Published in the April 2016 issue of STYLE.
One year after the disturbances that occurred in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray, we asked Ericka Alston—Director of Youth Services, Violence Prevention & Community Outreach at West Baltimore’s Penn-North Community Resource Center and its Kids Safe Zone—to take the temperature of the city: how the unrest changed us, how we’re recovering, how to improve relations between police and residents; and what we need from our next mayor. Her diagnosis and prognosis warrant serious thought.
The death of Freddie Gray ignited what some term an “uprising,” others a “riot.” How did those events change the way Baltimoreans think about their city and the way people in the rest of the U.S. view us? I believe that the unrest gave birth to a sense of unity and community that I’ve never witnessed before. Suddenly, we were seen and heard, not just locally, but the world was watching. On this stage, we were able to come together and stand for changes this community hadn’t seen in decades.
How has West Baltimore rebounded from that unrest? We are back in business and moving forward. Small businesses and retailers have reopened, and we are eagerly awaiting the re-grand opening of our CVS. The biggest recovery effort we’ve seen is the opening of the Kids Safe Zone. To date, we’ve had over 10,000 visits from children, so we’ve rebuilt a sense of security: The community knows where their children are, and, most importantly, that they’re safe.
A recent forum at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum discussed the gaping abyss between the city’s African- American community and its Police Department. What do you consider the best way to heal this seemingly entrenched rift? We need for young African-American males to be viewed as humans first by our law enforcement officers—not automatically assumed criminals. The Resource Center spearheaded efforts to conduct the first Unity Bowl Flag Football Tournament during the fall: community men versus officers. It was an absolute joy to watch them discover the similarities between the two groups when there were no badges or guns involved. We have a basketball tournament and baseball tournament scheduled between the two as well. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has done a great job with transparency and community relations. We need more of that.
This past June, you led a group from the Resource Center that petitioned City Hall to support the Kids Safe Zone. The mayor promised to address your concerns. Has the city followed through? Unfortunately not. The Kids Safe Zone still operates 100 percent on donations. It is very disheartening to be providing a safe place for children from our brutal streets, to receive donations from around the world–and not be supported in any way from our very own city. We’re here because we ended last year with a record number of homicides, many of which involved children. The Kids Safe Zone exists because it’s easier for a child to buy drugs on many corners than is to have access to recreational and extracurricular activities.
By year’s end, Baltimore will have a new mayor. What advice do you have for her or him? Does city government need to reboot its priorities? The city definitely needs to reboot its priorities. We are more than the Inner Harbor and Harbor East. It should be more important to our administration that all residents are afforded basic human needs: affordable housing; jobs with a workable wage that are accessible by mass transit; quality education and early childhood learning and mandatory pre-K; and that our streets are safe and we’re being protected and not overly policed. Our new mayor must believe that human life and the quality of living is more important than tourist attractions and life below North Ave. 9