Students at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School most likely never knew the realities D. Watkins grew up with: a drug-dealing brother who was murdered; friends who started dealing at 13; fights and parties and kids riding dirt bikes down the hallways of his building. Growing up in the Lafayette Courts housing projects was very different than Pikesville.
“When I was growing up there were no writers, there were no filmmakers. There weren’t even rappers in my neighborhood because all of these things seemed unattainable,” Watkins said.
The award-winning writer, educator and speaker, whose work has appeared in The New York Times and who has been featured on “Meet the Press,” addressed Paul Bolenbaugh’s Advanced Placement Psychology class on Thursday, Jan. 7. While he spoke about his childhood, going to college and feeling like a cultural alien, police brutality and politics — mostly why he stays out of them — a few themes ran throughout his talk: exposure, communication and cross-cultural interactions as the keys to understanding and empathizing with those who come from a different world in the same city.
“You can just do simple stuff,” Watkins answered when one student asked what they can do from their relative position of privilege. “Just acknowledging that you have a valuable experience but somebody from a different place has a valuable experience, and if you guys traded ideas, then both of you will benefit.”
Watkins’ talk was guided by the students’ questions, who asked about everything from police violence to how Watkins became a writer.
“I knew they probably had never heard a person like him,” said Bolenbaugh, whose class is currently studying racism, sexism, gender discrimination and similar issues.
To explain how he got to where he is today, Watkins spoke about how he wanted to be just like his brother when he was growing up.
“He was a drug dealer so I wanted to sell drugs just like him. He would always tell me that I’m stupid for wanting to sell drugs,” Watkins recalled. “As I got older and some of my friends started to sell drugs — and I’m talking 13, 14, 15 years old when my friends are really getting serious — I’m noticing their lives and I’m like ‘this isn’t a great life. This isn’t glamorous at all.’” He saw friends putting in 15-16 hour days, skipping school and not being able to go to school or play outside because they had a quota to meet and owed people money.
“I didn’t want to live that life,” Watkins said. “I took [my brother’s] advice and started preparing myself for college and taking the little SAT prep [tests] and doing everything that I had to do to get there.”
Just as he was set to go away to college, his brother was murdered. Watkins put off going away and later decided to attend Loyola College, where he felt a sort of culture shock.
“I didn’t grow up around a lot of white people so when I thought white people, I thought ‘Married with Children,’” Watkins said. “Academically, I think I could compete, but socially I stuck out like a sore thumb. There’s a huge cultural difference.”
He learned how important cultural exchange and understanding the experiences of others can be and related that to police violence. He spoke about how he thinks it’s a “serious problem” that a large majority of Baltimore City police officers live outside of the city — 79 percent according to WBAL.
“If [then police officer] Darren Wilson knew a guy like Michael Brown in Ferguson and he knew who Michael Brown’s grandma was and he knew Michael Brown got out of line and he knew he could talk to his grandmother or uncle, he’s not gonna blow holes in him, especially after a 15-, 20-second interaction,” Watkins said, “It’s impossible. But if you fear somebody, and culturally you fear them and culturally you fear people that look like this person and it’s embedded in you and they beat it into you … and then they give you a gun and a license to kill, what are you gonna do?”
For the students, Watkins was an engaging speaker who challenged them to think outside their own bubbles in a relatable way.
“I’ve never lived like that. I’ve never lived in the communities he spoke about, but just to expose yourself to lives they live and try to understand where they’re coming from, I don’t need to live that to know how they feel, to try to put myself in their shoes,” Andrew Schwartz said.
“A phrase like ‘when they tore my neighborhood down’ really jumped out at me,” said English teacher Gary Pedroni. Watkins was referring to the tearing down of the projects where he grew up. Through that story, he spoke about how important social fabric is and how the demolition, which forced people to move, combined with the city’s lackluster public transportation, effectively decimated his home neighborhood’s sense of community.
“Hearing someone who has had experiences that are so different from theirs is absolutely critical in helping our children understand that their life of privilege is indeed that: a life of privilege,” said Zipora Schorr, director of education. “Giving them that sense of understanding and compassion is what we’re about.”
Shayna Brookman said she feels like she and her fellow students often live in a “Jewish bubble,” which certainly has its perks.
“It’s so amazing, but there’s also bad parts about it where literally we don’t know our neighbors,” she said. “I live in Baltimore City close to Northern Parkway, and just down the street there’s a lot going on that it’s hard to know about.”
Several students took from the talk Watkins’ emphasis on awareness and exposure as a way to bridge gaps.
“He said the one thing we can do is be aware,” Justin Welfeld said, “and I think this talk was one step toward awareness.”