The initial idea was this: introduce Presbyterians to the “squeegee kids,” mostly young black men who approach cars stopped at intersections in downtown Baltimore, trying to convince the drivers to part with some cash in exchange for cleaning the windshield.
The subtext: for Presbyterians from around the country, many of whom are white, this would be a chance to learn something about being a young person of color in an urban context – and about disparities in opportunities and resources.
Then came COVID-19, and the decision that the 2020 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will meet virtually, not at the Baltimore Convention Center — in other words, nowhere near the squeegee kids. There’s also the reality that in Baltimore the squeegee kids have been somewhat polarizing — what some see as hardworking teens trying to make a buck to help their families, others see as too aggressive.
So for all these reasons, the plan has morphed. Presbyterians involved with the 2020 General Assembly will now have the opportunity to participate in an optional online pre-assembly event on June 23 at 3 p.m. Eastern called Youth Rising — a chance to virtually meet some young entrepreneurs trying to start businesses of their own, and to financially support efforts by the Presbytery of Baltimore and the Committee on Local Arrangements to continue strengthening those relationships even after the General Assembly adjourns.
The offering collected during the assembly’s opening worship June 26 at 11 a.m. Eastern will go to support Youth Rising.
That’s part of the commitment the PC(USA) has been making in recent years to stand with local community leaders in the cities where General Assembly meets — to be involved in public witness on justice issues, and to put Presbyterian money and influence into the mix as well, as happened in St. Louis when Presbyterians marched through the city streets to protest cash bail and delivered $47,200 that a local group used to bail low-income nonviolent offenders out of jail.
The hope is that in Baltimore, Presbyterians can play a role in seeding connections between talented young people and those with the financial resources and mentoring to support them — relationships that could make a difference long after the General Assembly has adjourned.
Akia Jones, 20, is one of the young entrepreneurs helping to plan Youth Rising. A graphic designer who just graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), he’s already created The Bmore Brand — selling shirts and hoodies that promote the people of Baltimore. He’s also involved with Jubilee Arts, an art-based business of young entrepreneurs that’s part of the work of the Intersection of Change nonprofit and offers classes in partnership with MICA.
The Bmore brand has been growing during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Jones’ school has gone online and he’s been home with more time to focus on the business. “I’ve kind of taken it into overdrive,” as the pandemic meant he couldn’t find another job, he said.
With Youth Rising, “of course, we hope to get a lot of donations,” Jones said. “That way we can help young entrepreneurs get started on their projects. … There’s definitely the challenge of the young people growing up in these communities and not being connected to the people who provide these resources” — in other words, they need financial backing and mentoring.
“Baltimore has tons of young people who have great ideas and great projects they want to put out there,” Jones said. “In Baltimore, a lot of times it’s who you know and not what you know.”
Karen Brown, a Presbyterian minister, is resource developer at Intersection of Change, a community development nonprofit that works with people in the low-income Sandtown-Winchester and Uptown neighborhoods, and with offices just blocks from where Freddie Gray was arrested five years ago. She lives in West Baltimore, and says “there is no wall for me as pastor and serving the community where the church is.”
Brown, who serves on the board of the PC(USA)’s Self Development of People program, recognizes there may be considerable distance between the lives of young black people in urban Baltimore and those of mostly white Presbyterians.
“If you’ve never put your feet under the table of a poor person in the projects, you can’t tell me about the poor,” she said. “Because you’re looking at it like you’re going into a museum.”
And for the young people, “they have to learn how to cross over territorial lines. Baltimore is very segregated. Some people don’t leave their neighborhood,” which means for some of them living in a community where fresh produce is scarce and with the highest incarceration rate in the city.
“This is the community where Freddie Gray was murdered,” Brown said. “It was a forgotten community. But in the midst of that, we’re trying to do some good.”
What would she like Presbyterians to know about the young people in the community she serves?
“These are young people who are survivors,” Brown said. “They are resilient. All they need is equal access and opportunity. They’re not asking for handouts. They need equal access and opportunity, and they will soar.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy in Baltimore wasn’t offering enough jobs to support the young people who live there, so job training alone isn’t enough, said Susan Krehbiel, who is social justice consultant with the Presbytery of Baltimore and has been part of organizational team for Youth Rising.
“We also found that a lot of the jobs and programs out there are not the ones that provide a living wage or ladder for career growth” — so for many, the idea of becoming entrepreneurs and starting their own businesses makes sense, Krehbiel said.
The online event June 23 will include a video made by New Lens, a production house started by young people from the Reservoir Hill neighborhood, introducing Presbyterians to some of these young Baltimore artists and letting them know how to support their work.
“We hope Youth Rising gives a spotlight and an amplifier to those voices,” Krehbiel said, so Presbyterians “can hear their voices and see them as whole individuals with gifts and promise and energy.”
Brown wants Presbyterians to see “these are young people trying to make it. …. They are not to be feared. We’ve got the same blood running in our veins.”
And there will be opportunities for people to buy art, clothing and other items the young entrepreneurs are selling.