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The restoration of American idealism starts with the kids | COMMENTARY

Esaiah Watson, center, leads one of the teams competing in Philanthropy Tank Baltimore. From left, Emily Mayock, adviser, students Dayvon Cummings, Watson, Devin Mintz, and Jonathan Moore, adviser.
Esaiah Watson, center, leads one of the teams competing in Philanthropy Tank Baltimore. From left, Emily Mayock, adviser, students Dayvon Cummings, Watson, Devin Mintz, and Jonathan Moore, adviser. (Philanthropy Tank)

Most of all, I worry about the kids. That’s a natural state for any parent in uncertain times, though I don’t assume the concern is as widely shared as it used to be. The state of public discourse gives me doubt.

I might be wrong about this, the parental instinct being nature’s strongest, but I worry that the country has been blown so far off course — by divisive politics, by a pandemic, by income inequality — that our focus is solely on the here and now, and not on what comes next.

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I spend a lot of time these days looking out windows, watching men and women walking with their kids or pushing strollers. I look beyond the current miasma of cynicism, division and despair. I try to imagine what the country might be like in the next 20 years. That’s the country our kids will inhabit. If we don’t fix things now, it’s hard to see a bright future for them. Optimism can be a force of nature but it’s not going to beat climate change.

In all the noise of this American life, you almost never hear full-throated concern for future generations. Doesn’t matter what we’re arguing about — the environment, public education, health insurance, criminal justice — too many people in power seem oblivious to how their actions (or lack of actions) will affect their own children and grandchildren.

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That’s really perplexing with regard to climate change. We have wasted so much time, since scientists first reached consensus on the human causes of global warming, that a visitor from another planet might think we’ve quietly accepted doom.

In fact, much is being done to address climate change. But it’s not nearly enough, and during the Donald Trump presidency, we’ve wasted even more time, and literally lost more ground.

So I worry about the kids. They look around and see so-called adults denigrating science, ignoring climate warnings, dismissing the coronavirus as a minor inconvenience. What do they make of elders who refuse to wear masks in public during a pandemic? Where do they find faith in the future when the country seems incapable, under present leadership, of getting on track again?

And, above all, what will happen to their precious, desperately needed idealism?

We got some insights from a series of essays solicited by two of the Sun’s college interns this past summer, Sanya Kamidi (whom we have since hired) and Anjali DasSarma. Links to the essays, written by teens and young adults reflecting on how the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations had affected their lives, can be found on the op-ed page at baltimoresun.com.

In her contribution, 16-year-old Grace Hill of Catonsville acknowledged feeling isolated and idle at home and yet, through the internet, more informed. An excerpt:

“Suddenly, I am thrust into a world of failed political leadership, of corruption and of suffering, all while from the comfort of my room, with a roof and my white, middle-class privilege keeping me safe from the harsh reality of the world. … Taking these months, away from the world, to learn about the faults and failings of my society, will come to define me in the future. … When the future finally comes about, I will exist in it as someone who would die fighting for a better world.”

Beautiful.

Recently I saw a list of nine high school students with big ideas for making the world a better place, starting here in Baltimore. The boys and girls are finalists in a new program called Philanthropy Tank Baltimore. It’s a competition modeled after the Shark Tank television show, but the goals are not business and profit. The goal is social impact.

Isaiah Dingle, for instance, wants to build a hydroponic garden to provide fresh produce to families in the Frankford neighborhood.

D’Mond Davis wants to partner with Heart Kitchen at Living Classrooms to prepare healthy meals for low-income households.

Diane Fakinlede wants to mentor students at Calvin M. Rodwell Elementary/Middle School in financial literacy.

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Daion Walker wants to build a memorial garden in Upton where kids can honor relatives lost to violence.

Ania McNair has ideas for raising public awareness of human trafficking.

Tayla Chambers hopes to build a playground in Sandtown-Winchester and improve existing ones around the city.

Esaiah Watson leads a team that wants to reduce trash in the city by turning it into a sustainable energy source and 3D printing material.

Chassity Soto hopes to organize a resource fair for homeless men and women every couple of months, offering them care packages, a place to clean up and get wellness checkups, mental health referrals, information about jobs and applications for benefits.

Timothy Brewer wants to produce a podcast and host discussions about some of the difficult problems facing Baltimore kids and how to solve them.

The finalists are scheduled to make their presentations virtually to a panel of mentors on Nov. 19. All or some of the projects could win up to $15,000 to get started. Each will be assigned a mentor to help turn their ideas into action.

Good. We need the next generation to feel inspired and valued, to believe they can make a difference in a city and a country full of problems. It would be a shame — more than that, a disaster — to lose our kids and their precious, desperately needed idealism in the current mess. The restoration of American idealism starts with them.

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