African-American community leaders implored a sea of mostly black men at a Northwest Baltimore church Tuesday to mentor black youth and help stop a "genocide" of black males being lost to homicide.
The speakers included a pastor, a city councilman, a community activist, a public safety official, a school administrator and nonprofit directors — all African-American —who led a discussion before a crowd of about 1,000 on how black men should stop violence, read to young people and employ teens.
The meeting was convened by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who issued a "call to action" urging black men to do more to curtail the killing of African-Americans, who made up nearly 90 percent of all homicide victims last year. Many of the community leaders at the Empowerment Temple event have been working for years on that mission.
The forum provided a place the disparate group could unify and find constructive solutions, such as calling on men to become mentors for 900 youths on a waiting list at the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Chesapeake.
"To see someone being hurt, to see someone being killed, to see the violence to see the madness going on — there's something instinctual that's supposed to be happening as a man," said Munir Bahir, a leader of the 300 Men March, who organizes "street engagement" teams to reach disassociated youth. "When you see harm, when you see people being victimized, you stand up and you want to do something."
The meeting was broadcast over the Internet and publicized on social media with the hashtag #WeCanEndIt.
When mentorship came up, the Rev. Jamal H. Bryant called on 20 men to stand and immediately sign up for a volunteer program. When a single mother asked the mayor what the city could do to help employ her son and keep him out of trouble in the summer, City Councilman Brandon M. Scott said the city's YouthWorks program is hiring record numbers and a city staffer took down her name.
In the hallway, groups such as the Recovery Network, a mental health and drug treatment group, Roberta's House, a victim counseling center, and Safe Kids, a parent help program, stood ready to sign up people.
Rawlings-Blake acknowledged criticism from residents who said the "call to action" deflected the failures of the city to lower unemployment, create jobs and make neighborhoods safer. She responded by saying it's everyone's job to speak out against homicide and the status quo.
"Some people have said the work we're doing here is blaming black men," she told the crowd. "I refuse to ignore the crisis."
This year, all but three of the city's 44 homicide victims were black. Last year, 189 of the city's 211 murder victims were black. And most were young. The largest group of victims — 54 — were age 25 to 29, while the second largest group, age 18 to 24, included 50 victims, according to Baltimore police.
More forums are planned to build momentum and organize volunteers to reach city youth. The effort was inspired by President Barack Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, which also aims to help African-American boys.
The mayor has also been urging city employees to be part of the movement.
Last year, in an effort to improve Baltimore's youth literacy rate, Rawlings-Blake signed an order granting every city employee two hours of paid leave per week to volunteer as a literacy tutor through Third Grade Reads, a program that uses city employees to tutor elementary students who are reading below grade level.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who is African-American, has urged police officers to volunteer in the program. On Tuesday, he said, he mentored a child at Arundel Elementary School in Cherry Hill before attending a police homicide meeting that was cut short when he went to the scene of a shooting in Southwest Baltimore that seriously wounded a man.
"I live this. I go out to those streets, I go out to the corners, and I see this every single day and it touches my spirit," he said.
Theodore Thompson, deputy chief academic officer of Baltimore City Public Schools, said African-American families need more support to help stop the daily truancy of 4,800 children in Baltimore, 78 percent of whom are black boys. He said new "reengagement centers," which are underway, are a start.
Rawlings-Blake called on businesses to hire one youth for the summer, and if it's too expensive, she urged them to come to the city to seek help.
Scott, the councilman, challenged African-Americans to destroy the stereotypes that continue to plague black men, such as perceptions that they are "dangerous," which he said the black community sometimes feeds into with rap lyrics. He said young people's self-esteem needs to be strengthened so that they see they are "Kings" with a history that dates back to the start of civilization.
"We ourselves self-inflict that stuff because I know we don't live like that," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Andrea K. McDaniels contributed to this article.
An earlier version of this story included the wrong organization that was seeking 900 mentors for children. The story has been changed to reflect the correct organization.