Tension, violence and an uprising.
Baltimore was the scene of riots after the death of Freddie Gray this year.
But for some local residents, like Celia Neustadt, the tension between police officers and citizens is nothing new.
Neustadt was born and raised in Baltimore. She attended Baltimore City College high school, where she was “just one out of handful of white kids in a grade of about 400.”
She witnessed at a young age the segregation between different communities in Baltimore and wanted to bring an end to it.
“One of the things that I was always struck by growing up in Baltimore was the segregation of the city and the divisions. It both makes Baltimore an incredibly fun and exciting place to be because there are these communities in eclectic neighborhoods, but it also makes Baltimore a divided city. And I was always interested in how we can bring people and communities together.”
She founded the Inner Harbor Project because she wanted to bring together police officers and teenagers to end violence.
Neustadt recruited teenagers and young adults to work with her because she believes they have a better understanding of the tension in Baltimore, because they’ve experienced it themselves.
“I think really the beauty of the Inner Harbor Project and what we do here and why it works is because the young people we recruit are leaders among their peers…” she said. “Because they’re insiders in that community they have this unique ability to navigate the social issues that people are dealing with and create a movement for positive change.”
Neustadt and her staff conducted research for more than two years to better understand the causes of tension among teenagers, between teens and police officers, between teens and business owners.
From that research, the Inner Harbor Project created several programs, including youth engagement training. In this training, the youth leaders lead a series of workshops where they teach police officers how they can better communicate with young people and how to defuse a situation.
The leaders use a lot of their own personal experiences with police officers as scenarios in the workshop.
“It’s a discussion. It’s a collaborative exercise between teenagers and police to find common ground and understanding,” says Neustadt.
From the beginning, Neustadt said the police department was on board with the mission.
“We had allies very early on in the work who understood that friction came from a lack of understanding between teenagers and police, and that if we could have them working together that we could work to ease some of the issues within our city.”
All of the youth engagement training workshops have been held since the uprising following Freddie Gray’s arrest and death.
“I think that the trainings have been really cathartic for police officers to be able to talk about… how they want to be understood and better communicate with teenagers,” Neustadt said. “The officers we’re working with really want to fix this tension, just like the teenagers that we work with want to.”