as well as more visible, short-term issues such as getting better lighting on street corners in troubled areas.

“In the words of Barack Obama, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” to address these problems, he said.

The Wear Orange movement was started six years ago when a group of teens at a South Side Chicago high school asked their classmates to honor the life of their friend Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old honor student and majorette who performed at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration — and was shot to death in a park near her home a week later.

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Orange, as Moore pointed out, is the color hunters wear in the woods to protect themselves and others from accidental shootings, and it has emerged as the unofficial color of the the gun violence prevention movement.

Hawkins is director of the Nolita Project, a Baltimore nonprofit that promotes the importance of education for youth in generating strong community ties and fostering prosperity and success.

He is also a community liaison with the Consent Decree Implementation Unit at the Baltimore Police Department

“Everything is molding these kids to view their lives in a negative light. If you know about something positive, be a part of it,” he said.

Fifteen-year-old Isaac Allen, vice president of the youth council of the Howard County NAACP, spoke of “Hoopin’ for Teen Health,” a twice-a-year basketball tournament he has organized that includes seminars and discussions on social issues.

“Enough is enough. We can no longer wait,” said Allen, who lost a friend to gun violence in 2017.

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Dedra Layne, the executive director of Safe Streets Baltimore, and Elijah Miles of the Tendea Family, an organization that promotes black-owned business and education on black history in Baltimore, also spoke.

Miles recalled a college class in which he learned a Yoruba saying — “I’d rather be a slave than steal” — and explained its meaning: that “in other cultures it’s considered dishonorable to use poverty as an excuse to harm my community.”

He called on guests to sacrifice their short-term personal interests in service to the Baltimore community, as leaders such as Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King did.

The two also took part in a panel discussion that included representatives of the anti-violence program Roca, the Baltimore Ceasefire Movement, the youth boxing organization Guns Down Gloves Up, and several members of Students Demand Action Baltimore.

Speakers said it’s important to reach out as mentors even to young people who don’t think they need help, to maintain a strong positive presence in the streets, and to accept that making oneself vulnerable — while it can be a frightening prospect — is necessary.

Daquan Mints, founder of Guns Down, Gloves Up, called on parents to pay attention to their kids.

“Don’t you take your hand off their backs,” he said.

Hawkins called for the dialogue not to end Saturday. He waved his hand like a wand over the small but rapt audience.

“This needs to grow,” he said.

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