To the Best of Our Ability:The Rose St. Community

To the Best of Our Ability:The Rose St. Community

East Baltimore’s Rose Street community has been organizing, educating, and meeting the needs of its residents since its community center was founded in 1992. It has created some of the most ambitious youth intervention and opportunity programs in East Baltimore.

I met with youth coordinator Walker Gladden at the Rose Street Transitional House, which is connected with the Rose Street Community Center, and asked how things were going there. He replied, “The need to protect our young people is greater than ever, not only from the gangs and drugs, but now from the police. Police shootings are at an all time high. We’re confronting the prejudices and injustices that created this situation for our youth to the best of our ability.”

Four days later, the Baltimore Sun published an article titled “Shootings by police climb”:

“Three shootings last week brought the number of people shot by officers this year to 24, including nine fatally, higher than in each of the four previous years. In 2006, city officers shot 15 people, five of them fatally. In 2005, officers shot 14, including four fatally, and in 2004, police shot eight people, killing one of them” (Baltimore Sun 9/16/07).

At the Rose Street Community Center, a youth committee was recently formed to increase the participation of young people in the neighborhood. Walker suggested that I spend some time with the committee to learn more about how it works. He says that the goal of the youth committee is to get these young people off the streets and into programs that, with financial assistance from the Abell Foundation, help them get General Educational Development (GED) diplomas, jobs, and even start their own businesses. How do these programs work? Intervention into gangs, business skills training, apprenticeship programs, record labels, and open lines of communication.

History

The Rose Street Community Center was born in 1992 from conversations that took place between two East Baltimore Residents, Clayton Guyton and Elroy Christopher. The two were long time friends fed up with the changes taking place in their community. As economic resources disappeared, violence and crime rose, and those affected most were the community’s young people, who had fewer and fewer safe places to turn to for help.

Guyton and Christopher opened the community center on Rose Street, one of the area’s hottest drug trafficking spots. Participation and support for the Center was overwhelming, but drug dealers increased their threats until eventually they firebombed the Community Center. The community response was to break the boards off the empty house next door and reopen there the next day. The gangs reacted by increasing the pressure to pack the center up and shut it down. An interview by Arun Sripati of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in September 2004 recounts the culmination of the threats:

“After the fire, things got a bit more tense. The drug dealers began issuing threats. At one point, in response to ‘things said to them,’ Mr. Guyton and his friends began sleeping on the corner of Rose and Ashland Streets, to stop the drug peddling. They camped out there throughout the day for six months. That further agitated the situation, but they knew it. But they were serious about the safe place they wanted to create for the children and for the community. Finally one day, the drug dealers put out a bulletin saying that they weren’t going to make it through the night. So that night, Mr. Guyton, Mr. Christopher, a Mr. Richard Benson and Ms. Caroline Brown who lived in the area, together with a friend from the Baltimore Sun—all of them camped outside the center. In the middle of the night, the drug dealers started shooting in the air—they shot off about a hundred rounds. Mr. Guyton had notified the police and the district attorney, who had told them that they ‘had the right to defend themselves if they wanted.’

“‘But it was only them and us,’ Mr. Guyton explained, ‘After that night, it was the turning point. After that we could talk more.’ I couldn’t understand how this happened. ‘There’s a saying in the ’hood,’ Mr. Guyton explains: ‘You’re the man. At that point, everybody looked at each other like they were men. You’re a man. You’re a man. I’m a man. So they’re men. So we’re gonna treat them differently. That was the beginning of the respect we started getting from these guys’.”
(See more on the Web at http://www.cnbc.cmu.edu/~sparun/writing/rosestreet.)

Monday morning, 4 a.m.

At 4 a.m. every Monday, the Rose Street Transitional House, a formstone rowhouse on the 2700 block of Madison Street, is packed with 25 to 30 young people. They range in age from 14 to 20 and show up here at this time every week, where other community members join them for street clean up. Everyone gets $20 for showing up. This morning, the older community members put on orange vests and leave with trashcans, shovels, and brooms, while Walker Gladden, the youth coordinator, keeps the young adults behind to speak with them about the youth committee and the resources the committee makes available to every young person.

He begins by acknowledging those who have taken steps toward going back to school and getting their GEDs. Providing information about local colleges that the community will help them get into, Walker reassures them that if they have concerns about the cost of education, it’s something that he and the other leaders will help them work out. “Don’t be discouraged”, he says. “If this is something you’re ready to do now, then that’s what we’re going to do.”

He goes on to talk about the need for young people to have business and job opportunities in their neighborhood, and the youth committee’s commitment to making this a reality amidst the economic challenges that this community faces. Walker and the youth committee leadership are no strangers to the situation these kids are in. They were fortunate enough to have someone like Clayton Guyton to get them off the streets, and they intend to return the favor and keep building this organization and the movement it is a part of.

Walker (addressing the group at the 4 a.m. meeting) says, “There was a time when we had businesses right here where we live. There was a time when we were patrons in our own community and we appreciated ourselves and each other. Somehow that got lost. But today we are sittin’ here in a room full of geniuses. Whatever you put your mind to, whatever you put you heart into, you can do. Right now, I can’t sit still. I cannot sit back and just watch as our young people are constantly being shot down.

“We understand the pressure you are under. We’re trying to create a sanctuary, a place where we can come together and work on our differences, and we can become business-minded together, and we can say ‘Look! This is my vision, this is my life, and this is the direction that I’m trying to move my life in.’ That’s what’s important, and right now we are doing everything we can, to the best of our ability, to help all of you move your life—in a positive direction.”

Consciousness Raising

For Walker and the rest of the leadership at Rose St., this is not just about business or money, it’s about giving young adults the opportunities they are entitled to—the kinds of opportunities that provide the necessary breathing room and space to evaluate their situation and the condition of their community.

Walker continues:

“This is about all of us becoming more conscious—more aware of what’s goin’ on right now, right here, where we are. And you all, the youth, are going to spearhead this. Together we’ll put the message out there that this is about saving lives. In the last two days we’ve had seven homicides. That’s seven within 48 hours.” He pauses dramatically. “Something’s got to be done. Something’s got to be done…. I remember what it’s like. I remember the mindset—looking around me and thinking this is the way it’s supposed to be…. It’s all I knew. But this ain’t right … when my community has been saturated with drugs … without the jobs, education, resources I need—and you’re going to just leave me to my own devices.

“So what do I do? I bring pain, because I’m goin’ through pain, I bring pain to my own people—without any clear understanding of what I’m doin’ and why I’m doin’ it. Mothers and fathers in jail—caught up in drugs. Me, I’m not in school. Other people in the family are tryin’ to raise me. Children raisin’ children—babies raisin’ babies—foster homes—youth homes—training schools, and then you graduate to Central Booking…. And here I am thinking this is normal. Nobody ever showed me that this isn’t normal. Who do I go to when my parents aren’t around and I got no one else to turn to? I go to the strongest person I see—the drug dealer. I think this person understands my situation because they’ve been in my situation…. Oh, how they have set me up for so long.

“Now they got me believing that this corner is mine…. I’m willing to put my life on the line for it. I think no one better touch this, don’t you come around here to my corner. That is until I hear that chopper …” (he makes helicopter sounds) “… and sirens and then you know exactly whose corner that really is. It’s the Man’s corner. But when they leave, we come right back out on that corner and claim it again. They set me up for like 16 years, not even knowing what it’s like to leave the community … the same corner practically all of my young life, and they hope that we won’t outthink our situation and our environment. They want us to remain in that lifestyle so that we can become primitive and hunt each other.

“As long as we continue to think in that way and eliminate one another, they say, ‘Hey good job, continue to do what you’re doin’, and thank you!’ signed ‘the KKK.’ They say, ‘You’re doing such a wonderful job. Keep up the good work. In fact you’re killing more of yourselves than we ever thought we could! So thumbs up, white power!’

“You may not like to hear it that way, but guess what? It’s true. It’s time for a new era in our communities. It’s time to become more conscious, so that we can evaluate exactly what’s going on here…. We will no longer be raised like animals and thrown into a cage. If they can keep you on parole or probation, if they can keep you coming through that courtroom for as long as possible … they can keep making a multibillion-dollar industry out of you and your crimes and your incarceration. They say to you ‘Do you have anything to say for yourself?’ and you think, ‘Of course not. I don’t know what to say because I’ve been trapped so long’.”

The talk lasts over an hour, and afterward those attending approach Walker individually. As they emerge from the rowhouse these young people seem much more awake than when they arrived. The sun is barely up, and Monday morning traffic still hasn’t started, but these kids are alert and ready to start the week.

After the meeting a few of those in attendance talked about why they come out and participate every Monday. Some are interested in going back to school, some already have, and others are trying to get a personal or commercial driver’s license. Jamal, 19 years old, says, “They really do help people. I started coming out here when I was twelve, and I’ve seen a lot a progress. A lot of young people come here and listen and get help with whatever they’re trying to do. You listen enough and it sticks eventually—it just makes sense. Then go on to do good things.”

The Committee

On Fridays at noon the youth committee leadership meets in the Transitional House living room. The meeting is very casual, but extremely efficient. Clayton Guyton facilitates, and Walker begins by leading a prayer. He then goes around the room and gets a detailed progress report from each person present. Most of the discussion is about the research and planning going into the flea market project. The group plans to open a neighborhood store where young people can sell goods: airbrushed T-shirts, body oils, artwork, and music have been suggested so far. They’ve done most of the research necessary to move forward, and will begin by getting experience in sales at a local flea market before opening a store in their neighborhood.

Tony Wilson is on the committee. He says, “If we live in the neighborhood, we feel that we should have businesses here. Money should be circulated amongst ourselves. We also have a situation where a lot of people out here are on probation, parole—and they really aren’t given jobs other places. We want to give people jobs and help them create businesses for themselves.”

Next they hear from Paul Stevens about progress he’s made on the “in-house senior haircuts” project. He’s heading up an effort to start a business that visits the elderly in their homes to give haircuts. The idea is so clever that the whole room can’t help but have a smile on their face as they talk about it.

Antonio Henry Jr. reports on studio sessions. The youth committee pays for time at a local recording studio where young people from the neighborhood can go to record. Antonio reminds the group that they’re doing another session this afternoon and would like to have more people come along. He’s working on a track that addresses the issue of murder in Baltimore. A brief discussion takes place about the negative impact of so much rap today and about “real hip hop,” and how much they can do with music and lyrics that address real problems and communicate a positive message.

At one point, someone suggests starting a mentorship program for kids in the area ages 12 and under. Within 10 minutes time, the idea is approved, and a start date is set. Each person will bring two young people to a meeting on the following Saturday.

At Rose Street, community is a 24-hour-a-day concept, and organizing is an around the clock job. There’s no room for wasting time.

When asked about the success that Rose Street has had with youth showing up and participating in these programs, Walker says it’s all about opening up lines of communication, “A lot of times these people don’t even want to hurt each other. When you create an environment where people can communicate, they can actually come out of all this without bloodshed.”