Nonprofit group begins relentless pursuit of Baltimore’s most dangerous young men — to change them

Molly Baldwin, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Roca organization, talks about the group’s aims to convince Baltimore’s most dangerous young criminals to turn their lives around, as organization staffers Kurtis Palermo, center, and J.T. Timpson listen.
(Photo by Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

A new team decked out in purple shirts hit the streets of Baltimore this week, in pursuit of some of the most troubled and potentially dangerous young men in the city.

The outreach workers are knocking on doors, but not to investigate or arrest the men. The team aims to do something more radical: hound them in the hopes of creating relationships that will disrupt the city’s cycle of violence.

“If the young person slams the door in my face, I will be back the next day and the next day, and finally he will be so annoyed that he will at least listen to what I have to say,” said Kurtis Palermo, one of a dozen workers with Roca, an anti-violence nonprofit that has come to the city after 30 years of operation in Massachusetts.


“We’re going to do everything we can because we understand what the alternatives are for these young men. A lot of these young men are used to people knocking on their door in a negative light.”

Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, local advocates and business leaders recruited Roca with a $17-million package to work on Baltimore’s streets for the next four years. Despite threats, slammed doors or complete opposition, Roca’s founder, Molly Baldwin, said her workers will continue over the next year to invite 100 young men to join the program’s educational, life skills and transitional employment services. The men, ages 16 to 24, have serious charges on their records and are selected by probation and patrol agents, juvenile justice officials and police as being unwilling to give up street crime or gang involvement.

It is not a quick process, but Roca has a record of connecting high-risk young men to jobs and keeping them out of jail, Baldwin said. Data from their Massachusetts operations show the men typically take 15 to 18 months before they show up consistently, and begin the real work of transforming their lives, she said.

Last year, Roca worked with 854 high-risk young men in Massachusetts. Of those, 283 completed the first two years of intensive outreach and programming, with 84% avoiding new arrests and 76% holding jobs for at least three months.

“The team and the partners and the funders and the supporters have to strap in for it,” said Baldwin, a Baltimore native. “These young people are in a lot of distress. They’re in harm’s way. They’re causing harm. I think of them as vulnerable and volatile, and when things go wrong, they’re very visible. And they can change.”

Roca means “rock” in Spanish, symbolizing a new foundation for the young men it serves: those who are not in school and not willing to work with any other groups. It will operate from a central location in the city to provide neutral ground for its participants to come from East and West Baltimore. For now, the workers are out in the neighborhoods getting to know people.

Some of Roca’s funding will pay for “transitional employment,” or various odd jobs, such as cleaning and sprucing up public spaces. There, Roca can coach and support participants until they’re reliable enough for a traditional job.

About $1 million is included in the city’s spending plan for the new fiscal year.

Pugh highlighted Roca in her state of the city address in March as part of a strategy to fight crime. Its supporters see the nonprofit as an alternative to traditional criminal justice interventions at a time when the city continues to battle high levels of crime. Though violent crime is down almost 15% through late June, the city has endured unprecedented levels in recent years.

Drew Vetter, who runs the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said Roca’s arrival speaks to the promise of a safer city.

“Outreach to the most at-risk young people in the community is a key element in the city’s violence reduction efforts,” Vetter said. “We’re confident their approach is going to make a difference in the city. The premise of their program is people can change.”

Vetter said the nonprofit is unique for the lengths it will go to establish productive relationships with young people.

Roca is working with city officials and others to set goals for the next four years and standards for tracking performance to ensure the program can adapt to a new location and find success.

Baldwin said data are key, allowing her team to analyze the behavior of the young men and the performance of her staff, and adjust. Roca tracks how many times employees knock on someone’s door or call them. It records how many consecutive days the men show up for services, whether they receive a raise or promotion, and when and for how long they relapse, including a return to drugs or crime.

Young men who have worked with the program typically say that what persuaded them to participate was the outreach workers’ persistence, Baldwin said.

“Roca brings the bandwidth for the process,” Baldwin said. “Just because today I say, ‘I want out. I want to do something else’ doesn’t mean I know how to do that. We’re going to go with this change process with you. And by the way, we can actually out-annoy you. We call it relentless outreach. It’s a kind of legal stalking.”

The nonprofit acknowledges that its efforts don’t always work. For instance, two men were convicted last year in the death of a rival gang member who was working on a Roca crew shoveling snow; one of the men attacked the victim, despite promising to work peacefully with him. The organization responded by tightening its security.

Roca workers have never faced major incidents involving their health or safety, according to the nonprofit. Safety precautions are in place, including having them perform outreach work in pairs and groups of three.

Baldwin said she has been interested in bringing Roca to Baltimore for about five years, and the nonprofit’s work caught the attention of both the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg and Abell foundations.

Robert Embry, Abell’s president, said the young men Roca will work with are in real need of intervention. Changing behavior, and ultimately reducing the crime rate, will take time, he said.

“It is isn’t going to be changed by saying a prayer,” Embry said. “It is going to take hard work. This isn’t the silver bullet. This is part of a larger effort.”

Roca’s Baltimore team has been carefully selected, made up almost entirely of local men and women with varied life experience.

James “J.T.” Timpson is a Baltimore native who has done community outreach for years, from city agencies to the anti-violence program Safe Streets. He is Roca’s director of youth work and crisis intervention.

Timpson believes one of the most important things Roca will offer is opportunity. If five young men are standing on a corner, only two might be selling drugs; the others are waiting for opportunities, he said.

“Distrust in this city is huge,” Timpson said. “There have been so many empty promises. The reality is, a lot of programs have been selling hope and at some point, hope is not enough anymore. We have to be able to come up with a plan, and they have to be able to see that plan in action.”

Wenger is a Baltimore Sun staff writer.