There are always a lot of dedicated people in the room when Wallace’s grantees, research partners and other colleagues come together as part of a professional learning community, or PLC. But at the final meeting of our summer learning PLC in Baltimore recently, one attendee stood out. At age 19, Samirah Franklin is already making a difference in her community and beyond. As lead organizer of the Baltimore Youth Organizing Project, she headed a successful campaign to prevent a 25-percent cut in the city’s funding for youth programming.
Franklin’s graduation from high school in 2015 coincided with a groundswell of activism following the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who sustained a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody—one of a number of such incidents nationwide. That summer, she was painting murals as part of a summer jobs program. She had no idea when she signed up for the program that she’d be attending leadership development and community organizing classes in the afternoons when it was too hot for outdoor work. But those classes were the spark that helped her determine the direction of her life. Franklin is living proof of what a good summer program can do.
As part of a panel discussion on “the power of local action,” Franklin made such a strong impression that we asked to speak with her one-one-one about her advocacy work.*
You became an activist in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. How did you come to focus your attention on youth programming like afterschool and summer programs? How is youth programming connected to social justice?
“What to do with Baltimore’s young people” is a hot topic in the city. Yet anytime there’s a deficit or money that needs to be shuffled around, youth programming is the first thing to go. We had an idea of what the community wanted because we’re from the community, but we still went out and listened to over 400 young people about what their main concerns were. They said they need more and better rec centers, more and better afterschool programs, year-round employment. A lot of young people are supplementing income for their families.
When The Wallace Foundation talks to decision-makers about afterschool and summer learning, we emphasize the need to close the opportunity and achievement gaps between children from low-income families and their wealthier peers. When you talk to civic leaders, what is the argument you make to persuade them?
It’s never about, “do these programs work?” Everyone knows they work. It’s about priorities. If you know who voted you in, that’s who you cater to. So, our organization quadrupled voter turnout in our neighborhoods, doing serious voter registration drives. We had to show we have adults behind us and they will be voting. Sometimes you wonder, “Maybe if we tell our personal stories, maybe if we do this, maybe if we do that…” It’s not about that. It’s a power analysis. We do the work to understand who we need to move.
What role do you think philanthropic institutions like Wallace have to play in the advocacy work you do? How can foundations be an ally to young people in cities like Baltimore?
In Baltimore, we let philanthropic dollars come in and take over the city’s responsibility to prioritize afterschool programs. A lot of philanthropic organizations do a great job, but they should focus on truly building capacity in the community, equipping the parents of the kids in their programs with the tools to say, “This foundation did so much for us, but it’s time for the city to step up.”
What does success look like to you? What is your vision for young people in your community and others like it? How do you measure progress along the way?
When we see people voting for the first time, we know we’re having small successes. But we also see a murder rate that keeps rising, so we know the impact we’re having isn’t on a great enough scale. I know we won’t save every young person in the city; it’s about the long term. I read a quote from the mayor of Baltimore in 1911 saying, “blacks should be confined in isolated slums,” and that’s exactly what happened. Creating systems that undo that injustice is how I measure success. You have to impact public policy because public policy is ultimately what controls our lives in Baltimore.
What advice would you give a young person who wants to make a difference in her community but doesn’t know where to start?
If there isn’t an organization to join in your city, you might have to start it. Get in a relationship with a few good people. There’s always someone around you who’s spoken about making change. That’s who you work with. Do that relational work. You’ve got to go door-to-door. It can be hard and a little scary, but that’s the slow and patient work of organizing.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.