By Antonio Moore, Special to the AFRO

In the richest state in the richest nation in this world, it would be ideal that Baltimore’s young people have the much needed accessibility, opportunity and exposure to help them to develop. But the reality of it reflects a large margin of disconnect. Baltimore’s youth suffer from significant disinvestment, and our school’s test results and education data reflect a system of failure. So failure for young people without hope becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many Baltimore’s youth are disconnected from school, and consequently, the workplace. The lack of engagement of young people in the Baltimore workforce pushes the social mobility ladder significantly higher and seemingly out of reach. 

Employment opportunities for young people in Baltimore city growing in rampant poverty, is a huge key in fostering a sense of dignity, alleviating indigency, and making them productive members of society. Ask many established working professionals how old they were when they had their first job, or were first exposed to the workplace, and the average age would be around 11 to 15 years old.  

Squegee boy soliciting work at the intersection of Orleanss and Gay Streets. (Courtesy Photo)

Disengagement of young people in the workforce, creates an excessive dependence on day to day gigs to make money and fostering a sense of purpose. There is a growing frustration at the presence of “squeegee kids” in our streets. And the same people publicly condemning them  are the ones whom them themselves wouldn’t open the door of their own business or network of opportunity and resources to the young people of untapped potential.

This past August, I sat in on a town hall meeting in one of the affluent neighborhoods in Baltimore City. It was no surprise in the significant difference of this community compared to many others, and raised a litany of concerns. While several residents expressed growing unrest in the seemingly rise of juvenile crime, one Canton resident stood up and asked this question: “We know there exists a significant problem of trash and dumping in our neighborhoods, I was thinking you all pay those squeegee kids to go around and clean it up for us”. I sat uneasy at this suggestion. I would love to hear the same guys reaction when his kids are offered the low-end, degrading role of picking up trash as a poor kid in an affluent neighborhood. This reflects often times, what people in our society think of the very kids whom are stepping in front of cars for monetary gain and opportunity. And it is easy for the kids themselves to think themselves no worthy of more than that.

Why are we letting our guns and drugs get to our youth, before the employers can? Right now in Baltimore city, a historically blue collar city, now home to some of the biggest fortune 1,000 companies like Legg Mason, Under Armour, and McCormick, there are kids no more than five minutes away from these big businesses, left to a life of window cleaning. Is this as good as it gets for them? 

A young man washes a windshield as motorists wait at a red light in Baltimore. Young “squeegee kids” who wash car windshields while darting in and out of Baltimore traffic could eventually go from street hustling to conventional employment under a privately-funded program pitched by former Mayor Catherine Pugh. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Baltimore has certainly gotten away from what works with youth engagement. The best practices are often ones we have yet to unearth from the past. Our African ancestors understood the importance of youth engagement. Take the African village model:

At 10 years old, the young gather wood, and other supplies to make weapons.

At 12 years old, they become soldiers, and foster a sense of ownership in protecting the village.

At 15 years old, they become chiefs, and step into roles of leadership in the battalion.

At 25 years old, they return to the village, and are considered elders. 

To truly heal this broken city, we MUST take a “bottom up” approach, similar to the African village model. Accessibility, opportunity, and exposure, are all important factors of social ownership for young people, and is a critical part of growing “the village”. 

The work certainly has begun, and I look at the cities youth work initiative that gave over 4,000  children ages 14-24 jobs every summer, and this past summer 8,000. But then I see that 11,000 kids actually applied, and I think to myself that the city has some work to do, too. We have to get to our young people before something else does. 

I’d like to leave you all with this final quote from the wonderful Katrina Brooks, “The question is not whether or not you’ll invest in young people. The question is will it be on the front end, or the back end.” And for Baltimore, we’ve seen the answer and its sweltering collateral consequences.