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Public Allies Maryland Brings Together Teens, Mentors to Interact with Civic Leaders

Local and federal officials engaged in a give-and-take with young people during a 'Give a Care' summit held June 4 at the University of Maryland campus in Baltimore by Public Allies Maryland, a partnership between the UM School of Social Work (SSW) and a national program supported by AmeriCorps.

The summit was organized to allow the youth to speak directly with civic leaders, who included Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, Jonathan Brice, MA, executive director of student support services for Baltimore City Public Schools; and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, JD, who has become the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Cummings is shown in the photo, third from left, with the summit's organizers, Rashaad Whitfield, La'Roy Alston, Chris Lawson, and James Traynham.

They are Public Allies whose roles are to strengthen the individual nonprofit organizations where they work. Beyond that, the four are supported by the Open Society Institute (OSI) as Emerging Black Male Leaders. In their roles as leaders, they have spent the past eight months mentoring youth. The four also committed to preparing youths for the 'Give a Care' summit and making its content relevant to their concerns. They succeeded.

The summit at the Southern Management Corporation Campus Center consisted of breakout groups led by each of the four organizers, lunch with an open mic segment where youths and adults displayed their spoken-word talents, a Town Hall-like forum, and a resource fair. The youths in the audience of 40 to 50 included students from high schools such as Edmondson-Westside and Forest Park, several middle schools including the Baltimore Stadium School, and a few elementary schools.

In an opening presentation, Alston said that the young people needed to "understand not how to survive but how to live" and how to seize opportunities to better themselves and their communities.

The topics of the breakout groups were law enforcement, media, government, and education, with the latter three covering topics such as how television affects teens' perceptions of themselves, the need to engage in advocacy, and how finding a favorite subject in school can lead to a career later in life.

At the breakout session dealing with law enforcement, Commissioner Bealefeld fielded questions on how to improve relationships between police and the public and urged the group to hold police accountable. One young man described a situation where police officers stopped him twice in one day to search him. Bealefeld responded by describing how he wanted his officers to be more active in the community so that they could more easily identify the difference between what he termed "good guys" and "bad guys."

Bealefeld urged his listeners to speak up in their own neighborhoods to discourage others from engaging in harmful or illegal activities such as fighting. He asked the dozen or so youth and adult mentors gathered around the conference table: "Why should violence and danger and injury to people be a spectator sport?"

Public Allies Teen Summit from UM news on Vimeo.

Ted Busch, MSW, a clinical instructor for the School of Social Work's Social Work Community Outreach Service (SWCOS) and director of Public Allies Maryland, oversaw the forum and helped facilitate what he hoped would be an "organic" conversation between officials and young people. To encourage participation, he and Laura Bumiller, MSW '09, senior program manager for Public Allies Maryland, took microphones into the audience.

Attendees questioned a panel that included Cummings, Brice, and Selwyn Ray, vice president of community engagement and partnership for Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Maryland Mentoring Partnership.

In fostering a conversation on personal and civic responsibility, Rep. Cummings shared his personal background with the youths to show what they could be capable of with enough perseverance. He emphatically suggested they need a "long-range vision" for their lives. He used his own life story as an example, telling an anecdote about how his six years as a special education student in Baltimore later gave him expertise to successfully advocate for special education funding in Congress.

Brice spoke on the value of school. "Everyone should participate in some sort of school activity," Brice said. "Keep dreaming and figuring out what you want to do with your life."

Ray, who is a board member of Public Allies Maryland, called education a "game changer."

The one who seemed to get the most out of the Town Hall was 8-year-old Jazmeen Benefield, who came with older relatives. Invited by Ray to sit on the panel of speakers, she had several questions, mainly directed at Cummings. At the end of the panel, she thanked him for talking to them and giving his advice on how to better their lives and improve their communities. "You told us all we need to know," she said.

Among those in attendance was Richard P. Barth, PhD, MSW, dean of the SSW; Dick Cook, MSW, director of SWCOS; and Ali-Sha Allemon, MSW, assistant director of SWCOS. The summit was supported by SWCOS and by OSI.

David McKinney, vice president of programs at the national office of Public Allies, which is based in Milwaukee, said of the summit: "It very much takes the feel of 'by the youth, for the youth.' "

McKinney, interviewed for a story published by The Baltimore Sun, said, "We're showing young people that folks in high places have a similar story and they have a voice and can become part of something."

Posting Date: 06/14/2011
Contact Name: Patricia Fanning
Contact Phone: 410-706-7946
Contact Email: pfanning@umaryland.edu