On a stage filled with the professionally silver-tongued (preachers and politicians), before an audience of the demonstrably articulate (community activists and even the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch), Tony Dantzler had no trouble being heard.
Seen - maybe. He's a little on the short side, even for 13.
Like others at the candidates forum held Sunday by the civic group BUILD, Tony called for more rec centers, more summer jobs for teens and more affordable housing. But while other speakers wielded charts, questionnaire results and budget figures to make their cases, Tony merely wielded his own experience.
He spoke about all the boarded-up houses in his West Baltimore neighborhood: He passes five in a row on his way to school before coming to one that someone actually lives in, and there's another one abandoned so long ago that a tree is growing inside of it.
And he spoke of violence: He's known 13 young people - friends and family members - who have been murdered over the course of his young life.
"Just like my neighborhood has been forgotten by this city," he said, "so have the kids."
Out of the mouths of babes, as they say.
Tony had been asked by BUILD to address the forum - the group knew of him from an after-school program he attends - before the candidates got their turns. (That probably was unfair to the candidates, if you believe that show biz maxim of never following a child on stage.) After Tony and BUILD activists made their cases - they want 30 more rec centers, double the number of summer youth jobs and a $100 million Affordable Housing Trust Fund - there really wasn't much for the candidates to debate, except maybe whether the group's agenda was a really good idea or a really, really good idea.
Tony's mother, Tyra Jackson, said she was quite excited when he was asked to speak at the meeting, and "was on him" to practice. But her prepossessed son told her he had everything under control - and he did, speaking clearly and calmly as he offered a child's-eye view of the city and how it could better serve its young people.
"It's tough," Tony said after the forum. "I can't work this summer, because I need to be 14 to have a job. And there isn't a rec center around near my house."
His mother said she worries about safety more during the summer months than the rest of the year, when school and after-school classes keep kids busy and out of trouble. She's found a couple of camp programs that her son could attend, for a week or two here and there, but wishes there were something that lasted the entire summer.
"I like to know where my kids are, and that they're safe," she said.
Sandy Gomes, a parent who attended the forum, was among many who decried the decline in the city's rec programs. She remembers many more centers when she was growing up in South Baltimore than are now available to her kids, although she added that she and her husband are lucky in that their four sons have football camps to occupy them this summer.
"They had a nice rec center, so we had somewhere to go," Gomes, 41, said of her childhood days. "They don't have any rec centers to go to now, or summer jobs."
The city currently runs 46 rec centers - down from the more than 100 that it had during the 1980s. Budget cuts, particularly during the 1990s, led many to be closed or allowed to deteriorate, despite activists' arguing that kids need somewhere to go to keep them off the streets.
Especially in the summer, when school lets out.
Yesterday, Tony's eighth-grade class at William H. Lemmel Middle School held its graduation ceremony, in the auditorium of nearby Coppin State University.
After the familiar strains of "Pomp and Circumstance," in between the speeches about reaching for the limitless skies and cherishing the last time they'd be together as a class, one of the students asked for a moment of silence.
It was for Raymond Reveley, one of the 13 people Tony referred to at the forum whom he had lost to the violence of the city. Raymond, 14, was shot and killed in April of last year.
"He was one of my friends at Lemmel," Tony had told me after the forum. "He was walking. ... A couple of guys got out of a car and shot him."
Yesterday's graduation exercises were dedicated to Raymond by his classmates, who put his picture on the back of the program, with this message:
"Even though you did not make it to this day with us physically, you are with all of us in our hearts. We miss you Ray-Ray! - Class of 2007."
Find Jean Marbella's column archive at baltimoresun.com/marbella