Program envisions a chain of mentors pulling kids from street life

STEVEN "Take Back The City" Mitchell is certainly dedicated to the cause, and he's always trying to get other men - black, white, Asian, Republican or Democrat, city or suburban - to join him in taking on one of the most persistent and daunting challenges in our midst. He's all about saving Baltimore kids from drugs, thugs and violence.

He frequently seeks attention and puts his own mug shot on press releases, but I don't think it's because he has political ambitions. It's because he needs help, and the only way to recruit good people - particularly men who can be positive influences - is to keep after the media in this town.

The media focus largely on what's wrong, with some elements perpetuating old generalities or simply reacting to events, instead of advancing provocative ideas or highlighting those engaged in the hard sweat of changing human behavior.

Talk is cheap, ridicule easy.

Making a difference in the lives of at-risk kids - that's the tough part. That's what Steve Mitchell is about.

A prosecutor in the juvenile division of the Baltimore state's attorney's office, Mitchell knows firsthand what's at stake. His anti-violence Take Back The City campaign is about breaking a cycle and proving wrong the kind of bleak prediction I heard Friday during an interview with a 26-year-old drug dealer:

"The kids coming up today, the young ones - the 14-, 16- year-olds - they're going to be worser. I'm tellin' you. We have 11-year-olds out here doing reefer, Ecstasy, everything. We have kids who will pop one another because someone stepped on their shoes or looked at them wrong, because they're hatin'. The next generation comin' up - it's gonna be terrible." Or maybe just as bad as what we've had in the city for at least two decades - young men who grow up in dysfunctional homes, who see addiction and violence as normal, who drop out of school and, seeing no other option for themselves, hook into the street life. Gangsta is how they define manhood.

"They get into that gangsta lifestyle early because it's what they see and what they think is cool," says Mitchell. "We have to get to them before that becomes their mindset."

Mitchell formed his Take Back The City project 15 years ago, and he's come up with different ways to pull people together for this effort. He's been a presence at countless stop-the-killing rallies and vigils.

He calls his latest endeavor the Winning Teams mentoring project. It's an approach I've never seen before. Here's how it works:

Middle school pupils will be mentored by high school students, who will be mentored by college students, who will be mentored by men and women who have established careers.

This is a twist on traditional mentoring programs. Here's Mitchell's rationale:

"The best possible mentor for an elementary or middle school student is a dedicated, committed, high school student, someone close enough to his or her age that that person can relate to them and the series of problems and issues that is unique to their age group.

"Similarly, the best mentor for a high school student is a college or graduate student, someone who is either still in or close enough to those teenage years to understand ... someone who has graduated from high school, completed the college application process, and is moving forward.

"And the best mentor for a college or graduate student is a young professional, someone who has successfully navigated the same course that the college student is now on and is moving ahead professionally."

Mitchell cites an additional benefit to using older kids as mentors: "That experience of having a young person looking up to you and realizing that your actions and the impressions that you make will have an impact on someone close to you."

Sometimes in juvenile proceedings, Mitchell says, a 9- or 10-year-old boy will appear, charged with a minor offense.

"When we were still in the old courthouse, I'd give the court master a signal - a wink or something - and we'd send the boy to the bullpen, juvenile detention, for an hour or two, where he'd be with the older kids," says Mitchell. "And he'd come back crying, and we expected that. But what we didn't expect was the impact it had on the older kids. They didn't want the little boy in there with them. Seeing the younger boy coming along made them think about themselves and the example they had set."

Mitchell wants to put together 15 to 20 teams of mentors in the first year of the program. "Right now we have more female volunteers than male," he says. "We need men."

Hey guys, if you want to get involved in Mitchell's project, call 443-263-8106, or visit Mitchell's Web site at www. takebackthecity.org.

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