“Black,” a convicted felon and longtime member of the Bloods street gang in Baltimore, was talking about street life and hustling, and a group of 25 gang members and young men recently out of prison are hanging on his every word, says the Baltimore Sun. A 28-year-old with cornrows whose real name is Tony Wilson, he meets with this group four days a week as a youth coordinator for the Rose Street Community Center, operating in a netherworld between street gangs and official Baltimore. Even as his efforts are praised by the mayor, he must keep a measured distance from police and City Hall for fear of losing his credibility on the streets. On this day, he chides the young men for choosing drug-dealing as the easy way out. He ridicules those who want to spend $100,000 on a car but can’t pay their rent or a cell phone bill and don’t bother to get insurance or even a driver’s license. Wilson’s group helps people earn GEDs, establish bank accounts, get driver’s licenses, and start businesses. So far, he’s gotten more than 100 young men to pledge to aid others in changing their lives. He peels off bills from a wad of fives after each meeting to keep his proteges motivated.
The center has the support and encouragement of civic leaders and government. The group, which receives money from the Abell Foundation, recently secured more than $220,000 in federal grants to fund the opening of a youth homeless shelter, which would be the only one of its kind in Baltimore. Last week, in her “State of the City” speech, Mayor Sheila Dixon singled out Rose Street and a similar West Baltimore group, saying that “countless lives have been stabilized; countless lives have been saved” through their work. Wilson, a respected street figure, has intervened in countless disputes in an attempt to avoid deadly violence, all very much off the radar of police. He has organized pickup basketball games and sit-down meals between Bloods and Crips. Last year, he issued a challenge that he would take them on trips to Six Flags if they went 45 days without killing one another. It worked. Like the much-heralded Safe Streets program operating in a nearby neighborhood, it is both the distance from law enforcement and the real-life experiences of key staff members that give these programs the street credibility crucial to their effectiveness. That is also what makes them potential powder kegs, their success a high-wire act that, like much of the city’s violence, could take a turn for the worse with the slightest misstep.