Young, black and radical

Lionel Foster asks: Can someone with Dayvon Love's tough message about black empowerment break through in Baltimore?

At first glance, Dayvon Love is easy to overlook. At 5 foot 9, he has average height and a slightly larger than average build. As he carefully takes in everything and everyone in a room, he might initially seem painfully shy. So when he finally speaks, his observations can hit you like a punch you had no idea was coming.

He says that in his experience as a teacher, most Baltimore City Public Schools students think of your average teacher as "someone who's not cool or smart enough to do anything else. The whole idea of a person who could be quite successful someplace else making an intentional effort to be there with them is unthinkable."

On Baltimore's business community: "Big business dominates the [political] scene in Baltimore in a way that is not only wildly obvious but in a way that is not even very sophisticated," and that domination extends to "black elected officials wanting to be liked and respected by their white peers."

But he reserves his most scathing critiques for the city's nonprofit community, members of which he describes as "white leadership using black bodies for their own gain."

While he is only 25, Mr. Love has been honing his rhetorical fighting style for a decade. Ten years ago, after slipping into a practice session for the Baltimore Urban Debate League team at Forest Park High School to keep warm before class started, he used debate to earn a scholarship to college, then gained national attention as half of the first African-American team to win the Cross Examination Debate Association collegiate championship. In 2010, he cofounded Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a youth-led think tank and advocacy group, and one of many organizations that pressured the state of Maryland to scrap its plans to build a juvenile jail downtown. He even ran for City Council.

Mr. Love and his compatriots in LBS have a potent mix of political assets: passion; fearlessness; a keen eye for injustice; and the credibility of knowing one of the city's most important institutions, its public schools, firsthand. (Most of the group's members are graduates of Baltimore public schools). Although Mr. Love lost his 2011 City Council race, his LBS-backed campaign gave the group an inside look at Baltimore politics. And the state's youth jail decision is an indisputable win.

Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle believes that any group or campaign that sets out to fix policies that harm predominantly African-American communities must be led by African-Americans — period. In Baltimore, that covers a bevy of issues, including affordable housing, economic development, education and criminal justice reform.

Mr. Love acknowledges that many of the whites he says are profiting from black suffering are doing so unintentionally, but he insists they are furthering the racial inequities set in place long before they were born. To end this cycle, he argues, African-Americans must control their own social policy agenda and any resources that support it. So as LBS works to upend the power structure in Baltimore, the question is: How far can a young, black radical go in this town?

"In terms of stopping this jail, none of this would have happened without Dayvon, Adam [Jackson, LBS CEO], and others leading young people to say no," says WEAA radio host Marc Steiner. Mr. Steiner has had conversations with LBS organizers on and off the air for several years now. When asked if he thought Mr. Love's radical politics could be an obstacle to achieving the type of changes he and his LBS colleagues are advocating, he said no. "It'll define his trajectory," says Mr. Steiner, "but it really won't stop it."

"In every generation, it's been young people who have pushed the envelope," says Heber Brown III, an African-American activist, commentator, and pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, where Mr. Love is a member. And he agrees with LBS' stance. "My experience is that some white people don't want to be part [of a struggle] unless they're in control," says Mr. Brown. "Maybe some who applaud [LBS] now will attempt to tear them down later, but they'll be all right."

"Somebody has to anchor the left," and not simply within Baltimore, says Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. "Many changes can only come from state government," he warns. This is especially true in two areas where LBS has been active: education and juvenile justice. "[Annapolis] is going to be much less friendly territory in which to operate because most legislators don't come from communities with an African-American majority ... but the state isn't going to make the kinds of changes [Mr. Love] is demanding unless they hear about them and know he has a constituency."

"Our ultimate goal is to be able to manifest power," says Mr. Love, and to do so from the ground up by mobilizing people who feel disenfranchised. In 2011 LBS established a political action committee to help candidates whose politics align with their own, and Mr. Love cites his work as a debate coach and teacher as part of this larger effort to educate and empower marginalized communities.

He knows it won't be easy for LBS to push its way through the city's political establishment. "It'll take a tremendous amount of work," he says, but he's seen tougher odds. "[My college debate coach] was explaining how big us winning nationals was. The way he put it was that he watched us do the impossible, and because of that he was willing to support anything that we did. So that gives us the drive. [Even though] it's highly unlikely to succeed, we've done things in the past that took an incredible amount of work to get done."

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: lionel@lionelfoster.com. Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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