Flipping the Script

Rikki Spector with youths from UEmpower programs; Melvin Willingham, founder of Makings of a Man Male Youth Initiative; and Kristina Page, UEmpower director of social services. (Kelsey Marden photo)

“Shavua tov! Shavua tov!” former Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector told guests arriving at a recent Northwest Citizen’s Patrol banquet.

“You don’t have a black eye this year!” one guest said to Spector.

“I’m not getting any more,” Spector replied with her signature smile and easy laugh.

“I’m glad to see you.” “How are you?” “Hello there!” “Glad to have you back!”

And the heartfelt greetings kept coming, a testament to Spector’s 40-year tenure as councilwoman for District 5 and the high regard with which she is held in her community.

Spector was attending the event to update the community on what she’s been up to for the past year since two young teens jumped her in a parking garage and tried to steal her car. The attempt was foiled because Spector had the electronic fob needed to open the exit gate. Battered and shaken, her eyes blackened, Spector yelled for help, and two employees came quickly to her aid, catching one of the fleeing teens, a 15-year-old, in the process. The second teen, 13, was arrested two days later.

The story of the 81-year-old Spector’s odyssey over the past year follows a path even she may have not expected: helping those two young men — the very same who attacked her — to refocus their lives and the lives of other young Baltimore residents away from trouble on the street and onto more positive and productive paths.

As soon as the two teens entered into Baltimore’s juvenile justice system, Spector was there.

“Me and the good Samaritans, we saw it through to the end, until we had the resolution in terms of what was going to be meted out to both boys,” Spector said about getting to know the boys during their ensuing hearings. “That was part of the agreement working with social services and the state’s attorney, because the good Samaritans came with me from day one.”

The “good Samaritans” to whom Spector refers, from the nonprofit UEmpower of Maryland, were doing outreach in Southwest Baltimore at the time of the assault and were acquainted with the two boys and the dire situations in which they were living.

“They should have by no means [done that], you should know right from wrong. So I was so shocked,” said UEmpower of Maryland vice president Michelle Suazo. “I knew they were on the edge, but I was shocked and horrified at what they did. But up to this point, we had been shouting out that this neighborhood has nothing. It has no resources. And these children were crumbling with the buildings around them. They live surrounded by abandoned buildings. So I went to court to reach out to Rikki to see if maybe together we could come up with a solution.”

That partnership has resulted in more than Spector and Suazo and the two teens could have imagined a year ago. Today, UEmpower, which was founded in 2013, is only days away from getting the keys to its first permanent facility to house the many interlaced programs it offers that draw in, engage, mentor, teach and hopefully find jobs for young people living in the decaying, forgotten neighborhoods of Southwest Baltimore.

The facility, the former Samuel F.B. Morse Elementary School in the 400 block of Pulaski Street, was surplussed to the city in summer of 2017 during the Baltimore City Public Schools review of its school buildings.

“The city is giving us the school that we have in the boys’ neighborhood,” Spector said. “We have so many wonderful programs that are going to be going on in the school. It was serendipity. There were 26 surplus buildings either not convertible or in the wrong place. So I mentioned to UEmpower, ‘Let’s get a home in the neighborhood.’”

Spector dines with children in The Food Project. (Photo provided)

Kristina Page, UEmpower’s director of social services, said the organization sees a “steady flow” of about 60 children through the program, which is currently running at a neighborhood rec center.

“There are so many children in the neighborhood. Then there are children we know through street outreach. Some are not in school, and we have the opportunity to make a difference in their lives,” Page said. “They also help to spread the word. Building trust in an underserved community takes time, but we have built the foundation solid.”

“It really is because of Rikki that we’re getting the school space,” Suazo said. “She called everybody, and she said, ‘They need to have space to run their programming,’ and we couldn’t have done that without her. So we are very grateful.”

Suazo said last week she hopes to have the two teens with her when she opens the doors and begins to bring the facility up to speed so they can feel ownership in the changes in their community.

The Catalyst

After the assault, some may have sought to have the two teens face the most severe punishment possible as juveniles, but Spector, in hopes of helping to spur juvenile justice system reform, chose a different path.

“The system isn’t working for the kids. It’s not working for us. You can look at me and see that,” Spector, still sporting two black eyes, told a television reporter at the older teen’s detention hearing about 10 days after the 2016 incident.

Spector had quickly decided to get to know the boys and their families and work with them to get the boys on track and out of trouble.

“I put myself in their place,” she said. “If that had been my boy, or my grandson, I would want somebody to have the heart to understand that they truly, truly didn’t want this to happen, sorry that it did happen, and they are going to do everything in their power to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Spector’s own son, Bruce, admitted that he was angry and upset by what had happened to his mother, but he is supportive of her efforts over the past year.

“She has a much better heart than I do,” he said, smiling. “I thought it was the noble thing to do.”

Spector traces some of that inspired nobility to her humble “family of shopkeepers” roots and specifically to a program she started in the 1970s when teaching at Northwestern High School.

“That program that we started at Northwestern was the inspiration,” Spector said. “At that time, Northwestern was almost an entire black student population. The Northwest Senior Center was on Reisterstown Road. The seniors would be coming out of their programs at the same time the kids would be coming out of school. And they would be scared to see these big kids. We got wind of it, and we started a program called CAST [Community and School Together].”

The seniors mentored the students, and the students ran errands and did shopping with the seniors, Spector explained. And at the end of the school year they held a dance for the students and seniors.

“I grew from those experiences. So [after the assault] I realized the silos that the state’s attorneys were in and the juvenile services were in and the contractors that they hire — they were all in silos,” Spector said. “They have to interact and be on the ground. I said that to everybody who would listen that we were trying to figure out what would be the next best step to help those boys. And then, when I got into the community with the good Samaritans, I knew this was exactly a second opportunity to do what I knew worked when I was at Northwestern High School.”

Putting It All Together

The Food Project. (Photo provided)

At UEmpower of Maryland, food is the focus that draws in youths, after which they are engaged in programs where they learn culinary skills, urban farming techniques and gain food-industry job training and job opportunities.

According to Baltimore’s Department of Juvenile Services, such a multilayered approach can help young people as well as the community at large.

“Community-based programs can offer a range of services such as peer-to-peer mentoring, tutoring and hands-on job training,” said Jay Cleary, chief of staff of the Department of Juvenile Services, in a prepared statement. “For youth under supervision in the community, these types of programs help structure their free time and provide an opportunity to learn new skills. As a result, youth who are actively engaged in these programs are more likely to experience positive outcomes and contribute to safer communities.”

Cleary said DJS “strives to align youth involved in the juvenile justice system with appropriate and effective treatment services that address their individual needs.”

Melvin Willingham, founder of Makings of a Man Male Youth Initiative and UEmpower operations manager, said gaining trust is the first step in drawing youths, especially teens, into programs that can help build character and steer them away from making bad decisions.

“There has to be a relationship formed where that individual trusts that you accept them with all of their baggage, everything they’ve done, everything they’re going to do when they leave here until next time we meet,” he said.

But the older the child, the longer it takes to form that relationship. Key in getting youths to move away from bad decisions is to break the cycle of getting validation from their peers for bad deeds and instead get them into programs that offer opportunities where they experience validation for doing good deeds — for themselves and for the community.

“A lot of times when our peers validate us as young men, they’re validating us for doing the wrong thing,” Willingham said. “Now you have a horrible dynamic. What I learned dealing with a lot of the young men we’ve seen be successful, who go on to the military, to college, to do great things here in the city, get governor’s citations, things of that nature, is that positive validation works wonders. When you get validated for doing something positive in the community, there’s no conflict there. There’s only raw, positive energy involved with that validation, and it’s much stronger.”

Chef Stew and children in the kitchen. (Photo provided)

UEmpower has been building that kind of trust by serving the community for more than four years and getting to know the community well, Suazo said.

“Their needs are immediate with food, clothing and shelter, but if we can start there and then give them the tools they need to succeed, we will be able to lift this community up,” she said. “We will know we have succeeded when the neighborhood youth have a sense of pride and purpose. Until we provide a safe space and meet the child’s and/or family’s basic needs, future thinking and goal setting cannot take place, as they are living in a state of continuous trauma and can only think about meeting basic needs and ‘How do I stay alive?’”

Suazo has partnered with a number of individuals and programs to provide that wrap-around experience, including Makings of a Man Male Youth Initiative, Food Network chefs Robert “Chef Stew” Stewart of Transition Kitchen and Greg Nalley of Nalley Fresh, Dominic Nell of City Weeds and Tavon Mason of Tavon Mason Loves the Kids Foundation, among others.

UEmpower had already been running programs, such as The Food Project, at recreation and community centers, combining food demonstrations with mentoring, where children learn culinary and cooking skills while preparing healthy food. They then get some mentoring while sitting around the table eating what they prepared. The Food Project serves boys and girls from 8 to 18. Plans are by February to also be offering literacy, arts and food product development.

The organization started as street outreach, pulling up in destitute neighborhoods with a truck and feeding the community, along with other outreach programs such as Angels of Addiction. Other UEmpower programs include collecting surplus food from distributors for nonprofits that feed people in need and relief programs for homeless families in Southwest Baltimore

“All my partners were in the food industry and we had made a decision, we could only continue to feed a neighborhood for so long. At some point, you want to feel like you’re making a difference,” Suazo said. “So we had come up with food empowering programs, where the youth would be drawn in because there would be food. But they would learn how to cook the food.”

“We also have a farmer, so they could learn how to do urban farming, and they would be learning about nutrition,” she added. “But then we also wanted to be able to offer them jobs. We know that a little bit of money can make a big difference for them. And if you’re not engaging these children, these children are just roaming the streets. Our goal was for us to be louder than the streets. In order to do that, we really need to be there full time.”

Last year, at about the time the teens that assaulted Spector were arrested, Suazo and UEmpower were looking for a permanent space in Southwest Baltimore. Suazo asked the judge if the boys could attend one of UEmpower’s cooking programs.

“And they had a great time,” Suazo recalled. “And what was wonderful was Rikki also came to the cooking demos. At this time we are going to other recreation centers because we didn’t have a place of our own. And she would come, and the boys cooked food, and she ate the food. And she went up to them and gave them a hug, and she said, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ I commend her for her bravery. That must have been so hard. And the boys could see her as human. She’s like a grandmother. And the fact that she forgave them and wants to see them succeed, that planted the seed that they are valued. Because up until this point, there were no resources in the neighborhood, that message was loud and clear. These lives are not valued. And these children can’t see a future.”

The Future

Rosanne Skirble, Seedy Nutty creator, with a UEmpower mentor, Spector and Michelle Suazo. (Photo provided)

A year after her assault, Spector looks back and can barely believe all the good things that have emerged from her bad experience. She sees the two boys often at events sponsored by UEmpower.

“In less than a year, we have made such progress, and I’m so happy,” Spector said. “There are wonderful things going on in Baltimore. Maybe I’ll inspire somebody else, when they’re at the precipice of doing something, that they can make it better, not just live through it, but make it better.”

To help make things better in Southwest Baltimore, UEmpower needs more funding and equipment to keep its programs running over the long term. Spector said one funding initiative under consideration is to get restaurant patrons to add a quarter to their check. And recently, Spector and one of the youth mentors from UEmpower joined Suazo to meet Rosanne Skirble, creator of a healthy snack food called Seedy Nutty, a dessert Skirble found on a trip to Israel. Suazo said Skirble is exploring moving the production of the snack to UEmpower, where the youths in the program would make the product and learn how to market and sell it.

In addition, Spector said she is working with groups such as I’m Still Standing Community Corporation that works with returning and homeless veterans and Thread that works with underperforming high school students.

“In my experience, that’s what makes things better. Not letting go and saying, ‘Those kids were rotten, those kids were bad.’ What good would that have done them, or us? This is our community, this is our city,” she said.

Reflecting on the past year, Spector recalled something Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congergation once told her — that not eating pork and going to synagogue on Sabbath isn’t what makes a good Jew. First, you must have empathy. Second, you must have humility, and third, you must do acts of loving kindness.

Spector and Neil Schachter, president of NWCP. (Kelsey Marden photo)

“You know what I said to the rabbi?” Spector remembered. “Rabbi, that’s humanity. It doesn’t matter what stripe you are.”

Back at that recent banquet, the event ended with an awards ceremony. One was given to Spector by NWCP in recognition of her outreach, naming her an emissary of peace, caring and empowerment. Another award, a trophy with a star on top, went to one of the teens in the program. A few days later at another event, another teen in the program received his trophy.

“Everybody that I talk to said it’s inspirational,” Spector said. “And for people who say, ‘Rikki, I don’t know if I would have done that.’ You know what? Maybe I’ve planted a seed.”



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