This year, Lisa Snowden-McCray and I attended two days of Writers in Baltimore Schools’ Summer Writers’ Studio (aka camp) outside Frederick to work with students in their teens on learning journalistic skills and establishing careers in journalism.
As is often the case, we learned as much from them as they did from us—in one of our sessions, the very first question from one of the writers was, “How do you do journalism without profiting off people’s pain?” It was like that from the beginning, which is to say that they wanted to talk shop for real, get serious, hold us accountable, and ideally learn some things about writing along the way too. In this issue, you’ll see some of the results of that collaboration between City Paper and Writers in Baltimore Schools via a handful of profiles of Baltimoreans. Students were matched up with a Baltimorean who met them at the Impact Hub for an interview. The students transcribed the interviews, did a little research, and then with some help from myself, Lisa, and Patrick Oray, crafted a short profile of that person that mixed hard facts with strong voice, insight, and some opinion in there too (CP Photo Editor J.M. Giordano was also at camp for a day to take photos of the writers working).
This issue also features poetry and prose by these students, the product of their work with Studio Instructors Patrick Oray, Jalen Eutsey, and Jess Hudgins; Activities Director Terrell Kellam; Writer-in-Residence Khaliah Williams; Assistant Directors William Camponovo and Shangrila Willy. Oh and lastly, I’ll hand this over to Writers in Baltimore Schools Director, Patrice Hutton. (Brandon Soderberg)
Baltimore students have stories galore, and camp gives these young writers a space to experiment with narration, language, and point of view. These stories often come to life at camp and then hide out in notebooks, but today—in this City Paper collaboration—we offer them to you, challenging you to make this the beginning of your listening to Baltimore’s youth. We’re so grateful to City Paper for supporting our mission of empowering student voices and to the Cohen Opportunity Fund for making our sixth annual Studio possible. (Patrice Hutton)
By Sade Alvarez-Gibson
Marc Steiner is a name commonly heard throughout Baltimore.
He is widely known for his non-profit production company called the Center For Emerging Media and “The Marc Steiner Show,” his daily public radio show that began on WYPR (a popular station he started) and then later on WEAA until July 31, when he had his last show. Steiner has won a Peabody Award for a show called “Just Words” about the working poor in Baltimore from their perspective in their own words.
Considering Marc’s age (71 years old) and race (Caucasian), it was a curiosity of mine what his views were as a younger person in America during the laws and time of segregation and if that affected how he got to where he was today. As a kid he grew up in Baltimore under the laws of segregation with a sojourn that started in an uncertain direction until the age of 11 (in 1967) when he joined an all-black boys scouts league, which was his first integrated experience.
“It changed my entire life,” Steiner says.
From that point on he wanted to end segregation. When his friends from Boy Scouts came to play over his house, the other white kids wouldn’t play them. An effort to go to a movie theater in Steiner’s neighborhood was denied because his friends were of color. But when he went to an ice cream shop in Broadway on Gay Street with the Boy Scouts, it was much different—he was accepted wherever they were, just not vice versa. He walked his first picket line two years later, and at age 16 in Mondawmin he was the youngest person in the state to be arrested for a civil rights action.
In 1970, Steiner was employed as a street club worker (working with gangs in the street) and from there he was led to a 12-year period of working as a therapist counselor in prison, neighborhoods, and street corners. In 1977, he went on to start a theater company and taught acting at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Everything fell into place by accident, Steiner says.
He now has some goals on starting a combination project on theater, podcasting, and history, or plays on tape similar to radio theater from the 1930s. He also wants to interview mayors around the world. He has seen the world mold and change in front of his eyes from the changing laws from segregation to the gentrification that is occurring in Baltimore—and he plans to continue his interest in history, politics, radio, and theater in his ongoing career. He says he is not sure where he will end up or where things will go, but another accident is bound to happen to make a miracle in Marc Steiner’s path.
Rev. Heber Brown
By Jamesha Caldwell
Epiphanies arise at many different stages in our lives. For activist, organizer, and farmer Heber Brown III, his stages of enlightenment happened on his 30th birthday in the form of a quote that occurred to him: “Critique what is, Create what should be.”
That quote becomes a testament to much of his advocacy around the city of Baltimore. Brown channeled adversity and tribulations as a teenager to fuel his demand for a greater change within Baltimore and black youth.
Upon attending college at both Morgan State University and Virginia Union University, Brown began to notice that the education he’d received in high school lacked the teachings and influence of many black leaders and pioneers. This revelation left Brown displeased but passionate about seeking and accessing this knowledge that he felt cheated out of.
While attending VUU in pursuit of a master’s degree, Brown studied abroad in Ghana and read the “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” for the first time. Brown gained a sense of refinement in theology, personal identity, and enlightenment in his greater purpose in life, which became his first motivation for change.
“My eyes started opening up and I became hungrier and hungrier for more information and knowledge,” he says.
Taking his newfound aspirations for change, Brown began his journey of activism and organizing through his fellowship in ministry. As a pastor at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, Brown used many of his critiques and concerns within educational policy and lack of agricultural demand and began his own legacy—“I want to create institutions that will outlive me,” he says.
Brown began farming his own local garden about seven years ago at Pleasant Hope with the initial intentions of growing and producing food that would nourish church family bodies. But he had a revelation during the Baltimore Uprising in 2015. Brown noticed both the increase in the presence of food deserts, but also the dependency of Baltimoreans on local corner stores:
“Activism and organizing come into play because I feel like if we grow our own food or at least to a greater degree, because nothing happens overnight, we’ll began to wean ourselves off of the dependency of those food sources that aren’t best for us and especially from those that we don’t own,” he says.
With this drive in mind of reclaiming systems in which black Americans unfortunately do not see themselves in, Brown decided to found Orita’s Cross Freedom School, which uniquely operates on Baltimore City Public Schools Professional Development days. Orita’s Cross Freedom School has the objective of teaching black youth an African history-based curriculum with tangible life skills such as agriculture, herbalism, and a plethora of other dynamic workshops at Pleasant Hope.
“I would have a greater shot at starting my own school, rather than trying to change their schools,” he says.
Pastor Heber Brown III is a multifaceted and extraordinary figure within the Baltimore community who continues to provide pivotal insight and substantial advocacy to the many injustices that black communities face within Baltimore. Brown leads by the example of being able to critique systems in which he finds disdain and harm, and channeling those injustices to create institutions that provide vital change within the Baltimore community and black youth.
by Anastasia Farley
Smiling, Elisabeth Dahl (“No relation to the Roald Dahl,” she clarifies) settles into her chair. She offers some reassurance, exuding a friendly aura.
“I get pretty nervous when I conduct interviews too,” she says.
Winner of an Individual Artist Award from Maryland’s State Art Council last year, Dahl immerses herself in various endeavors. She’s had both a children’s novel and poetry published, and is now working on an adult novel. Along with teaching at the Center for Talented Youth, she copyedits for different clients.
Growing up in a neighborhood called Oakenshawe, Dahl’s passion for writing came at an early age. Her family didn’t have very much money, but she had writing, which did “something special” for her. She was struck by how one could learn about the world around oneself through writing. As a teenager, someone had given her tickets to see a play by late playwright Sam Shepard. Seeing that play drove her to work at another level.
“It may sound naïve, but I just love the idea that reading stories helps people empathize with each other,” she says. “President Obama used to talk about empathy so much and he was such a great reader. It worries me that people don’t read as much as they used to. Reading’s more meditative; you end up in a world full of quiet empathizers. If I can be a part of that, that’s what matters to me.”
Her quest in a world of quiet empathy is seen in one of poems she published at age 18. Though very personal, she wrote about having an eating disorder and being in a facility for it. Publishing it was strange for her, but she’s glad she wrote it.
“Some people wrote to me about it, saying how meaningful it was to them,” she smiles again, looking down, “I want to make sure what I’m writing is resonating.”
She finds beauty in poetry as she does in fiction.
“I like writing poetry. There’s something wonderful about how brief it is,” Dahl explains, “You can play with form. See some interesting connections.”
Though she remains frustrated with plot, Dahl enjoys writing fiction as well. Dahl describes herself as a “realistic writer, fascinated with the most ordinary parts of people’s lives.”
This is seen in Dahl’s children’s novel, “Genie Wishes.” The young protagonist deals with change—the break-up of a friendship. But change is something every person has to deal with, and learn to deal with when they are young, making it a universal struggle.
“It’s not what all writers write about, and it’s not what all readers like to read. But, I just think lives are fascinating,” she says. “I spend a lot of time studying other people, asking myself ‘How could that work into a story?’”
Sometimes the ordinary is our extraordinary. It simply requires the open eyes, and open mind, that is born when we begin our journey as readers, writers, and artists.
Dr. Floyd W. Hayes
By Khari Dawson
“History books are written in the interest of white people,” says Dr. Floyd W. Hayes, “consequently, the African experience is distorted.”
Hayes is a retired coordinator of undergraduate studies and the senior lecturer at the Center for Africana Studies at John Hopkins University, and also a recently retired powerlifter.
When I met Hayes on a Tuesday in August, his voice filled the room, which didn’t look like it took much effort for him to do. He is a round, brown-skinned man with a white scruffy beard, and he’s boisterous and talkative.
He says his life now as a retired man entails walking with his wife in the morning and reading lots of books about the African experience and political science. He tells me he’s recently been reading “Aspects of European Culture” by Stephen Lee, looking for “the missing pages” as he called them, that depicted the African experience.
After I had run out of questions because of the lack of time I had to come up with them, he helps me out. He tells me he was born in Gary, Indiana in 1942. He was the only child but made a point to clarify that he wasn’t spoiled, and he moved to Los Angeles when he was 10 or 11.
He later went to UCLA, didn’t like it, and began working at the post office. After another school, he studied abroad in France through the University of Dallas all summer, because of his deep infatuation with French culture since middle school. He says he was with about 13 other students—he was the only black one—and he was the only one truly interested in learning everything French, but was bombarded by questions about U.S. politics by every French person he encountered. This made him realize how ignorant he was of U.S. politics because, he says, “I was a French major, I was interested in French culture, I didn’t pay attention to that.”
The frequent questions about his birth country’s politics impacted him so greatly that he added political science to his majors, with history as a minor. He graduated from the University of Dallas in 1967 and went back to UCLA, where he got his bachelor’s degree. This is around the time when he became a part of the Black Power Movement where his main focus was to establish black studies in UCLA. He says there was no organized field for black studies until 1968.
He left UCLA again in 1970, and then went on to work at Princeton, Purdue University (which he says was the most racist college he’s ever worked at), San Diego State University, Morgan State University, and eventually Hopkins. And then he retired, which brings us to present day.
It was a very enjoyable experience speaking with him and I plan to remember his experiences and use them as inspiration when trying to achieve goals that I have set for myself.
By Alyssa Higdon
Jerryn McCray is great at conversation. When you ask him a question, he has a question ready for you right back. It’s a great skill for his day job as an architect because it’s all about the details: You need to be able to cooperate with the person you’re talking to and get all the information—small and large—just right, and more importantly, you need to collaborate with them.
His path to being an architect began when he was a child.
“I had a friend in elementary school that told me that I had artistic ability,” he says. His friends’ words stayed with him. And then when he was in the 9th grade, an architect visited his school and that made his future clearer.
“He made a statement that the buildings he designed will be around after he’s dead and gone,” Jerryn says. “And that appealed to my ego.”
Jerryn had his share of trouble on his way to becoming an architect. Born in Baltimore, his dad was a police officer, later a state trooper, and his mom worked for social services and went to D.C., and his parents eventually divorced. When he was in high school, he went to DeMantha Catholic High School, and often got in trouble for asking questions about religion. For college, he went to Tuskegee University but didn’t like it—he thought it would be like the TV show “A Different World,” he says, but it wasn’t—and then he transferred to Auburn University. While he was there, his first son was born, so he took year off from college and then returned and drove back and forth for his son.
Studying architecture was a good fit for Jerryn, who was very hard working and would often pull all-nighters just to get it done.
You need to be obsessed with architecture, he says, and that might mean you pass out working, wake up, and then go to class. After school, he was an architecture intern and then moved to St. Thomas because he noticed work was drying up in the states. He worked with a construction company but ran into lots of racism in St. Thomas and became in working on his own.
Jerryn decided he couldn’t do it their way anymore; he kept on going and didn’t let them get him down. He started his own business, Jerryn J. McCray Architects, began getting small projects, started talking to people—which is easy for him because he’s a good conversationalist—and built a network. He returned to Baltimore, designed dorm rooms at University of St. Thomas, and his business grew.
He’s currently in a position where he’s enjoying his job, working alone—nobody’s there to put him down. He’s designing a house, exploring big projects, and redesigning the interior of Baltimore row homes—even if that means sometimes going inside of disgusting, rat-infested row houses.
Jerryn’s hobbies include playing basketball and playing music (trumpet and piano, among others) which are both escapes from architecture and also things that help inform his job.
“Composing music and performing is like my job,” Jerryn says.
With music, you have to piece many different elements together to make the kind of music you want to hear and playing basketball is a collaboration, like architecture.
“I’ve never not liked my job and I feel support and love for what I do for a living,” he says.
By Marcus McKeever
“I want them to understand how the world as we see it is constructed, and is continually constructed, and if you don’t understand that the world is constructed, you’re more likely to believe the world as you’re in it can’t be changed,” says Dr. Lester Spence, a professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Dr. Spence was raised in Inkster, Michigan, which is located in the Metro Detroit area. After completing his time in elementary, middle, and high school, Dr. Spence went on to enroll in the University of Michigan, where he earned both a bachelor’s degree and a PhD in political science.
Spence did not see himself being a professor—it was actually those around him who saw him going on to be an intellectual person.
“There were folk as early, as soon as I was going to libraries, like grade school, so about first, second, third, definitely by fourth, fifth, or sixth grade, that were calling me ‘little professor.’ Allegedly, my father’s father saw me being an intellectual, like doing this type of stuff 20 years later,” he says.
Before migrating to Baltimore and becoming a professor at JHU, Dr. Spence was previously an assistant professor of political science at Washington University. He moved to Baltimore in 2005 and has lived and worked within the city ever since.
He wants his students at JHU to understand the world can be changed not only by massive scale acts, but also individual acts. He also aims to teach his students that “the tools that they are using now are the tools they will use to navigate the world moving forward.” He encourages students not only to use their academic skills to navigate the world, but also to have a firm grasp on how the world works, thus improving the world for everyone.
On top of his highly demanding job at JHU, Dr. Spence also finds the time to do talks and interviews for locals like The Real News Network and national outlets like C-SPAN as well. On top of that, Dr. Spence has produced two award-winning books: “Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-Hop and Black Politics” and “Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics.”
When I ask what is the last message he would like to leave on this earth, Dr. Spence says, “I was right”—a message, he explains, for people who have doubted his way of thinking, that the world we live in is constructed.
by Kyra Smith
If you meet Baynard Woods—editor-at-large at the City Paper and founder of Democracy in Crisis—you know that he is a man of many words. A man who believes in what is right and knows what he wants, questioning things to step out of his comfort zone and learn more about the world.
When I ask him why talking to strangers is a good thing, he says it was a way to get out of his own head and his own individual worldview. “I only know that the way the world appears to me, and appears, you know, through this one in particular spot,” he says, “standing through my skin color, through my social expectations, my upbringing, all these things that make the world look a certain way to me. If I asked enough questions to you I realize it appears differently to you—an African-American female—and that helps me situate myself in regards to reality . . . whatever that is, but I am only looking out from my window so it’s like being able to call over from other windows, ‘What do you see over there?’ When you put together enough ‘what do you sees?’ You get a more complicated view of the world.”