Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun
May 27, 2014
It has been six years since the final episode of "The Wire," but the images it presented to the world haven't faded, much to the disappointment of Shawn Burnett, a 27-year-old arts advocate born in Washington and raised in Baltimore.
"I'm still meeting people from other places who talk about that show," he said. "I tell them those are old stories from back in the '80s and '90s. If that's all people hear, if they hear only the crime statistics, it dims the light on the positive aspects of the city. Another side of Baltimore has to be pushed through mass media the way 'The Wire' was pushed, so we can get away from that stigma."
The other side of Baltimore that has Burnett's attention is the vibrant arts and culture scene. He believes the arts can help underprivileged young people develop fresh skills and opportunities. To that end, he founded the nonprofit Walks of Art, which partners with schools and other organizations to present various arts activities for urban youth.
Burnett knows the arts can be a hard sell in poor neighborhoods where young people may face strong temptations of crime and drugs.
"I've done some of the same things they're doing," Burnett said. "I got into trouble. I messed up. But I realized that wasn't the only way I could go. If you have a passion for anything, that makes a difference."
Burnett has been attracted to the arts since he was a kid, drawing what he saw on a "Doug" cartoon. Over the years, he has explored dance and other outlets.
"I stood out like a sore thumb among my peers, which is not a bad thing," the tattooed, pierced, goatee-sporting Burnett said. "I've always been stubborn and set on being me. I used to wear black fingernail polish. My homeboy told me, 'If someone else did that, I'd look at him funny, but I expect that from you.'"
Being yourself is a message Burnett stresses in Walks of Art workshops.
"In the arts," he said, "you can do anything from realism to expressionism, whatever you feel. [Young people] may not realize the value of the arts when you expose them to it, but 10, 12 years down the line it might register."
Walks of Art workshops have included visual and performance art, fashion design, music, dance and creative writing. Burnett envisions putting the arts and basketball, another of his interests, together. He's currently trying to create a fine arts summer camp at Coppin State University.
Burnett is working on a dual major at Coppin -- nonprofit leadership and political science -- and plans to pursue a law degree after that.
Meanwhile, he plans to maintain his youth engagement activities, which have earned him a certificate of appreciation from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and an invitation to participate in the second annual "Think-a-Thon" on Thursday, a brainstorming session presented by the University of Maryland and Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance to consider how arts and culture can help address Baltimore's persistent problems.
"I don't know how people find out about me," Burnett said, "but opportunities keep presenting themselves. I'm appreciative of it all." -- Tim Smith