How Baltimore Youth Are Taking Back The Economy

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SETH WENIG
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SETH WENIG

In the days following Freddie Gray’s tragic death, national attention was drawn to police brutality and long-standing tensions between Baltimore’s black citizens and the police department. But Gray’s death also highlighted systemic conditions that contribute to the city’s robust police presence, and general distrust of law enforcement. Now, with all eyes on the area, youth have a renewed commitment to local activism and are battling one massive problem in particular: the local economy.

Baltimore city’s unemployment rate, 8.9 percent, is much higher than the 5.4 percent national unemployment rate. Youth unemployment figures are even higher. Close to 37 percent of people between 20 and 24 years old are without work. Among people who do have jobs, the median household income is $42,266 — much lower than Maryland state’s median. And over several decades, economic disparities between black and white residents have grown significantly, leaving low-income residents with a housing crisis and slew of cuts to community resources — all of which contributed to systemic violence, anger, and unrest in the wake of Gray’s death.

But several youth groups in the city are turning a tragic circumstance into opportunity by tackling the city’s broken economy, one job and one video at a time.

In the summer of 2013, The Intersection, an organization of high school student leaders, launched a listening campaign to hear the concerns of hundreds of Baltimore residents from diverse backgrounds. What came out of those conversations was an overwhelming consensus that youth unemployment was contributing to a city-wide culture of violence. As a result, the youth group launched the 235 Lives Campaign, to create one youth job for every person killed in the city in 2013, focusing on people between the ages of 14 and 21.

High school senior Dawnya Johnson told ThinkProgress that young people have focused on gun violence, police brutality, and unemployment for years, but recent events revitalized grassroots activism in the city. “Police violence is such a common thing in the communities that Freddie Gray came from, and that Eric Garner and Mike Brown came from,” she said. “But I feel like what happened was people just got that push that they needed. They got that fuel, that stamina, in part because [of] media and social media and people’s opportunity to be the news.” Although The Intersection’s campaign is not new, the organization hopes to capitalize on new energy in the city to engage youth.

Though the 235 Lives Campaign is still in its early stages, organizers hope job creation will increase youth productivity and start reducing violence. The Intersection is currently partnered with Southeast CDC (a housing counseling organization), Banner Neighborhoods (a community service provider), Creative Alliance (an arts and culture hub), and YouthWorks (a job-matching program). Collaborators will either employ young people or train them with “soft and hard” business skills to excel in future jobs.

“We find that a lot of programs in the city are aimed towards younger kids, 15 and under, and in that 14 age transition you see a shoot-up in crime,” said Johnson. Indeed, the lack of resources for youth in the city was identified as a major problem in the wake of Gray’s death, and subsequent protests. For instance, recreation center closures over the past few years stripped young people of out-of-school programs and left them without constructive activities.

Meanwhile, a separate group of youth leaders, New Lens, is using the Freddie Gray tragedy to put a spotlight on societal factors that contribute to black economic activity as a whole. “One of the best things that has happened out of this incident is that people are finally recognizing that the youth voice is one of the most important voices in this city,” advocacy leader David Blair explained to ThinkProgress.

With members aged 25 and under, the non-profit uses art to address social justice issues throughout Baltimore, and it recently launched a multi-video project called Blackonomics. According to Blair, the videos will explore the socioeconomic foundation of black communities, including education and housing, to create positive dialogue about ways to enrich the community and economy. While working on the first installment, about defining black identity, the youth discovered that many African Americans in the city maintain there is no cohesive community. Residents are heavily divided along class lines, Blair says. As a result, young people began to see Blackonomics as a way to start a much-needed conversation to ease those tensions.

According to Kevin Wellons, an 18-year-old University of Baltimore freshman who films and edits Blackonomics content, the second video will change the narrative about African Americans’ participation in the local economy, by portraying them as producers — not just consumers. It will allow black people to talk about the ways in which the economy impacts them, and “show they don’t always have to subscribe to the status quo.” It will also challenge the country’s capitalist framework by exploring alternative economic systems, such as co-ops “where people build each other up and create common wealth.”

“[Youth] are starting the conversation, guiding what will be in the video and how it will be conceptualized,” Wellons continued. “After Freddie Gray, collaboration spiked. It’s brought together youth that were privileged and not involved.”

Johnson came to a similar conclusion. “Because of disenfranchisement and a lack of political engagement, the people here don’t feel like they’re part of the process and have the power to change it. The past few weeks in Baltimore have been beautiful,” she said.

Watch the first installment of Blackonomics: