Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, presiding over a city where 90 percent of homicide victims and 90 percent of suspects were African-Americans, called for "new ideas" Monday in the longstanding fight against black-on-black crime.
"Let us all work together to discuss what's working and hopefully have a conversation about new ideas and approaches," Rawlings-Blake said in her most expansive comments on the subject to date. "None of us have all the answers, but I believe working together we can make a real difference in our community. This issue is too important for us to fall short."
The mayor recruited a cross section of city leaders to a forum next week to talk about ways to strengthen social ties among black males — a key step, she said, to bringing down the number of killings in the city.
She described the forum as the first in a series of steps to address the problem. She spoke of getting churches, nonprofits and community groups to enlist more black men to serve as mentors, volunteers, job training coaches and tutors, Rawlings-Blake said.
Rawlings-Blake was expanding on the call to action she issued last week during her annual State of the City address. Of the 211 homicide victims in Baltimore last year, 189 were African-American males. The majority of the 85 known suspects — 77 — were also black.
Rawlings-Blake invited Baltimoreans to the forum "if you want to help or if you need help." It is scheduled for 6 p.m. March 24 at Empowerment Temple in Northwest Baltimore.
The Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, whom Rawlings-Blake chose to host the forum, called the initiative "Star Trek leadership: Going where no other city has ever gone in addressing head-on the issue of black-on-black homicide."
"This is a breath of fresh air that we're no longer just bemoaning the problem," Bryant said. "We're really trying to come up with a compass as to how it is that we move forward."
Rawlings-Blake says she was inspired by President Barack Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, which aims to help African-American boys and men reach their full potential. She was one of more than 60 mayors who signed on to the Cities United movement, a similar effort.
Leon Andrews, director of the Race Equality and Leadership initiative at the National League of Cities, said the mayors participating in the Cities United effort are each interpreting the mission based on local needs.
In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter unveiled a plan this year to end youth violence that involves government, philanthropic and private-sector partnerships.
Nutter, one of the founders of Cities United, said the goal is to create "a safety net of security for our city, which began with a new way of looking at these interrelated problems and a new way of working together to connect the solutions."
Nearly 250 people were killed in Philadelphia last year. Forty percent were 24 years old or younger; about 75 percent were African-American men.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said the city is showing signs of progress with reductions both in crime and in citizen complaints against officers.
But he said more needs to be done for the city's youth. Fifteen of Baltimore's 2014 homicide victims were juveniles. Two of the suspects also were younger than 18.
"We still have young men who look like me being shot by young men who look like me," Batts said. "And that tears at my soul."
Batts is one of nine panelists Rawlings-Blake has invited to the forum. Others include City Councilman Brandon Scott, Daric Jackson, principal at Reginald F. Lewis School of Business and Law, and Selwyn Ray, a senior vice president with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Chesapeake.
City officials are using the radio, social media, neighborhood leaders and the faith community to promote the event. Schools also are expected to encourage students to attend.
Ray said he believes the night could prove to be transformative for some.
"We must have a culture, a community that mentors the right way," he said. "And by mentoring the right way we can inject the spirit of love and hope and togetherness in this city.
"Young people are crying out in many ways, extreme ways. … We want to redirect that energy."
Waldo E. Johnson Jr., a faculty member at the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, encouraged Baltimore leaders to think broadly about mentoring opportunities. Helping men who have been incarcerated should be a particular area of focus, he said.
"These individuals have a mark on them that also requires some sort of mentoring," he said.
Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University who has studied leadership in the post-civil rights generation, said a measure of the forum's effectiveness can be found in the partnerships that are born from it, and the ability of those partnerships to address systemic issues.
She said cities should concentrate on helping families in poor communities gain access to steady jobs, reliable public transportation and high-performing schools.
"Mentoring programs, that's great, that's a part of the puzzle, but it's not all of it," Gillespie said.
She said Rawlings-Blake, wittingly or not, is addressing a criticism raised against the "black lives matter" movement: that it focuses too much on police brutality, and not enough on everyday crime within the community.
Jackson, the Baltimore high school principal, said he sees the faces of children daily who are hurt and others who are hopeful. He loses two or three young men to homicide each year, he said.
"I know there is hope for our city, and for our children," Jackson said. "I am here working toward a healing process and to begin an authentic dialogue about what we can do for our men.
"I would love for one year that the men I see walking through the door, I get to shake all their hands at the end of the school year."