“The Wire," the critically acclaimed HBO television series, takes an honest look at the gritty streets of Baltimore City. The fourth season follows four West Baltimore boys as they navigate their way through Baltimore’s hostile urban environment, one riddled with every imaginable societal ill. During the series finale, three of the four boys settle into the roles of a high school dropout, a drug dealer and a “customer” of the juvenile justice system. The fourth endangered youth’s fate was altered by a mentor who sought permission from the boy’s incarcerated father to foster and nurture the child, leading him away from a legacy of dealing drugs.
But is this really an “authentic” portrayal of life for Baltimore boys? Has this sparked a desire within the community to combat the toll that violence and drugs takes on the lives and futures of urban youth?
To both questions, we answer “yes.”
A fraction of Baltimore’s teens, known to many as “The Boys of Baraka,” have been inspired to go beyond the negative influences and further their education and personal endeavors. The Baraka Youth Empowerment Fund (BYEF), the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Abell Foundation, Baltimore City Schools, and the Baraka School in Laikipia, Kenya have helped.
In Baltimore, there is nothing novel about America’s staggering 50% high school dropout rate among black males. Today, approximately 61% of such Baltimore boys do not graduate from high school. Taken together with the violence, drugs and gang culture of the city, under-educated black boys are at tremendous risk of joblessness, crime and incarceration.
The Baraka School is designed to help these youth who are undergoing educational and environmental crisis. A public-private partnership between the Abell Foundation and the Baltimore City Public School System, the Baraka School, in Laikipia, Kenya, operated successfully between 1996 and 2002. It annually accepted up to 24 preadolescent males from Baltimore City’s public elementary schools. In addition to providing a nurturing and positive learning environment, the Baraka School included structure, discipline and a cultural context to enhance students' academic performance and social development.
The intervention worked, and students in the 7th and 8th grades improved their skills on reading, math and behavioral indices.
Sadly, in 2002—in the aftermath of 9/11—the Baraka School was shut down due to mounting concerns over terrorism and security. The 2001–2002 7th and 8th grade Baraka School classes were sent back to their district middle schools in Baltimore City (the 7th grade class was unable to complete its two-year term in Kenya). All of the 8th grade boys have since remained enrolled in high school—a few in specialty high schools. The boys who only completed 7th grade have experienced some problems. A few of them attended the city’s better high schools or enrolled in JobCorps, but the majority dropped out of school and took to street culture.
During the fall of 2005, discussions of race, education, and urban development picked up steam in Baltimore as people prepared for the release of the documentary film "The Boys of Baraka.," which chronicles the journey of four boys from the troubled neighborhoods of Baltimore to the Serengeti plains of Kenya. The film has served as a catalyst for renewed hope and critical dialogue surrounding urban education in Baltimore City.
Former Baraka students and Daniela Lewy, a former Baraka teacher and public health student, began organizing a series of screenings and panel discussions featuring the young men in the documentary. The goal was to raise awareness and begin a dialogue throughout Baltimore. Invariably, the response to these sessions was overwhelming, with momentum quickly growing behind the question, “What can we do?”
Soon after the release of the movie in January 2006, radio shows and newspapers picked up the story. In late February, the film won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Independent or Foreign Film. The schedule of screenings accelerated, with requests coming in from organizations throughout Baltimore, including parents of Baltimore public school students, a local middle school, local colleges, and a community screening at The Charles Theatre. The response to the events was encouraging, as people continued to ask, “What can we do?”
Through numerous discussions with community leaders and forward-thinking members of the education and youth development fields, a group of former Baraka students and parents, mentoring/education experts, and local public health students decided to establish a charitable, donor-directed fund through Associated Black Charities. Thus was born the Baraka Youth Empowerment Fund. This year, the Fund has been instrumental and proactive in developing multiple streams of community-focused activity for the Baraka boys and Baltimore youth, including organized mentoring, community service activities, experiential enrichment and leadership development. Ultimately, the Fund aims to become a self-sustaining organization that will serve Baltimore youth long after the original Baraka cohort have made it to college and beyond.
The Baraka School had a powerful positive influence on its former students. At a recent mentoring event, Antwan Rooks, a Baraka School alumnus, said, “We need to stay together so that we can save each other.” Devon Brown, another Baraka alumnus, single-handedly organized a reunion of the original cohort. This celebration dinner was an opportunity for the young men to reflect positively on their accomplishments and future aspirations. Brown, who plans to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art this fall, stated, “Baraka was the best thing that happened to me. It allowed me to find myself in life.”
One of the boys of “The Wire” escaped a lifestyle of turmoil through the support of a dedicated mentor. Certainly, Baltimore’s Boys of Baraka have been through “the wire,” but—thanks to the mentors, leaders, and advocates who worked to inspire and empower them with tools to bring about positive change in their lives—they remain steadfast on their paths to success beyond that "wire," as they maintain their sense of hope in the face of adversity.
The Baraka Youth Empowerment Fund encourages the public's participation and support.
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