“Who controls the media in Baltimore City?” reads the construction-paper sign, in a basement computer lab in Cherry Hill Public Homes. Around it sit Navasha Daya, Fanon Hill, and eleven campers at A Dream In Cherry Hill.
The Baltimore Sun
The Baltimore Times
The Indypendent Reader
The camp is an outshoot of the Baltimore City Youth Resiliency Institute, and the campers are aged seven to twenty-four. Is seven years too young for kids to ask these questions? Not according to Hill.
A Dream in Cherry Hill, Hill has written, “is an initiative that deconstructs how, when, and who distributes resources to Baltimore’s most vulnerable communities. It supports the building of community from the inside out, while actively shaping what it means to be a human being in possession of the full democratic right to affect change in one’s own voice.”
The camp’s aim (in part): to teach the youth of Cherry Hill to construct their own environment. Its means: through developing an artistic conversation that extends beyond the social, racial, geographical borders of Baltimore city, giving youth an opportunity to voice their concerns and collectively better the city.
Back to the lab. Speaking to the seated group around their computers, Hill calls one of the young campers up, and hangs a bass guitar around his neck. He calls another, and gives him a carved wooden mask. A third camper comes up, and is handed a sign, reading “Freedom Is Not Won By Placards Alone.”
“Each of you has a role,” says Hill. “Baltimore needs artists. Artists are fierce. They make sure that the issues that need to be addressed are indeed.
“Let’s say Razad lives in Bolton Hill,” says Hill, patting the kid with the bass on the shoulder. One of the kids asks, “Huh?”
“That’s the point,” responds Hill, “We want to make sure you know Baltimore communities.”
If there is one community in our fair city that could stand to see its democratic voice grow, it is Cherry Hill. The south-end neighborhood has, over the years, developed a reputation as one of the darker corners of Baltimore, and the numbers show it. According to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, in 2010 Cherry Hill’s median household income was $20,000 under the city average. Violent crime in the same year was 6.95% over the rest of the city, and the median sales price for homes was $46,000 under average. Not only that, but each of these statistics is in a worse place relative to the city average than it was in 2000. It’s a community that needs change. Daya and Hill are helping see that it changes itself.
How the two got here, and how they began this cultural literacy camp, deserves telling. Neither Daya, who was well-known for years as the singer of the nu-jazz group Fertile Ground, nor Hill, who works as a full-time community organizer, are from Baltimore. Actually, the two (who happen to be married) originated in East Cleveland, a Cleveland suburb that has long faced its own difficulties.
As youths, they participated in a Rites of Passage program not unlike the current programs they run through the Baltimore City Youth Resiliency Institute. Then, in the early 90’s, Daya came to Baltimore to attend Morgan State. While there, she was named Miss Morgan, then Miss Baltimore. Though she jokes she never reached Miss Maryland status, her tenure with Fertile Ground, beginning in 1997, probably earned her more fame than any beauty pageant would have.
Hill was a much later transplant. While Daya was touring the world with Fertile Ground, Hill studied and practiced community organizing through cultural youth development. In the early 2000’s, he earned a Treu-Mart youth development fellowship at Case Western University which kept him busy organizing in his hometown. Hill says that at this time he was living with his sister and working for Case Western, but every month or so he would get enough time off to travel. Guess where he went.
“People would ask me, ‘Why you going to Baltimore?’… Man, Baltimore is the center of arts culture in the eastern United states. We just haven’t totally figured that out yet.”
In 2006, Hill had the opportunity to come to Baltimore and continue his Treu-Mart Fellow work with the BCYRI, providing community-centric programming for vulnerable populations. And in 2010 he and Daya began A Dream in Cherry Hill.
“Imagine a Baltimore city where our most vulnerable children and youth are not demonized for living in a predicament that they did not create,” Hill has written for the Open Society Institute, “but celebrated for their powerful resiliency.” Resiliency theory is an approach to youth development that focuses on enhancing kids’ ability to withstand adversity, as opposed to only trying to eliminate harmful influences from their environment.
Often, public perception of Cherry Hill is limited to a vague impression of a dangerous, disenfranchised place. “The distorted imagery that many individuals have drawn about Cherry Hill is extremely powerful,” says Hill. “The young people here buy into it.” Being from East Cleveland, it’s a familiar story to Hill.
“I would tell people I’m from East Cleveland, and instantly I was demonized. In a way it gave me this pride,” he says, “to take my story and challenge people’s perceptions.” Now he and Daya are working to help their campers find their artistic voices, so they can challenge perceptions themselves.
The camp, which ends tomorrow, is structured roughly as such: the kids show up at 9 a.m. Monday-Thursday to learn about artists and professionals in Baltimore. Often they practice crafts or music, and often they are visited by the artists themselves. It doesn’t hurt that Daya and Hill are well-connected: “If we have one person who wants to be a model, I call up my friend who’s a model and she comes in,” says Hill. Another camper said she wanted to be a journalist. Hill gave a call to internationally renowned photojournalist J.D. Howard.
After lunch each day, the kids sit down with journals and write. They write about their interviews with artists, about their dreams, about what they’ve seen in the news. They write about Cherry Hill. And in the next few months, the BCYRI is going to publish the children’s writing to a blog to showcase their voices. The children will help to shape Baltimore’s narrative, says Daya.
Getting into Cherry Hill, a close-knit community where outsiders are often taken for undercover cops, was not a simple task for Daya and Hill. Initially, folks were wary of the couple. “You can’t just go into a place saying, ‘oh, we’re going to save your kids!'” says Daya. Besides, she explains, that was never the interest. The couple simply wanted to catalyze the building of youth leadership from within. So they reached out to community leaders first, explained their intentions, and were incorporated by the community before they started to work.
“There’s this perception about parents in marginalized communities not being proactive about their kids,” explains Daya. “Well, when we started the camp in 2010 we had the capacity to serve 22 kids. Parents of more than 60 kids approached us… We’re on site, so kids don’t have to take three buses to get to us, for which their parents might not have bus fare.” Daya explained that the perceived lack of engagement is often just a result of systematized inequity. “A lot of parents were telling me they couldn’t afford to send their kids to another camp. They can’t just send them to the zoo.”
Tomorrow the campers will take part in the First Annual Youth Arts Harvest Festival, put on by BCYRI in association with Downtown Partnerships (among some other groups). The festival will provide an opportunity for the children to meet performing artists from throughout the city, while drawing attention to the inequitable distribution of arts funding in Baltimore.
“The Baltimore arts community is poisoned with inequity,” says Hill, “to the point where a lot of artists are bitter. They feel they’re not getting their share, they may feel unrewarded.” The festival will give these artists a voice.
“All this was for a purpose,” says Hill. “They can be a part of Cherry Hill and know they have a right to travel anywhere in the city. We really believe that the art is the tool that helps them to realize that.”
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Keshauna, a camper at the “A Dream in Cherry Hill” camp has submitted her own story, along with a poem by fellow camper Joelee. Click here to read the article and poem!