Investing in Youth in Baltimore: A Q&A with Councilman Bill Henry

When national media swarmed Baltimore this April to cover the protests and unrest that followed the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody, 4th District City Councilman Bill Henry found himself addressing a packed room of media personnel.  Yet just 19 hours earlier, when he had stood at the same podium to announce a new resolution to increase funding for school and after-school programs, not a single reporter covered the story.

To Henry, this media silence highlights a larger challenge facing Baltimore — while there is seldom the political will or funding for programs that invest in disadvantaged youth, the city has an ever-increasing budget for policing them.  The police budget has tripled over the last 20 years, and the overall city budget has doubled, but parks and recreation funding (which funds many school-related and after-school activities) has decreased by a third.

Decades of disinvestment in the low-income neighborhoods of East and West Baltimore have left youth in these communities cut off from the infrastructure that would allow them to thrive: a safe and healthy living environment, quality education and employment opportunities, and positive after-school, weekend, and summer activities. As a result, more than one in five Black youth ages 16 to 24 in the region are disconnected, meaning that they are neither in school nor working — more than double the proportion of White youth in the region.

While addressing the issues plaguing many low-income communities and communities of color in Baltimore will require a diverse set of approaches, Henry and other education advocates are focusing on school and after-school programs as central targets because they help ensure that these youth are educated, healthy, and ready to thrive in the workforce. Such investments are essential for breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty and improving the economic prosperity of these neighborhoods and the entire city of Baltimore.

How are investments in youth programs related to the current policing climate in Baltimore?

We are where we are because for the last quarter of a century we have put all our resources into the policing and prison and criminal justice side of the public safety effort, and we’ve disinvested in the youth development side of public safety. If you give kids things to do [after school], and you give their parents opportunities for jobs and housing so that they can provide a stable family structure, then there’s more of a chance they’ll stay on track towards meaningful employment or further education. They will be less likely to drop out of school.

In the 1980s, Baltimore had almost a hundred rec centers — now we have 41.  The kids then do things people in the neighborhood don’t want them to do, so we send the police to get them — at a dramatically more expensive rate than it would have been to just give them something to do in the first place.

What school and after-school programs are you currently advocating for?

We have a community school program in Baltimore that serves 45 schools, where a community school coordinator works with the school, the community, and other stakeholders to leverage existing resources for the students and knit the school tighter to the surrounding community. That program has seen continual cuts to its budgets, [despite the fact that] the mayor promised in the last election to double funding on after-school programs during the course of her term. This year was the first time the budget wasn’t cut, so community organizers agreed that this is an opportunity to push for that funding increase, from the current $6 million to $10 million. This would take us from providing after-school programs from 4,000 students to 6,000 students, and would take us from 45 community schools citywide to 60. The resolution [for this funding increase] was co-sponsored by all 14 members of the city council and we voted unanimously to adopt it. The mayor still has to make a determination on it by no later than June 25.

You’ve spent years advocating for these programs. Why is it so difficult to get money in the city budget for these types of investments?

It would be cheaper to do more investment in the front end for kids and their parents, but the difficulty in implementing that comes from fear, quite frankly. I haven’t run into anyone in government who doesn’t acknowledge that it makes more sense and is more cost-effective to invest in the front end [for these youth]. But, for the past quarter century most elected officials, and all mayors, have responded to the segment of our community that is afraid. In Baltimore we have the uncomfortable combination of people who are most likely to vote being older people who are least directly connected to these youth, and the tool that politicians use to make them feel safe is more police.

Has the dialogue about investing in youth changed since the uprising?

In the aftermath of the uprising, the message that several of us [in the city council] have been pushing for a while is starting to spread wider: just because we’re not spending the money on the police department, that doesn’t mean we’re not spending it on improving public safety. Giving kids other things to be doing after school, on weekends, and in the summer is a tool for public safety. It used to be that no one would say that we can move money out of policing to pay for youth development, but since the uprising, there’s been a larger awareness that our police department has significant room for improvement, and that may not require that it spend all the money it has been spending. The best we [as advocates and organizers] can do is to show that when we talk about youth development, the same money could be spent more efficiently and produce useful outcomes, compared to just putting more money in the police department budget. That isn’t always easy because it’s easier to track how many arrests you make, but it’s impossible to measure the kids who don’t commit crimes because they’re coming to a rec center after school.

Read the rest of the June 11, 2015 America’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model issue.