Hearing Their Voices: Our Perspective

 In Research

By Lydia Dubois and Maleka Walker

As students of social policy at Johns Hopkins, we often discuss what it means to live in a city like Baltimore. We read research reports, books, and current news articles about overlooked populations and the policies that affect them, but we rarely have opportunities to hear from community members firsthand. In planning and attending the 21st Century Cities Initiative’s “Hearing Their Voices” forum, we had the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes in helping convene an array of community stakeholders to discuss current events and policies. On April 20th, we heard from this diverse set of politicians (notably, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Baltimore City Council President), community organizers, professors, police officers, organization leaders, and young people.

Held near the two-year anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray and ensuing civil unrest in Baltimore, the event’s conversations addressed the importance of listening to Baltimore’s young people and adolescents. The national, and mostly negative, media attention on Baltimore from two years ago is long gone (save for fly-in, anniversary coverage of the unrest), but one of the lasting legacies of the tragic events from April 2015 is a recognition of the role young people should play in creating policies that support their own development and desires for their own community.

Lydia Dubois and Maleka Walker

Change-making conversations can be uncomfortable. Through the windows of the historic American Brewery building, where speakers discussed research and policy affecting the surrounding community, we could see the vacancies of East Baltimore we’d observed and documented through class fieldwork the day before. As Hopkins students studying the sociology of the city and learning about social policy, we often wonder how we can best study the root causes of inequality in the city and use this information to enact change. Seeking to gain education and credentials from a university that has a long and complicated relationship with Baltimore, we appreciate events such as “Hearing Their Voices” because they are honest, they welcome differing viewpoints, and they field questions and concerns. They’re starts, but not solutions in themselves.

We are students of Hopkins and students of Baltimore. Currently enrolled in a class titled “Baltimore as an Urban Laboratory,” we’ve performed fieldwork, used ArcGIS mapping software, read studies and firsthand accounts, and participated in class discussions on divestment and displacement in East Baltimore. The event presented us with a unique opportunity to expand our sources of information and to hear from Baltimore natives about their wishes for their city.

As Dr. Stefanie DeLuca shared her research findings that emphasized the resiliency of Baltimore youth, we were inspired by the personal narrative that Randall, a Baltimore native whose story was featured in Dr. DeLuca’s research, shared to begin the evening. He spoke of his own difficulties growing up in Baltimore and continuing to provide for his family despite barriers such as lack of transportation and scheduling demands at work. Kirsten Allen, community organizer and lead visionary of Meraki Community Uplift, highlighted the unifying possibilities of grassroots community development. Kareem, another young person featured in Dr. DeLuca’s research, offered a unique perspective on the city, and shared some common desires for the city’s development, such as recreational centers. All respondents shared a common thread: a strong identification and love for their city.

Their stories emphasized that we must ensure that we are not only hearing the voices of youth, but also acknowledging and supporting their visions. How do we ensure their visions for change are supported? How do we support youth to trust their own voices in enacting policies?

A current opportunity presents itself through Baltimore City Council’s new $12 million Children and Youth Fund, which will be one of the largest individual grant-makers for youth programming in the city. Co-chair of the Youth Fund’s community task force, Adam Jackson, spoke about the need for grant-makers to concentrate funding to smaller community organizations, allowing them to build their own capacities. This was one of the major themes of the evening: taking what we learn about Baltimore’s concerns and needs and empowering communities to facilitate their own growth and development.

Another speaker, Lieutenant Steve Olson of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), spoke of creating positive relationships between the police and youth of Baltimore. The BPD’s fraught relationship with the community and youth in particular was one of the enduring themes of April 2015. Lt. Olson emphasized that it starts with police officers recognizing those they protect and serve as people, as regular kids, instead of a type of offender, juveniles. Referencing his work with the Inner Harbor Project, which employs youth as leaders, ambassadors, and mediators to assess their community’s needs and assist in developing models of respect between youth and officers, Lt. Olson shared why he considers himself “the luckiest cop in the world.” Involvement with the organization assists Lt. Olson, and like-minded members of law enforcement, in forming meaningful relationships with youth and modeling effective community policing strategies.

The event was well-attended by young people, including high school students, from across the city. However, one concern addressed by an audience member was the lack of presence of young people from some of the city’s lower-performing high schools. How do we convene everyone effectively? Does hosting an event in East Baltimore fully engage the community? At the moment the question was raised, the American Brewery, located in the heart of East Baltimore, felt secluded. Inside its walls, as we heard discussions of the future of the Children and Youth Fund, and the efforts to secure successful grant partnerships through initiatives such as One Baltimore For Jobs, we wondered about the presence of youth voices in these original conversations.

The Baltimore Children and Youth Fund Task Force, comprised of 39 members including students, nonprofit leaders, and community advocates, gives youth the opportunity to be involved in these discussions. The task force meetings, open to the public, focus on grant-making criteria and methods to ensure that fund money is allocated to best fit the needs of the city. A main focus of the task force is to reach a consensus on how the money can best be used to “strengthen community-based organizations and intermediaries that reflect the city’s demographic makeup and have successful histories working and partnering with the communities they serve.”

As the task force is halfway through its planning process, we have high hopes for it to focus funding on community organizations and listen to youth voices in planning for fund allocation. The sixth meeting to discuss the future of the fund will convene on May 2nd, 2017. Students, community organizers, and anyone who wishes to lend a voice are urged to attend. Meeting details can be found here. We hope to see you there.

As interns with 21CC involved in the event planning process, we were able to see the original ideas for the discussions come to life, determined by speakers’ personal experiences and roles in the Baltimore community. Danielle Torain, Senior Consultant at Frontline Solutions, formerly the Program Coordinator for the One Baltimore for Jobs grant, highlighted that forums like these are a start, but not an end. We agree. In order to move forward, we must reach out to youth who lack institutional support to participate in these conversations. These conversations can be uncomfortable, forcing us to confront the times youth voices weren’t adequately heard or utilized to create change.

Among us and our peers are future policy analysts, changemakers, and activists. “Hearing Their Voices” urges us to continue to educate ourselves about Baltimore while learning how to listen to the needs of the community. Our hope for the new Children and Youth Fund is that the organizations it funds reflect youth’s wishes for their city, and that policymakers both hear, and listen to youth voices.

Lydia Dubois is a junior from New York City majoring in Sociology with a minor in Social Policy. Maleka Walker is a sophomore from Atlanta majoring in Public Health with a minor in Social Policy.

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