From a young age, Celia Neustadt was aware of the stark differences between Baltimore City and Baltimore County. The 26-year-old was born and raised in Charles Village but went to Krieger Schechter Day School, giving her a unique perspective few people her age had.
She attended Baltimore City College for high school, where she was one of four white girls in a grade of 400, and began her journey into activism.
During college, she worked with parolees to conduct research into issues of recidivism and re-entry into society. When she came back to Baltimore in 2012, she started the Inner Harbor Project. The organization employs and mobilizes teenage leaders in Baltimore City to conduct research on their peers and come up with solutions to issues that divide Baltimore in class, race and culture, with the Inner Harbor as a focal point.
The organization kicks off a new campaign during a free event at the Maryland Science Center on May 26, and a report on the organization’s research will come out in June.
The JT spoke with Neustadt at the Inner Harbor Project’s office in Power Plant Live! to learn more about her and the organization.
How did your high school experience inform the work you do today?
I realized that a lot of the stereotypes that are attributed to young black people in Baltimore City are false and a lot of problems that people attribute to them are because of systemic failure. So I worked very hard in high school to have toilet paper in the bathrooms and to have a light outside the school drive so that there would less incidents of crime on school property. My experience at City in student government and my social experience really put me on a platform for which I could do this work today.
Why did you start the Inner Harbor Project after speaking with students at City College?
Teenagers in Baltimore City are really passionate about the Inner Harbor in a way that I think other Baltimoreans don’t really understand. For them, it’s this cosmopolitan space that they have access to. In the second breath, teenagers explained to me that they felt excluded, unwelcomed and criminalized when they visited the Inner Harbor. And I saw this as an opportunity to organize young people to have them do research on why they felt excluded from the space and to present solutions for a harmonious co-existence. I think young people have unbelievable potential to solve massive societal issues. They believe that they can fix these deeply ingrained racist stereotypes that people hold through their work, which is amazing to me.
What programs does the organization run?
We now employ 40 young people year-round from all over Baltimore City to lead five programs, which they developed from the initial research they did. They mediate conflicts over social media before they play out in the Inner Harbor. They have trained police officers on positive ways of engaging with young people. We do that at the police academy.
A third initiative is the Harbor Card, it’s a discount card to incentivize positive behaviors and build trust with store owners.
Our fourth program is the peace ambassador program, which all the youth leaders participate in. Peace ambassadors wear blue T-shirts; they’re in the Inner Harbor after school and on the weekends promoting positivity. It is literally changing stereotypes that people have about black youth. When we launched the peace ambassador program there was an 86 percent decrease in the number of juvenile arrests [in the Inner Harbor and downtown]. (A fifth program is forthcoming.)
In light of last year’s unrest in the city, what’s your hope for Baltimore’s future?
For me [the April 2015 uprising] was about recognizing that we need to listen to young people. The teenagers of Baltimore are incredibly entrepreneurial and creative … and we as a city need to support their hopes and dreams for themselves and not what we think they should be doing. And so my hope for the City of Baltimore is that we listen to young people. Create spaces for young people to speak for and articulate themselves, and if that happens, we will be a very, very different city.