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Center for Adolescent Health

Center for Adolescent Health Blog

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By Todd Allen Wilson, Communications Specialist, JHSPH Center for Adolescent Health

The youth coordinator of the JHSPH Center for Adolescent Health’s Baltimore Youth Diaries project, Jada Johnson, recently challenged me.

“Mr. Todd, you know they say our lives don’t matter because we’re in gangs and we kill each other. You know something about that, you should write about it.”

She’s not wrong, I saw someone make that exact, tired racist argument in the comments section of a news story the day before.

The thought of writing a personal essay was uncomfortable, but I can’t challenge Jada and her peers to share their truths without being willing to share my own.

The personal essay is not my forte. For a brilliant essay by a master of the form written from the perspective of a black Baltimore native please take the time to read D. Watkins’ Huffington Post piece “Only A Mile And A Big World Separated Us: An All American Story Of Two Boys From The East Side of Baltimore,” with photos by Devin Allen.

If you’d stopped by my office, attended a meeting with me or seen me walking the halls of the School of Public Health building you would never guess that 30 years ago on a hot Sacramento summer night I held one of my closest friends as he died after we had been ambushed by a rival gang.

I met Paul on the first day of middle school. Almost eight years to the day later he had been gutted and I watched as his intestines spilled out of his body.

It broke me, leaving a scar on my soul through post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s a scar that still often feels like an open wound.

PTSD has been a struggle that delayed me fulfilling my potential, I have worked hard with lots of help and plenty of chances to redeem myself. A privilege most often denied black youth, who are often officially and legally categorized as gang members by gang task forces across the country just for walking down the street together.

But let me be clear, I was a gang member.

While our gang – which was not a white supremacist nor Nazi skinhead gang -- didn’t have a business component like dealing to it, as a gang member I attacked people violently and was violently attacked; I damaged property and tagged walls; I have stolen things; I have been shot at; I had illegal guns in my possession – though I never shot at anyone; and even dropped off drugs for dealers who were friends because I was going that way.

All of these are crimes we associate with gangs and then use that as an excuse to lock-up black and brown young men and women and if not kill them outright essentially throw away the key.

I have never been arrested, nor spent anytime inside a jail or prison cell.


I knew that then; I know that now.

In 1990, my black friends and peers doing the same thing at much the same level that I was were called “super-predators.” They HAD to be stopped!

Straight from a cop’s mouth, myself and my white friends and peers were “dumb-ass kids that need to get [their] shit together.”

That contradiction didn’t sit well as I had friends and acquittances that would fall under the “super-predator” tag. Either we’re all “super-predators” or we’re all “dumb-ass kids.”

Hint: We were all just adolescents that lacked the supports and social structures needed for us to seize the opportunity of youth.

I grew up in a rough, diverse working-class neighborhood on the edge of the city’s major, black-majority slum. Our community, which included a public-housing complex, had a small park with a public pool, where we spent a lot of our summers. Most people, like my dad and other relatives, worked in the trades.

Little League coaches included a white California Highway Patrol motorcycle cop and a black pimp – I had good relationships with both them and their sons. (The cop’s son has done prison time; the pimp’s son is dead.)

The cop had the best Fourth of July barbeques with piles of illegal fireworks that he had “confiscated” from others. We’d heard older kids talk about people being shaken down by cops.

At the same time, I would be at my black friends houses when their parents had given them the “yes sir, no sir, how can I get this over with as quickly as possible, sir” lectures before we headed out the door.

And I saw on the streets that play worked like a charm for me every single time, while it was totally hit-or-miss for my friends and peers of color. With my blond hair, blue eyes and “Ritchie Cunningham” demeanor I soon became “the police-whisper” for whatever group I was hanging out with.

My parents came of age in that same neighborhood in the late-1960s, early-1970s and I found books on our shelves that helped me make sense of the contradictions I saw all around my world.

I was grounded a lot and a voracious reader. In middle school I read James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice,” and Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s “Black Power.” They answered a lot of questions, and “Black Power” laid out a path to being an ally.

By the time I was in a gang, I knew that the cops weren’t looking at me when I was in public and I knew why.

In the gang I found a structure, a support system, order and deep bonds that made a confusing, dog-eat-dog world a lot less scary. It gave me a sense of control, power, cache and voice that I couldn’t find anywhere else.

There was a comfort in our communal shout of “kiss my ass” to a society that seemed to give us the finger every single day.

I’ve always thought the most basic motivations at work in joining a gang are the same that lead well-off kids to join white frats and sororities, which I view as socially and legally sanctioned gangs. Before you quibble – I have been in multiple fights with frat boys, instigated by them while they call out their frat name. In my world, that’s a gang – especially when you factor in other criminality we often see in the news.

Our dominant society definitely does not consider them super-predators. And as opposed to being “dumb-ass kids who need to get [their] shit together,” these young people are seen as kids who have their shit together but are just being kids, who will have great networks in the professional world.

The common denominator being adolescence.

I’m not saying, however, that adolescence is a dangerous time and we just need to hope and pray each kid finds their way through it.

Not at all. Adolescence is an opportunity for young people to express themselves and find their place in the world on their terms.

Instead, I see it as an indictment of a systemically racist society that does not offer equitable supports, security and resources to all our young people.

Life experience has shown me that the dominant white society hasn’t just failed our young people of color, but for the most part hostilely written off and devalued the lives of black youth.

No one has ever begrudged me becoming a public-school teacher or riding in a presidential motorcade as part of the press corps because I was a gang member – but had I ever done time, I would never have passed the required background checks.

Again, I have struggled to build an incredibly privileged life, with a lot of help from the current system. Sympathetic people made sure I had the supports I needed. I know white privilege gave me an advantage.

Over the 30-year span from the night my friend died until now, from my view it seems that the conditions and expectations for black youth by the dominant society, legal and justice systems have gotten harsher from what was already brutal.

And they still get tagged as gang members just because they are standing in a group with two other black or brown kids.

As an ally it is my responsibility to help build an equitable system that doesn’t treat black youth as de facto second-class citizens, whose lives must be controlled lest they get out of control.

The are a plethora of promising policy paths informed by strong science on adolescent development including community schools, trauma-informed services and teaching, diversion rather than arrest and authentic youth engagement that show small-scale success across the country and point us in the right direction.

Many of them cost far less than police departments, jails and prisons.

And they have been and will be attacked as “radical.”

Really, they are just part of a major humane, equitable realignment and overhaul our civic structures and institutions need to finally eradicate the racism baked into the system.

If that’s radical, then in addition to being an ex-gang member and ally, in the words of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, who was assassinated by Chicago police in 1969, “I am a revolutionary.”

by Jada Johnson

Ed. Note: WIth a deeply reflective look at her life, Jada Johnson offers the first in our Baltimore Youth COVID Diaries, a series of works to document the effects of COVID-19 on Baltimore's young people in their own voices.

Since Corona has come amongst us my biggest fear has been being completely behind and possibly at risk of failing myself, school and others around me because of serious procrastination throughout the years. 

Feeling like I’m behind on everything has been a heavy burden on me and my pockets because it has stopped me from reaching my full potential and lowered my chances of getting the job of my dreams that eventually leads me to the land where financial troubles no longer exist. 

I also tend to self-sabotage. This created a lot of doubt and skepticism in me because I became conditioned to always believe I would never be good enough. To this day I struggle just a little bit. 

Recently there have been many opportunities coming my way which has heightened my level of belief in myself and lowered my tendency to self-sabotage. Overall it’s allowed me to focus on other problems I face within myself. 

With all of the chaos I created within myself, I began to have low self-esteem. I saw everybody else around me succeeding and exceeding expectations, while I wasn’t even walking the speed limit of some of my younger peers. 

It weighed heavily on my mental health. My low self-esteem kept me from seeing my true beauty. I would not post pictures of myself, join in other peoples pictures, or allow people to post pictures of me on social media because I thought that I was not as pretty as my peers. 

Keeping myself in such a tight closet kept me from going outside and enjoying time with my friends, attending events and even participating in any high school memories. 

To this day I regret allowing my self-esteem to hinder me. I’m not saying that it doesn’t still shadow over me, it just isn’t a burden now. 

Procrastination became my strategy for high school. After trying and failing Freshman Year, instead of revamping my plan of attack, I got scared and ran to hide. 

Sometimes as I walked the halls of Western High School I felt like an imposter. I felt like I didn’t belong because the first year was such a struggle. 

As  Sophomore Year approached I tried to learn how to be an effective high school student. Then my grandmother passed away and I decided Sophomore Year wasn't going to be one for the books. 

After a long summer of grief, I decided to go back my Junior Year and fake the happiness until it became true, but that didn't work either because of my home environment. 

Senior Year came and I was completely done taking loss after loss, so I decided to flunk most of my year.

Once January hit Western put me out and I was completely shattered. I transferred to a school that I thought was beneath me and reacted negatively by not going to school at all. 

Then Corona came and I just put my hands up and thought that I should surrender completely and be a failure. 

As time set in and Corona got worse I began to self reflect. I took this time to evaluate my friends and myself. I had recently become a part of Heart Smiles in January, but I wasn’t as serious about being successful so I didn’t really try to get any opportunities. Soon enough I had noticed that not taking HeartSmiles seriously was a bad idea. 

After joining HeartSmiles and attending Winning Wednesdays, which is led by a mother full of love, it helped me love myself a little more and move toward success. In Winning Wednesdays I started to focus on what I was good at instead of what I was not good at. 

That's when I came across journalism and writing. But not only did I see my full potential, people around me began to see it as well. One person who saw me was Ms.Joni, who has given me endless opportunities to show my true talent.

Honestly, even though all of these things happened to me before Corona, I feel like these things made my quarantine become a successful time of self-reflection and repair. I am actually quite thankful for Corona and all of the people who have assisted me in this time period. It has really helped open my eyes and see the clearer side of things. 

Even though I still struggle a little day by day with procrastination; having nothing but time on my hands has allowed me to turn what I saw as a  burden into a small worry. 


Ed. Note: This study was published before the COVID-19 Pandemic, which has made food insecurity worse in Baltimore and across the country.

Baltimore youth are well aware that they lack reliable access to food, and that the stigma and embarrassment associated with food insecurity often leads teens to engage in risky and dangerous behaviors just to eat.

They also have solutions, according to a new qualitative study from researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The 53 young people from six disadvantaged neighborhoods across the city who participated in the study – half of whom qualified as food insecure – told researchers that they, or peers they know, resort to prostitution, drug dealing and theft to ensure they have food.

These adolescents were clear that the stigma of food insecurity and the embarrassment of participating in food programs keep them from relying on social safety nets.

“I think mostly people are embarrassed if they don’t have a lot of food they don’t talk or don’t even try, like don’t even go to these little donations because they are embarrassed, they don’t expect people to understand, they expect people to judge them and all that,” said one young woman who participated in the study.

Many of the teens (ages 14 to 19) who participated pointed out that the food options they do have access to, primarily fast food outlets and convenience stores, are low quality and unhealthy. They compare food served at their local schools with “jail food,” and describe it as nearly inedible. Some have even observed that major grocery stores sell low quality foods at outlets in their neighborhoods as compared to the same outlets in more well-off suburbs.

“I will say like they also have like a Target up on Mondawmin and like that . . . I’ll say that even the products that they got at the Target they weren’t like Target quality, like if you go out on Towson like they had better fruit selection, better food selection in general and I just didn’t think that is so fair,” one study participant said. [Ed. Note: Since this study concluded the Mondawmin Target in West Baltimore has closed.]

In addition to agreeing that healthier, better quality food needs to be available, participating youth suggest that food assistance programs should include other services young people need – such as job training and employment programs that go beyond traditional “summer jobs” programs.

“That can help me like throughout the rest of my life. Not just something that just going to benefit me just for this time period in my life. That is going to help me get another job,” another study participant said.

Participants suggested to researchers that including food assistance as part of a broader suite of services youth need can go a long way toward avoiding the stigma and embarrassment of participating in these programs, making it more likely that food insecure young people will take part.

With an estimated 6.8 million young people ages 10- to 17-years-old in the United States facing food insecurity, the study’s researchers conclude that not only should food insecurity among adolescents be a high priority for researchers, but youth voices are essential to developing successful strategies and solutions.

The authors – Kristin Mmari, Asari Offiong, Susan Gross and Tamar Mendelson – note that while food insecurity has been widely studied among younger children, there is limited knowledge on this issue in relation to adolescents. The results of this study support the findings of a larger, earlier qualitative national study by the Urban Institute and Feeding America.

“In both our study and the Urban Institute/Feeding America study, young people stressed that food insecurity needed to be addressed more broadly, with several youths mentioning the need to combine services with job training,” the authors said.

Study participants came from disadvantaged neighborhoods in Baltimore that border food deserts, including Violetville; Morrell Park; Cecil Kirk (Greenmount East); Oliver (Midway); Coppin Heights/Eastwood (Greater Rosemont); and Forest Park (Park Heights).

The study, “How adolescents cope with food insecurity in Baltimore City: an exploratory study,” was published May 2019 in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

For more information on this research and related work contact Dr. Kristin Mmari at

Stuck at home due to the statewide stay-at-home order, Lamar found a silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic as he tuned in daily to the HeartSmiles Success Sessions.

The HeartSmiles Success Sessions offer Baltimore youth structured online programming from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, that includes mentoring, academic tutoring and guest speakers.

“One of the biggest challenges that I faced was myself and staying consistent, I could never feel motivated enough to do anything compared to what I’m doing right now,” Lamar said.

These daily sessions are an adaptation and extension of the work HeartSmiles and its founder Joni Holifield were previously doing with Baltimore’s young people in partnership with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) Center for Adolescent Health (CAH).


Prior to the JHSPH putting in place restrictions due to the pandemic, HeartSmiles hosted 30 to 50 youth in person for Winning Wednesdays and Thriving Thursdays at CAH, as well as hosting a half hour online session through Instagram on Friday afternoons.

As JHSPH and Baltimore City Public Schools closures took affect and the stay-at-home order was put in place, Holifield and her staff knew they needed to quickly fill the voids being left in the lives of local teens.

“Lots of kids were expressing their need to remain connected and we knew we had to do something and that it had to be more,” Holifield said. “Before we could even miss a day of programming we were up and running online.”

The Success Sessions started on Instagram Live in mid-March, but with 100 plus youth tuning in, the platform quickly became overloaded by the demand. Without missing a beat, the HeartSmiles team switched to using a combination of YouTube and Zoom – a technological match that has served them well.

Center for Adolescent Health Director Tamar Mendelson has been awed by the speed with which the HeartSmiles team was able to get the Success Sessions going and the depth of the programming – which brings the youth back day after day.

Mendelson notes that while schools are giving students packets to complete, the Success Sessions offer five hours of free programming five days a week.

“Youth are able to ask questions and interact with presenters so that the content is relevant to them and they have voice in the process,” Mendelson said. “This gives young people a place to tune in and can help structure their time while schools are closed. HeartSmiles also provides information about local resources, including food sites and other supports, which is helpful for youth who may not be well connected with other sources that describe these resources.”

The sense of support and having input into the process, Lamar said, is what he finds inspiring about the Success Sessions.

“It gives me the support I need to feel like I can’t give up,” Lamar said. “Everyone in HeartSmiles is a family and as family we are destined to push each other and ensure that we are all great as a whole. Having this allows me to feel like I can take risk without being afraid that it won’t work.”

Lamar, Holifield and Mendelson have all been impressed by the guest speakers, who have ranged from Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and the Blomberg School of Public Health’s Dr. Josh Sharfstein to domestic violence and sexual assault advocate William Kellibrew and Hip-Hop pioneer Doug E. Fresh.

Holifield asks that any “caring adult” sign up for a hour guest speaker spot.

Given her experiences during COVID-19, Holifield believes young people will want and need some version of the Success Sessions to continue once the city begins its return to normal.

“We’re not sure if we’re going to post pre-recorded sessions or find a way to continue a live version, but either way Success Sessions are here to stay and we’ll figure out the consistency once we get past the current need,” Holifield said.