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Baltimore youth engage in politics

Dominique Maria Bonessi

Hundreds of Baltimore youth showed up at a recent city council budget hearing to plead for more money for after-school and community school programs.

One city councilman called it a "rare moment of unity and strength."

There was, for example, Samirah Franklin, a 19-year-old from Sandtown in West Baltimore and lead youth organizer of the Baltimore Youth Organizing Project, which grew from the unrest after the death of Freddie Gray.

"Baltimore has become a city that fails to address its rising homicide rates by defunding youth," she told the council. "As we bear witness to our city’s most fatal year in its history, our youth are struggling to survive. On the first day of 2017, the first murder in Baltimore city was a childhood friend of mine."

Franklin said she and her friend went down separate paths in life because her school had an after-school program and her friend’s didn’t.

"Me speaking up for him, maybe it will ease the pain of the young people in Baltimore that have been lost because they were not prioritized," she said in an interview. "Also you know this is setting a new precedent. You know young people don’t have to turn to the streets because there isn’t anything."

Zeke Cohen, the city council’s youth committee chair, says Baltimore youth led the charge for after-school and community school funding during budget negotiations.

"Young people from all across the city joined together and asked and then demanded that we support the programs that support them," said Cohen. "And so I do think this was a rare, somewhat rare moment of unity and of strength of young people in this city."

Among them was Crisaly De Los Santos, a graduate of the National Academy Foundation High School in East Baltimore.

"I’ve always been an activist even when I was little," she said. "I grew up and I love it. And I want to make sure we don’t have people out there setting rules for us that aren’t correct for our society.”

De Los Santos, 17, said she plans on going to Baltimore City Community College in the fall until she turns 18, and then she wants to transfer to Morgan State University to study international affairs.

She says she was inspired to get involved in her community when she began attending CASA de Maryland’s Mi Espacio after-school program for youth leadership. She also says the current political climate has motivated her to learn more.

"What I’m hoping for is not just for Baltimore, it is for the whole country," said De Los Santos. "I feel that it don’t matter where you come from, who you want to be or what you are right now. We all have needs and even though those needs are different we need to have someone in power who is going to help us need where we need to be."

And in that spirit, she says she plans to create an app to help people learn English this summer. In her spare time. She says she hopes to have it on the market next year.

One resilient young man, Jairo Padilla, a rising senior at National Academy Foundation, is a friend of De Los Santos.

"I see cases of injustice and they motivate me to keeping moving forwards because one person can make a difference," said Padilla in Spanish. "So with support I always try to be aware of injustice."

Padilla is also a youth advocate at CASA De Maryland. He says he is worried for his parents and other Latinos in his community that can be picked up at any moment by immigration police whether they are here legally or not. He also says that his advocacy has helped him reevaluate his plans for the future.

"Well, I was thinking about studying to become a mechanic, but I’ve been leaning more towards the idea of being able to impact people with my words, so I’m thinking about a career change," he said.

Padilla says he may want to study political science in college.

Cohen says Baltimore's youth often are  held in a negative light and seen as responsible for the violence.

"But the experience that I have had in Baltimore is that young people are brilliant and incredibly resilient," he said.

Whether it’s after-school funding, creating English language apps, or advocating for immigrants, Baltimore’s youth is looking to change the narrative.

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