Over the past few years, Baltimore has struggled under the weight of record high murders. My community in Southeast Baltimore has seen a spike in property crime. The violence is stifling. But for me, the worst part is that many of these crimes have been committed by young people who look like me.
Like many people who live in Southeast Baltimore, I share a sense of anxiety and worry regarding my property and the place I call home. Beyond this, I have a deep concern for the people I share the region with — most notably the youth.
I was born and raised in McElderry Park, one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods with one of the highest unemployment rates. To grow up black in a beaten down part of Baltimore is to know struggle. There were many times I felt hopeless. I witnessed violence. I experienced housing instability. I could have succumbed to the streets. But I was saved by adults who made the choice to invest in me.
Early in life I got in a lot of trouble. I never hurt anyone, but I was on a self-destructive path. I felt that my city did not respect or care about me. My high school was shut down, and I felt that some members of the community simply did not like black teenagers walking around.
One evening a few friends and I were siting on a bus stop headed home from school when a woman stopped us — a group of black teenagers — and asked, “What do you think of this neighborhood?”
This woman, Maria Gabriela Aldana Enriquez, began a process that wildly shifted the trajectory of my life. Maria, along with a few organizers from the Creative Alliance, where she’s the education director; Southeast CDC; and Banner Neighborhoods decided to create a program, called Neighborhood Voices, that bridged the divide between residents of Southeast Baltimore.
It never hit me until helping to form this organization that no one in my community had bothered to ask me what I thought. No one invested in me until that moment. Later that year, I joined the Baltimore Intersection, a program that taught teenagers civic leadership skills. At the time, the organization was led by Zeke Cohen, whom I am now proud to call my city councilman and mentor.
At The Intersection, my peers and I organized a youth jobs campaign. That campaign eventually led to the development of what is now the Southeast Youth Collaborative (SEYC). This summer we employed 120 amazing young people to clean and green throughout our community.
Working with the youth of Baltimore City has allowed me the privilege of seeing my peers in a totally different light. Children in this city are resilient. We have heart. I have seen the same kids who are a cause for clutched purses transform dilapidated allies and streets into beautiful oases. I have seen “troubled” teens turn their lives around and devote themselves to future college careers simply because they knew members of their community cared — simply because they knew that I cared. I’ve witnessed total transformations in the outlooks and thought patterns of youth when given the privilege to introduce them to jobs, schools and community initiatives. I have seen youth pull through personal struggles and turmoil just to better their neighborhoods. Many youth have stepped up to become leaders in many of the organizations dedicated to alleviating the problems we face as a city. These programs are how we rebuild Baltimore.
My work in the community has also guided me to create my own nonprofit — the Baltimore Star Project — dedicated to year-round enrichment, self-sufficiency and college training. Today I am a proud graduate of Towson University; I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. I don’t know if I would be here without the investment others made in me years ago.
My call to rally behind our youth is borne out of my experience. Now we need your support.
Consider this your call to rally.
Shahem Mclaurin is a Baltimore native and community activist. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.