Introducing Wisdom Education to Baltimore
In Baltimore, the 29th most populous city in the United States, 14 neighborhoods have “lower life expectancies than North Korea,” as the Washington Post revealed last year. Among these neighborhoods is a West Baltimore area called Sandtown-Winchester where a 25-year-old African American man named Freddie Gray lived. Gray was allegedly killed by police officers after they arrested him in his neighborhood on dubious charges of carrying a switchblade. After a suspected “rough ride” in a police van, Gray died from spinal cord injuries on April 19, 2015. This year, on June 23, Caesar Goodson, the driver of the police van, became the second police officer acquitted in the series of trials seeking justice for Gray’s death.
As the nation now knows, Gray’s death led to widespread, ongoing protests in Baltimore against police brutality. But the Baltimore Uprising, as the protests came to be called by grassroots organizers, had another effect. Like unrest spawned in the wake of police brutality cases in cities from Ferguson, Missouri to Chicago, Illinois, Baltimore’s protests launched a fresh, nationwide conversation about stark urban racial and economic inequalities. Baltimore’s struggles became a barometer not just of rampant police brutality, but also of our nation’s intentionally damaged criminal justice system.
The system is intentionally damaged because practices like mass incarceration, unfair sentencing practices, and racist profiling were “designed […] in such a way to disadvantage, subdue, and control certain minority groups, namely African Americans,” as Chenelle A. Jones says. The Baltimore Uprising showed how willfully unwise civic leaders have historically been in caring for its low-income African American residents while other racial and economic groups enjoy enormous prosperity.
In 2013, two years before Freddie Gray’s death, I founded the Baltimore Wisdom Project to introduce wisdom education to Baltimore. While offering wisdom education workshops, trainings, and consultancies within public schools and community organizations, I also produce videos that raise awareness to Baltimore’s inequalities. While providing direct services for youth, the Baltimore Wisdom Project also serves as a bridge builder. I facilitate collaborations between like-minded people and organizations to help increase opportunities for youth across the city, and help shift more power to the community.
My teaching is one of many efforts by individuals and groups to change the tide of the city’s seemingly intractable social and economic problems. At the same time that my work complements existing strategies for social change, what I do stands out. It stands out because I am guided by the principles that I acquired via the Chicago Wisdom Project after studying with Dr. Theodore Richards within his wisdom educator certification course. Now more than ever, Gray’s death, the ensuing protests, and the willfully unwise response by Baltimore’s civic leaders, have helped me to understand the urgency of the work of the Baltimore Wisdom Project.
A Project with Wisdom in Mind
The Baltimore Wisdom Project is small, but our list of collaborators is big. I am the project’s principal, full-time teacher and organizer. I hire part time administrative support for operations and communications as needed. Whenever possible, I work with guest artists to help guide youth, and expose them to the ways Baltimoreans can sustain and express themselves. Though we may be small, our work is deep. I visit schools and community organizations daily during the regular school year and the summer to guide youth and the adults who care for them to manage conflict, become leaders, work in teams, and think critically as they learn how to address the inequities within their communities.
While some of the youth with whom I work are Latino/a and White, (or “other”) most are low-income African American Baltimoreans who live in the city’s 14 neighborhoods with low life expectancy. In my attempt to guide the whole person (and not just to teach discrete subjects in isolation), I apply the Chicago Wisdom Project’s groundbreaking values for holistic education. I help youth form positive identities; build healthy relationships; resist negative influences; and find their voices. I focus on developing strong self-esteem, strong conflict management skills, good judgment, best practices, and considerateness. These are qualities that the Baltimore Wisdom Project identifies as “everyday wisdom.”
Chief among my strategies for wisdom education are my teachings of conflict management through martial arts. I draw from the African Brazilian tradition called Capoeira Angola and the Russian tradition of Systema to help youth learn to de-escalate conflict. This is the most direct method I have found to teach youth that finding wisdom by releasing tension is not just a thoughtful practice. It is also, simultaneously, a physical practice. Integrating the mind and the body is a major feature of the Baltimore Wisdom Project’s approach to holistic education. My goal is to keep guiding youth to find peace and remain calm as they think through the best way to mediate conflicts.
How do you remain calm when someone starts bothering you? Forget being annoyed by construction outside the window. I am talking about, for example, a 17-year-old who is twice your size attacking you with a construction tool. Could you stay calm enough to remember that they are just a youth? Could you save that youth’s life as well as your own even if (like a police officer) you had a gun on you at the time of the attack? By saving their life I mean, could you help the youth get on the right path forward to a life of everyday wisdom?
Hopefully neither you nor I ever encounter such a tough situation. I use such an extreme example to illustrate that everyday wisdom is not something you sit and ponder; it is the way you engage with the world. Furthermore, it is not in easy situations but in tough situations that our true colors show. Can you make wise decisions? How about under stress? These are the questions that the Baltimore Wisdom Project helps youth and adults answer through wisdom education.
Stark Longstanding Disparities
The criminal justice system is not the only problem that Baltimore’s low-income African Americans face. Baltimore still grapples with what Richard Rothstein calls “government-sponsored segregation.” Among the city’s economic and racial injustices is White flight during and after the last century’s Civil Rights movement. White flight left slowly integrating neighborhoods with abandoned homes controlled by absentee White owners who prefer to wait for the neighborhood to gentrify, thereby creating blight that exacerbates the neighborhoods’ drug trade, rather than sell at affordable rates.
The aftermath of decades of bigoted zoning laws create downtrodden African American areas with separate and unequal racially segregated public schools. These schools frequently betray their students with poor facilities and impoverished educational practices. Gentrification leads to unaffordable housing, and subsidized housing is dilapidated and violent. These are the longstanding conditions within which the Baltimore Uprising exploded. This year, NBC News even reported another horror: when many of Baltimore’s African American public housing residents asked for repairs, city maintenance workers withheld the repairs unless the residents submitted to be raped. The “rape for repairs” scandal epitomized the sheer depth of disenfranchisement for the city’s African American low-income residents.
These longstanding inequalities in neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester have metastasized into environments full of daily, crushing tension. The constant, toxic police presence in such neighborhoods exposes inequities that Van Jones saw in New Haven, Connecticut. Jones observed that he saw “kids at Yale do drugs and talk about it openly, and have nothing happen to them or, if anything, get sent to rehab…And then I was seeing kids three blocks away, in the housing projects, doing the same drugs, in smaller amounts, go to prison.”
Worlds Apart, Worlds Together
According to the last United States Census, of the approximately 621,000 residents of Baltimore city, an estimated 21 percent, are under the age of 18; 63 percent are African American; 24 percent live below the poverty level; 26 percent hold a Bachelor’s degree; 24 percent of youth 16-19 drop out of school; 45 percent graduate from high school; and 28 percent of the population, or approximately 43,000 residents, live in poverty. The impact of these disparities on middle school and high school-age youth in low-income urban neighborhoods is borne out in one sobering statistic. The “Cities in Crisis” report from America’s Promise found that, “Students in the suburban areas of the nation’s 50 largest cities were considerably more likely to graduate (77 percent) than students in the country’s urban schools (59 percent).”
Consequently, some Baltimore residents turn to addiction and the drug trade to ameliorate poverty and high rates of joblessness. Banned substances from marijuana to cocaine have spawned robust illicit drug commerce with ever-rising competition for drug-selling and subsequent violence. But heroin has historically taken the most vicious toll.
“In Baltimore, where heroin has a long-entrenched history, the drug has created a thriving sub-economy, providing funds for dealers who buy mansions in the suburbs or simply help family members with rent and grocery money,” explained the Baltimore Sun last year. Freddie Gray was not the only famous resident of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. Last year, eight months after Gray was killed, Melvin Williams died of cancer. Williams was one of Baltimore’s most-discussed heroin and cocaine kingpins and a key inspiration for the television show, The Wire, even appearing on the program during its third season.
But, the damage that Baltimore’s drug trade causes is far more sobering than anything on television and the city’s African American youth bear the greatest brunt of the ever-escalating violence. During the week that I write this essay, a local CBS News affiliate reported that, “at least five shootings” occurred. All involved African American youth under the age of 30 and one “claimed the life of a 13-year-old.”
Within this context, I have found that wisdom education is an urgent intervention to empower those most disenfranchised. I am a young Jewish American man from Chicago who is attempting to enact progressive change among predominantly African American youth. Within the limits of my young organization’s work, how can I bridge worlds that are so starkly kept apart by bringing young people together to empower themselves and their communities? This is a question that animates my work.
My efforts have not been without challenges. Every day I face the realities that my privilege differentiates me from those that I serve. Yet, encountering these realities does not mean shirking my responsibilities to work for racial and economic justice. Later in this essay I highlight the pressing problem of apathy among those who do not share surface commonalities of race and class with low-income African American youth in Baltimore. We must work against apathy and join together cross-culturally and across economic divides. I am part of a long tradition of progressive Jewish American and African American solidarity in the face of inequities. For the remainder of this essay, I would like to discuss how my genealogy as a teaching artist, activist, and organizer has helped me develop the Baltimore Wisdom Project’s work.
Coming from an Inclusive World
I am the only son of a social worker and a math teacher who both worked within Chicago’s public schools. Even though my middle class parents dealt with other people’s children all day, they still gave me a calm, loving upbringing. My family’s commitment to education, social justice, and cross-cultural exchange deeply influences me. They made sure that my K-12 education was cross-cultural. The schools I attended in Chicago were very racially and economically diverse. I owe a particular debt to the transformative education that I received at a bilingual Montessori school. While being exposed to people and cultures from the African Diaspora and Latino/a cultures during the regular school year, I learned about the Jewish Diaspora in 14 summers of study in an international Jewish youth organization.
I was small and bullied at school. Consequently, over the course of my life, I studied martial art traditions from different cultures: first Jeet Kun Do in 2001; then Capoeira Angola in 2006; and then Systema in 2011. My studies of Capoeira’s music and dance traditions complemented my training in Ghanaian drum and dance at a small liberal arts college in the suburbs of Baltimore where I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Religion.
I honed my conflict management skills during a year in Israel/Palestine where I helped design and facilitate conflict resolution curricula for Muslim-Israeli, Christian-Israeli, and Jewish-Israeli youth. All of these experiences helped me form a culturally inclusive educational vision grounded in managing conflicts and fighting for racial and economic justice. Yet, I soon began connecting my exploration of conflict management with my practice of martial art.
Fighting Without Fighting
All of the martial arts traditions that I practice share a common emphasis on “fighting without fighting.” This concept means using as little force as possible to ensure minimal harm. Rather than emphasizing weakness, this principle is what makes the martial art strong and effective. Fighting without fighting takes the tension out of human interaction thereby allowing for the real power of negotiating physical conflict to emerge. Within this concept, relaxation means eliminating unnecessary tension. In the world of policing this translates to eliminating excessive force.
In my work, I encourage my students to “flip the script,” as the saying goes, and imagine themselves using the minimum force necessary. Martial arts training provides a deep understanding of the human body’s ability to release tension even as it works for defense, security, and protection. Imagine if the police valued this concept? Imagine a world where everyone, be they Freddie Gray or the police, understands this essential hallmark of de-escalation as a physical practice. That is what my wisdom education practice works towards.
Fighting without fighting fosters a healthy, active, and engaging classroom that does not suppress students’ urges to move their bodies and raise their voices. I have found that many educators within the schools where I work sometimes feel implicitly threatened by the physical presence and movement of African American youth, while they may never feel threatened when engaging with White youth. Instead of allowing them to be expressive, some teachers censor or punish African American youth for ebullient behavior.
My martial arts teaching helps youth channel their expressiveness in constructive ways while also giving teachers structures for affirming their students’ physical presence. Thus, my approach gives youth and adults avenues to use movement as a means for classroom management. This approach to arts-integrated academics is a fresh pathway in health and wellness education. I designed a residency program sponsored by a local nonprofit organization that provides one-on-one training with teachers in arts-integrated academics. The program is now growing rapidly and will continue when school begins again in the fall.
Let me turn now to discuss how I developed a programmatic structure of services for the Baltimore Wisdom Project. This process of developing the organization’s services arose directly from my observation of longstanding systemic deficiencies within Baltimore city schools. I was especially dismayed by how the schools’ educational systems fail to help students manage conflict within and outside of the classroom. Without systematic approaches for conflict mediation, youth are far more likely to be criminalized within schools.
Holistic Services to Mediate Conflict
Like many jurisdictions, Baltimore public schools deploy their own police organization called the Baltimore City School Police Force. In March of 2016, the city exploded with outrage after a cellphone video showed an in-school police officer brutally beating a student in an incident that showed how damaging excessive force can be to children. Unfortunately, the video exposed an all-too frequent occurrence. Moreover, the sometimes-problematic behavior of in-school police is compounded by the unchecked aggression that youth exhibit towards each other.
My first experience in Baltimore City Public Schools was in 2009 as a volunteer in an in-school storytelling program. I was deeply moved by the intelligence and creativity of the students and teachers that I met. At the same time, I noticed immediately that many of the students were verbally abusing each other. This led to the incessant need to de-escalate situations of potentially violent physical conflict.
The students’ behavior was further exacerbated by the apparent inexperience or apathy of some teachers who did not seem to understand how to guide students within basic conflict management. Many schools lacked system-wide strategies for navigating conflict, and when many teachers could not manage their classrooms, fights broke out. As a result, while they did not beat the children, some teachers behaved with the same aggression as the in-school police officers. Further still, the educational system often lauded them for this, considering them effective if they behaved like guards instead of guides.
These problems led me to design the Baltimore Wisdom Project’s services in a manner that focuses on educating youth while also providing training for the adults that care for them. While there is overlap, I organize the project’s services into four categories: consultancies, residencies, workshops, and trainings. Let me explain what I offer in each of these opportunities for wisdom education:
- Residencies are extended periods of immersion during which I work with a particular group of youth and the adults who serve them. A residency allows the youth, the adult(s), and I, to co-develop the best practices for their unique environment. A residency focuses on movement-integration, classroom management, conflict resolution, leadership training, team playing, arts enrichment, and/or self-esteem building, depending on the needs and goals of the group. Residencies are opportunities for the project to become embedded within a school or a community organization for limited or daily sessions. Residencies often use video to help youth document their growth and culminate in performances that share the youth’s learning to family, friends, and the community.
- Consultancies give me an opportunity to work directly with educators, administrators, and caregivers to share best practices for movement-integration, classroom management, conflict resolution, leadership training, team playing, arts enrichment, and self-esteem building. Consultancies involve informal advisement. They are designed in an open-ended fashion according to the needs of educators, administrators, and/or caregivers. Consultancies typically commence after a period of observation in which I ascertain how the educator, administrator, and/or caregiver work with the youth. I frequently combine consultancies with other services.
- Workshops are one-time visits (that can become residencies) during which I teach youth the qualities that the project identifies as “wisdom”: strong self-esteem, focused conflict management skills, good judgment, best practices, and considerateness. Workshops are consistently very fun because wisdom education strikes a chord with youth that is so natural, yet so often repressed.
- Trainings involve more formal presentation than consultancies, which are typically comprised of informal advisement. Designed for teachers, administrators, community organizers, and business leaders, trainings involve leading 1-hour, 2-hour, half-day, daylong, or extended educational sessions. Trainings typically combine presentation and discussion with hands-on, practical work in leadership development and conflict management.
An essential component in all of these services is the teaching of de-escalating techniques that involve physical practice. Let me turn now to describe these techniques with specific examples from my pedagogy.
Practical Deescalating Strategies
During my teaching sessions with youth, I integrate a variety of approaches to teach de-escalation: martial arts; music and dance; teamwork exercises; critical discussion about positive relationship building; leadership development; and multimedia creation using video, audio, and photography. Movement-centered activities help students become engaged. Once youth are engaged, it is much easier to build relationships with them, and to have important conversations about how to be a compassionate citizen.
Most importantly, my lessons are rooted in a deep understanding of the ways in which de-escalation begins with understanding our bodies. I share with the youth that de-escalating oneself is the first step to de-escalating others. It is essential to learn to calm your own nervous system. The nervous system has two states: relaxed or excited. All the other emotions fit into these two categories. Anger, fear, stress, anxiety, tension, etc., all make the nervous system excited. Poise, calm, focus, presence, and positivity are all attributes of a calm nervous system.
The breath is the number one tool for releasing tension. After guiding youth to understand calming techniques using the breath, I may lead them through role playing exercises that allow them to practice their understanding. Here is one group exercise that I use to teach this practice. I ask youth to stand in two lines facing each other. One line role-plays the bullies, and the other the role-plays the non-bullies. The bullies take one step forward and the non-bullies use their breathing (inhaling through the nose and exhaling out through the mouth) to stay calm.
The bullies take another step forward while the non-bullies continue to practice releasing tension using the breath. I wait until I sense the youth’s awareness of their nervous system and breathing calms them. The bullies take another step forward until they are close enough to put a hand or a finger in the non-bullies’ faces. Sometimes I ask the bullies to say an innocuous word like “mookie” in a mock-threatening manner in the role-playing to escalate tension. This allows the non-bullies to practice remaining calm under the stress of verbal bullying. The exercise ends when I instruct the bullies to place their hand nicely on the shoulder of their non-bullying partner. The bully line backs up, and the lines switch roles.
Here is another group exercise that I call “Remote Control Role-Playing.” The facilitator is armed with an imaginary remote control that can “rewind” and “slow down” situations. This allows the group to “instant replay” each situation in order to dissect it and see how they can improve their de-escalation skills. The group watches as two or more students play the roles of “instigator” and “de-escalator.” We incorporate tools from theatre-based improvisational games to make it fun and engaging. Once the students understand the remote control they can use it too. For example, another student can say, “pause” and then “rewind” and switch places with one of the students on “stage” to show how they would have handled the situation differently.
It is difficult to de-escalate an external situation if one is not calm internally. Along with being influenced by racial bias, the lack of internal calm is probably why some police officers shoot some African Americans first rather than trying to de-escalate situations. Likewise, that is also why some teachers punish first before de-escalating conflicts. They are afraid. Or they feel their authority is threatened. Either they feel their life is in danger, or they feel that their power is in danger. Neither feeling in and of itself is a sound justification for violent aggression.
I have found System a to be the most comprehensive approach to de-escalation. System a is based on 4 principles: breath, posture, relaxation, and movement. Here are some essential directives that help youth manage conflict through physical practice rooted in System a.
- Breath: Focus on exhaling stress, whether physical or emotional, and inhaling effortlessly. Most people inhale forcefully when they are startled. This causes tension. Exhaling allows tension to be released and opens the body up to move freely and regain comfort. Inhaling creates a “deer in headlights” phenomenon and usually leads to bearing the full impact of the situation.
- Relaxation: Exhaling with the initial stress is the first step, but the stress may be ongoing. Use burst breathing (a technique taught in Systema that involves rapidly inhaling through the nose and exhaling out the mouth until the nervous system can relax fully) to catch the breath and relax. Be honest about the level of stress you are experiencing. Unlearn breath patterns that are not helpful. The exhale must produce relaxation, not tension.
- Movement: Keep your movements sensitive and intentional. Proceeding too forcefully or quickly can trigger extreme reactions unnecessarily. Police too often proceed too forcefully then use the citizen’s extreme reaction as justification for the force.
- Posture: Adopt a non-threatening posture. This is as much to make yourself comfortable as everyone else involved. Keep the spine straight, hands open, (no finger pointing or fist shaking). Never corner a person you are trying to calm down, it will trigger their fight or flight response. Speak slowly and clearly even if you need to raise your voice at first, then immediately change your volume to calm the situation.
Working For a Bright Future
Recently, the Baltimore City Health Department submitted a grant to the federal government for $5 million over 5 years to transform some of the city’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods on the west side. Originally, they erred by only including large foundations in the planning for how to use the money. In the grant development process, the Health Department had failed to consult the communities that the grant money would serve. But they corrected themselves just in time.
Now, after a thorough process of including youth voices and community members in the conversation, a community board and coalition will oversee the grant. During the grant development process, the Health Department “discovered” something that wisdom educators already know: a positive adult who cares about educating the whole person in a youth’s life is the number one factor that keeps them on track to realize the brightest possible future.
Oftentimes authority figures say, “young people don’t know how to treat each other with respect, so why should authority figures treat them with respect?” Such questions ignore the need to teach everyday wisdom to youth. Many police officers and teachers work tirelessly to better their communities. But too many are apathetic, tense, or afraid.
It is not just a problem of authority figures that are obviously bad actors: violent, authoritarian, or racist. The problem is also a matter of those who occupy the middle ground: apathetic authority figures who do nothing in the face of injustice. These apathetic figures merely follow unjust orders, or implement repressive and brainwashing curricula that are not responsive to well-documented problems or inclusive of innovative best practices. Working towards a wiser Baltimore requires a radical implementation of holistic education that transcends business as usual within our cities’ schools and community organizations. More than we can imagine, our youth’s very lives, and their future, is at stake.
Notes Christopher Ingraham, “14 Baltimore neighborhoods have lower life expectancies than North Korea,” Washington Post, April 30, 2015, accessed Sunday June 19, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/04/30/baltimores-poorest-residents-die-20-years-earlier-than-its-richest.
 Manny Fernandez, “Freddie Gray’s Injury and the Police ‘Rough Ride’” New York Times, April 30, 2015, accessed Monday June 20, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/01/us/freddie-grays-injury-and-the-police-rough-ride.html.
 Chenelle A. Jones, “The System Isn’t Broken, It Was Designed That Way: A Critical Analysis of Historical Racial Disadvantage in the Criminal Justice System,” Criminal Justice Analysis, The Hampton Institute, July 25, 2013, accessed Wednesday June 22, 2015, http://www.hamptoninstitution.org/systemisntbroken.html.
 See http://baltimorewisdomproject.org/video.html.
 Richard Rothstein “How Some Baltimore Neighborhoods Reflect Segregation’s Legacy,” NPR, Morning edition, May 6, 2015, accessed June 21, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2015/05/06/404441478/troubled-neighborhoods-reflect-segregations-legacy-researcher-says.
 Cory Siemaszko, “Baltimore Public Housing Workers Demanded Sex For Repairs, Lawsuit Alleges,” NBC News, June 7, 2016, accessed June 22, 2016, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/baltimore-public-housing-workers-demanded-sex-repairs-lawsuit-alleges-n492161.
 Van Jones is quoted in Elizabeth Kolbert, “Greening the Ghetto,” The New Yorker, January 12, 2009, 8-25.
 Data from the 2010 U.S. Census can be accessed at http://www.census.gov/quickfacts.
 The “Cities in Crisis” report from America’s Promise Alliance can be accessed at http://www.americaspromise.org/cities-crisis.
 Jean Marbella and Catherine Rentz, “Heroin creates crowded illicit economy in Baltimore,” The Baltimore Sun, December 15, 2015, accessed June 24, 2016, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/sun-investigates/bs-md-heroin-economy-20151219-story.html.
 Bruce Weber, “Melvin Williams, an Inspiration for ‘The Wire,’ Dies at 73,” The New York Times, December 4, 2015, accessed June 24, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/05/arts/television/melvin-williams-an-inspiration-for-the-wire-dies-at-73.html.
 “Baltimore Bloodshed: 13-Year-Old Among Those Killed After Rash of Shootings,” WJZ CBS News, June 12, 2016, accessed June 23, 2016, http://baltimore.cbslocal.com/2016/06/12/13-year-old-among-those-killed-in-baltimore-shootings.
 This essay raises uncomfortable social and political issues. All views are my own. To avoid unintended associations, and maintain confidentiality, I do not disclose the names of the institutions within which I was educated or for which I work. Likewise, apart from the public figures or thinkers mentioned in published sources, I do not disclose the names of the people with which I work or collaborate for the same reasons.
 S.A. Miller, “School Police Officer’s Attack on Baltimore Teen Raises Questions About Cops on Campus,” The Washington Times, March 8, 2016, accessed June 27, 2016, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/mar/8/baltimore-city-school-police-officers-attack-on-te.