With the recent Ferguson, Mo., shooting fresh in everyone’s minds, children from Baltimore’s Jewish and African-American communities have detailed their own struggles with race relations — back in 2010, a highly-publicized altercation took place between an African-American teenager and two Jewish men in northern Park Heights — as part of a traveling photo exhibition in City Hall.
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young unveiled the exhibit on Sept. 3, inviting more than a dozen girls between the ages of 10 and 14 for an event honoring their Girl’s Photography Project.
“This project is a way to foster a better Baltimore community and introduce girls to their not-so-different neighbors,” said Young. “After the 2010 incident, we wanted to create a positive spin on a negative situation.”
Hosted by Damion Cooper, director of the city’s Office of Neighborhood Relations, the Wednesday event celebrated the girl’s efforts with keynote speakers, a kosher reception and a certificate presentation by Young. Speakers included Community Conversations co-chairs Phyllis Ajayi and Nathan Willner, Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. (CHAI) executive director Mitchell Posner, Wide Angle Youth Media executive director Susan Malone, and program participants Aiyanah Muhammed and Daniella Friedman.
“I am thrilled that City Hall hosted us for the event,” said Ajayi. “The Girl’s Photography Project physically shows diversity in the eyes of our kids. Both sides saw that what they ultimately wanted out of life was the same. The only difference is the color of their skin.”
As an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, the CHAI program helps fund, staff and manage the Community Conversations series. By bringing youths together through art projects, Posner believes that positive integration is the best way to build a better Baltimore.
“There is no secret formula to building a stronger Baltimore community,” said Posner. “However, we are giving our kids the education they need by introducing them to each other at an early age. Starting with our youth, we are building the people of tomorrow.”
Through Wide Angle Youth Media, the girls began the program in late January and took a five-week long photography course. While many of the girls were skeptical at first, they ended up forming lasting bonds with their Park Heights neighbors.
Encouraged by her grandfather to enroll, African-American participant Muhammad nervously joined in the program. After the 2010 dispute, she feared she would not find common ground with her Jewish counterparts. Within the first session, her reservations melted away.
“Because of prior experiences in my neighborhood, I didn’t expect the Jewish girls to be as nice as they are,” said Muhammad. “I made a lot of Jewish friends, and I have a new view of my Jewish neighbors. Our friendships have continued even past the program.”
Due to the success of the Girls’ Photography Project, similar programs are currently being designed. The Community Conversations series is hoping to create a comparable project between African-American and Orthodox Jewish boys in the future. As more programming continues, Young believes that Baltimore will become a more unified community.
“America is a melting pot, and we are all one people. This project gave the girls a chance to see that,” said Young. “By building positive relations and forming bonds now, events like the Ferguson shooting hopefully won’t happen here. We are setting up Baltimore for success.”