Op-Ed: Stop reducing Baltimore kids to headlines

The following op-ed was originally run in the Baltimore Sun on May 2nd, 2016. Baltimore’s now-former Executive Director, Erin Hodge-Williams, wrote it on her last day after eight years in the role. In her words, Dedric’s story must be heard.

Once again, Baltimore is in the national news. Headlines read: teen “boy shot by police.” Beyond headlines, we are again subject to police press conferences, blurry hand held videos, round the clock coverage repeating the incomplete and conflicting stories and explosive social media coverage. Like last year, there is a sense that something is about to happen.

As someone who runs an after school and mentoring program, I am conflicted about the impact of mass media. On one hand, the news can be a catalyst for change; on the other hand, it can dehumanize, stereotype and make people numb to what is happening. On April 27, the moment word got out that Dedric Colvin was shot by police, he stopped being a bright, playful, 8th grade student. He became a headline.

The minute we reduce our kids to headlines we no longer have relationships with them. The minute we allow the news or the police to describe our children as victims or criminals, they are no longer people. They are: “East Baltimore teenager,” or “the boy who ran from police.” Once that happens, it is easy to dismiss the headlines because they no longer belong to us. They become “those” children. They become one dimensional.

Dedric is not one dimensional. He has been a scholar in Higher Achievement, the program I run, where young people learn, play and connect with caring adults and role models every day. He plays football. He is bright. He is hard working. He is quick to hug. He is playful. He is a son, a brother, an excellent City Springs Elementary/Middle School student.

Like all of us, Dedric comes with his own story. Sometimes there is more to the story than meets the eye. Sometimes a child’s story is chaotic. Sometimes it is hopeful, difficult, triumphant, ordinary — or all of those at once. And sometimes — too many times — a child’s story is too painful to fully grasp. We must make sure to keep those stories close to us so that we can continue to build opportunities that allow children to edit, create and rewrite their own stories.

And yet, when programs close and opportunities disappear due to lack of funding, how can we support our kids? Last year, after the Freddie Gray tragedy and when the national cameras were on, the mayor increased after school program funding by $4.2 million dollars. Several weeks ago, before the national cameras returned to Baltimore, the mayor cut $4.2 million dollars in funding for out-of-school programs. That funding would have ensured that 2,500 more students have safe spaces where they can develop relationships with caring adults and where caring adults can learn the many dimensions of our city’s youth.

Shawn Dove, the CEO for the Campaign for Black Male Achievement says, “The cavalry is not coming. We’re the iconic leaders we have been waiting for, curators of the change we’ve been waiting to see.” I agree. We are.

Our kids are telling their stories through their actions. They are showing us they can no longer wait. Now we, as adults, need to tell our story through our actions. If you are — as I am — heartbroken, frustrated and angry with what is happening to our young people, then act. Children in Baltimore need and deserve stable communities and strong schools. They also need and deserve mentors, supporters and a safe place to learn and play after school.

We are responsible for humanizing each other and connecting to the essence of each other as human beings first. We are responsible for seeing the stories beyond the headlines. We are responsible for asking questions. Call the mayor and advocate for more funding for our city’s young people. Volunteer. Engage. Listen to our children’s stories and be the change our young people need in Baltimore.

The time to get off the sidelines and stand up for our young people is now.

Get involved today. Volunteer.