Tobius Nance, 20, was born and raised in the northeast corner of Baltimore City. He attended Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, and before he graduated in 2020, his robotics team made it to the state championship competition.
Nance is now a student at the University of Maryland, and one of 15 people chosen for a youth-led grantmaking program with the non-profit Baltimore’s Promise.
But when he first moved to College Park, Md. for college he discovered that many of his peers from outside of Baltimore held a vastly different view of the city than he experienced growing up. Some students asked him questions like, “‘Oh, you’re from Baltimore? Have you seen someone get shot? You’re from Baltimore? Do you know how to fight?’”
Nance said he attributes some of this perspective to how Baltimore City and its youth are represented in the news. With headlines centered on violence and poor education outcomes, media outlets often portray Baltimore City youth in a negative light. But many young people like Nance, and those who work closely with them, say this coverage doesn’t accurately reflect the resilience and ingenuity that they believe characterizes their generation of Baltimoreans.
“There’s more good than bad. It’s just that the bad is what’s reported, and the bad is what resonates in people’s minds,” Nance said. “I don’t see my experience growing up in Baltimore as a youth reflected in media at all.”
Reporting on Baltimore youth often comes from a “deficit-based mindset,” meaning news coverage tends to focus on what the city lacks rather than the strengths and achievements of its young people, said Whitney Birenbaum, the executive director of CHARM, a literary magazine and journalism publication written for and by students in Baltimore.
“Baltimore City and Baltimore City Schools have a lot of problems to overcome,” said Birenbaum, who taught middle school humanities for 13 years in the Baltimore City Public School system. “And yet, I think starting stories with that context can be harmful and can be difficult for young people to overcome those bad effects when that’s constantly the narrative.”
That narrative is also perpetuated when news outlets print false or misleading information, according to a Baltimore Brew op-ed authored by Evan Serpick, a program manager at Open Society Institute-Baltimore and a former editor of Baltimore City Paper. While Baltimoreans may be accustomed to misconceptions reinforced by national media, Serpick writes, sometimes even local publications amplify harmful perspectives.
For example, Serpick noted a WYPR article that was published on Aug. 26 and republished by the Baltimore Banner. The story chronicled increasing carjackings in Baltimore, and it attributed the rise to minors based on a statement by police.
But in a Twitter thread a few days later, juvenile public defender Jenny Egan pointed out that even the Baltimore City Police Department’s own data didn’t support their statement about youth perpetrating most of these crimes. One of the Baltimore Banner’s data reporters, Ryan Little, also acknowledged on Twitter that the WYPR story “got the data wrong in a lot of ways.” While carjackings are increasing, Little wrote, just 17 of 49 people arrested were minors, which is only about a third.
“Our best defense against these skewed narratives is a robust local media willing to do tough but nuanced reporting, challenge storylines offered by institutions like law enforcement and city government and lift up the voices of the community members most impacted by what happens around here,” Serpick wrote.
Amplifying young voices, both in mainstream news outlets as well as dedicated youth spaces, is a necessary step toward building a more accurate representation of Baltimore youth, said CHARM’s Birenbaum.
“Young people, in general, have a really good perspective on what’s wrong in society, and they don’t have all the trappings of adulthood to shoot down ideas,” Birenbaum said, adding that Baltimore City youth today are uniquely qualified to offer insight and solutions as many of their formative years were shaped by the uprising following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody in 2015.
“Being in a city that was grappling with these systemic and long standing issues of race, but also dealing with it in a new and fresh and painful way is, I think, really impactful. And we owe it to them to listen to their points of view.”
Bloc By Bloc spoke with several Baltimore young people about what the media is missing. Here’s what they had to say.
Kam Rogers, 16, CHARM Literary Magazine
One topic that isn’t really talked about, at least from my perspective, is growing up as a queer Black kid in Baltimore. I feel like our experience growing up is really different. A lot of people might not think this, but there’s a lot of homophobia in the Black community. People get kicked out of their houses for simply being who they are. I’m grateful to not have that, but a lot of people do.
Ihsane Abdeddaim, 18, Baltimore’s Promise’s Youth Grantmakers
I am a first generation college student, so something along those lines. Also [stories] about being an immigrant. I moved here when I was six. I moved here when I was six, so I think that has played a huge role in who I am and in my identity. There are certain parts of my background that I don’t really feel a connection with other people. I think that specifically being an immigrant, it’s overlooked or isn’t talked about as much, but I do think it’s really important. I think stuff like that has the potential of reaching far beyond Baltimore, and I think that needs to be focused on.
Montaze Cooper, 22, Baltimore’s Promise’s Youth Grantmakers
Social media is a big thing. Technology shifted our generation into a mindset of believing that we can make it to the top by instant gratification. We came on to social media, and we just posted about our success. But we didn’t post about our trials and our tribulations and obstacles and what we went through in order for us to get to where we need to be. I feel like the news should touch base on that as well. We post something on social media, and if we don’t get a certain amount of likes or a certain amount of comments, we want to delete it. And it only makes us feel more insecure about ourselves.
Anthony Venable, 22, Baltimore’s Promise’s Youth Grantmakers
We were really set at a disadvantage due to a lot of the things that you see on the news. And I would even say that the stuff that goes on in Baltimore isn’t anything different from the next city. I think a lot of people in Baltimore City, or at least the [youth grantmakers] and myself, we’re not really exposed to a lot of different opportunities. Maybe writing about topics that could help support people so they will be able to see different pathways for themselves and broaden their horizons, I think that would be meaningful.
Editorial Disclaimer: Reporting for this story was provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and we thank them for their support. However, the findings and conclusions presented in this article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.
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