'There has to be a sense of urgency'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In many ways, violence helped shape Tyrone Powers.

He'll tell you it was his mother - her unfailing love and uncompromising conviction.

Or he'll say it was faith in a powerful God who protects and provides deliverance.

In part, that's true. But the passion that drives Powers to fight for a better education for Baltimore's children - and inspired him to persuade hundreds to take over a city block last month - was born from a desire to prevent young people from experiencing the kind of violent incidents that have become milestones in his life.

"I understand what it is our young people are dealing with on a day-to-day basis and how important education is in order to allow them to overcome the odds," said Powers, a broad-shouldered man with big hands and a gentle smile. "I have no political ambition. That's my only ambition, and that's my passion."

To some, Powers, 41, came to local prominence just recently - first, during the summer, when he presented a 10-point "People's Plan" to reduce crime at City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.'s summit on solutions to crime.

Powers' plan made its way into the final 40-page report that the councilman presented to Mayor Martin O'Malley for consideration.

Then, Powers re-emerged last month, when - outraged by news of the struggling city school system's dismal financial picture - he pulled together one of the most well-attended school rallies in recent history, urging parents, religious leaders and community members to demand that a first-class education program be state and local political leaders' first priority.

As with his crime plan, Powers offered some solutions - not just criticism - regarding city schools.

He thinks control of the schools should be returned to Baltimore, shedding the current supervisory partnership of city and state. He also believes "massive amounts of money" should be redirected to schools from other programs and agencies.

"I don't think our children have been our priority," he said. "But this is the year of education in Baltimore."

Despite holding a full-time position at Anne Arundel Community College and a schedule packed with radio shows and speaking engagements across the country, the father of four (the youngest is named for Malcolm X) has determined that his primary work this year will be helping to improve public education.

On a recent Marc Steiner radio call-in program on WYPR, Steiner called Powers "the leader of the new grass-roots movement," to reform city schools.

But leaders in Baltimore say Powers isn't new and that he had been an activist long before he was drawn to the issue of public education.

"If you're here in Baltimore and you don't know Tyrone Powers, then I have to ask, 'Well, were you really here in Baltimore City?'" said Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the city Board of Elections. "He's a leader's leader. In times of need, when you pick up the phone and call certain folks, the question isn't whether they're going to be out there with you, the question is how soon are they going to be there. ... Tyrone can call on other people, and they will come."

At least 400 came Jan. 21 when Powers mobilized a rally on behalf of the city's 96,000 schoolchildren - who may be facing increased class sizes because of a multimillion-dollar budget deficit.

Christopher N. Maher, the education director of Advocates for Children and Youth, said Powers' rally was significant, particularly because the school system stands to receive more than an additional $250 million per year once Thornton Commission legislation is implemented.

Rallying for education

"Getting hundreds of people to rally for public education in the freezing rain is a good sign that the people of Baltimore are ready to fight for adequate funding for their children's education," Maher said.

The road to leading an emotional crowd to the steps of the city school district's North Avenue headquarters began for Powers 34 years ago, at another emotional event - one at which Powers could do nothing.

At the age of 7, when he was a second-grader at Bentalou Elementary School, Powers froze, powerless, while witnessing the rape of a close relative.

"I stood and watched and didn't do anything to stop that from happening," Powers said. "I ... made a decision at that point that I would never let fear or threats stop me from doing the right thing."

Powers, his sister and three brothers quietly struggled through the next few years, which included the separation of their parents.

"It was a difficult time for all of us," Powers said. It turned out to be particularly difficult for Powers' elder brother, Cornelius "Nate" Powers.

While Powers, who went to Southwestern High School, was earning a bachelor's degree from Coppin State College, a master's from the University of Cincinnati and was forging a career in law enforcement, Nate was falling into a world of drugs and crime.

In 1987, when Powers was 25, rival drug dealers pushed a needle full of cocaine and poison into Nate's arm. His brother's death, Powers said, was "a great loss."

"We were on opposite sides of the law," Powers said. "But the strangest thing was he was still a mentor to me. I learned a lot from him. He taught me so much about why he was doing what he was doing."

Powers used his brother's life and death to help him carve out his life's mission: saving young people from violence, ignorance and failure.

He spent 3 1/2 years as a Maryland state trooper, and then worked as a special agent for the FBI in Cincinnati and Detroit working undercover. In one major case, in the late 1980s, Powers helped bring down Ohio drug lord James Dickey.

But Powers' heart remained with young people and in digging out the root causes behind the crimes he hunted them for.

"Almost all crimes, and certainly violent ones, education can be linked back" as a cause, Powers said. "I've made thousands of arrests, but I wanted to get involved in the front end of that process to prevent people from even getting to the back end when they were getting arrested. To me, that's more significant."

In 1994, Powers left his $90,000 FBI job to come home and care for his mother, who had suffered a fourth stroke. He took a job -at a third of his FBI pay - as a professor of criminal justice at the community college. Powers and his wife of 21 years, Doris, now live in Northeast Baltimore.

Since returning to Baltimore, Powers earned a dual doctorate in sociology and justice from American University in Washington and also wrote a book, Eyes to My Soul: The Rise or Decline of a Black FBI Agent.

It's one of the many books that sit on the crammed shelves in Powers' school office, where he reads and weeds through phone messages, listening to music by Bob Marley, great jazz artists or the soundtrack from the movie Black Hawk Down.

In 1999, he opened and was appointed the director of the Institute for Criminal Justice, Legal Studies and Public Service at the community college. Since then, he has become a sought-after speaker and commentator.

'A straight shooter'

He is a regular guest on WOLB radio's Larry Young show and draws numerous callers who are attracted by his honesty and solutions-oriented ideas.

"Tyrone is a straight shooter," said Young, a former state senator. "I call him very pit-bullish. We argue a lot."

A recent Friday show's focus shifted from crime to the city's children.

"He was supposed to be the person who would talk public safety, the legal system," Young said. "But it became clear that education was becoming the forefront issue. He was constantly saying that our problem was we weren't doing right by educating our children."

Powers was appalled that nearly half of the city's schoolchildren were in danger of failing. Then, when news reports detailed possible cuts to fix a botched budget, Powers became enraged.

He called the city school district "a system in meltdown."

"What we were seeing was a catastrophe unfolding right before our eyes and, we were just standing around watching," Powers said. Since then, he has launched into full-attack mode, planning last month's rally and meeting with key players in the school system, the mayor's office and even state lawmakers.

Not everyone agrees with Powers' approach and some say he can be impatient and stubborn.

Powers doesn't dispute that he can be impatient.

"The answers are very close for us. I'm not pessimistic. I'm optimistic. But, we can't wait. There has to be a sense of urgency," he said. "What manner of people will say that we're going to take our time saving our children?"

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