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Q & A

Baltimore Teens Find a Path Away from Violence Through ‘Identity Projects’

A pair of sociologists explain how nurturing kids' passions — whether for anime, customizing cars, or raising pigeons — has the power to reduce illegal behaviors.

As a child in inner-city Baltimore, Vicky cared for an unlikely menagerie of pets, including a turtle and a baby alligator. Now, at 22, she has shifted her attention to a flock of pigeons that live in a coop she built with her father behind the family’s slender Section 8 brick rowhouse.

Vicky has experienced violent bouts of anger since she was young. Visiting the birds in her backyard calmed her down and offered her solitude in an overcrowded home.

“Sometimes [when] I don’t want to be bothered, I go out there and mess with my birds,” she said. “We train them to fly in the area and see if they come home.”

Vicky’s interest in raising pigeons, both as a hobby and as a means of escape, is an example of what sociologists Susan Clampet-Lundquist, Stephanie Deluca, and Kathryn Edin call an “identity project” in their new book, Coming of Age in the Other America.

“An identity project is something — a passion — that serves as a bridge between a difficult lived reality and an uncertain, but hopeful, future,” Clampet-Lundquist tells The Trace.

The book is the result of a decade-long exploration into the interior lives of Baltimore’s most vulnerable youth. The authors interviewed 150 young black men and women, including Vicky, with the goal of better understanding what helps children born into low-income families escape poverty. They learned that kids who found something that they were passionate about, like basketball, car customization, poetry, or dance, were more likely to avoid guns, drugs, and other illegal activity than people who grew up in similar circumstances but were not intensely attached to a hobby.

Their most revealing finding was that more than 90 percent of the young people in the study with a passion project avoided illegal activities, compared to just over 70 percent of those without a project.

The Trace spoke with Clampet-Lundquist and DeLuca about how identity projects can provide a buffer between low-income youth and their violent neighborhoods, about how gunfire shaped these young people’s experiences, and about how the solutions to keeping kids away from violence are closely connected to systemic crises in housing and education.

What do we know about how identity projects keep kids out of trouble?

Susan Clampet-Lundquist (SCL): Identity projects take many forms, from basketball, boxing, and football, to Japanese anime. The strongest identity projects connect kids to institutions that are supported by caring adults who help nurture those interests. We learned that youth who found a passion through one of these identity projects were able to distance themselves from neighborhood influences that threatened to bring them down. The projects helped to keep young people going and gave them dignity when they had little else to prop them up.

Shootings are a theme that seem to thread many of the youths’ stories together. What do you know about how gun violence factored into your respondents’ lives?

SCL: Gun violence was so frequent that it was normalized. I’m reminded of Crystal, a student we studied who didn’t have an identity project. She had one of the more disadvantaged backgrounds in our study, one filled with trauma. She came up through public housing, and she eventually moved out when she was 13, but not before she witnessed a really close friend of hers get shot and killed, soon after they had finished chatting on her porch. She sat with him as he lay dying while they waited for the ambulance.

Even before that point, Crystal had suffered from ADHD, and had a really difficult time in school. Her older brother was poisoned by lead paint, and her mom was using heroin when she was pregnant with Crystal. She had experienced other issues with guns and gun trafficking in the housing project where she grew up. There were shootings constantly. When she eventually moved away, to a less violent but still troubled area, she and her friend were robbed at gunpoint. When we asked Crystal’s mother if there was anything in her neighborhood that made her feel unsafe, she said, rather nonchalantly, “No. Other than the people getting killed and shooting, that’s about it.”

Stephanie DeLuca (SD): One of the surprises for me is that Crystal did graduate from high school and was working when we last saw her. And it speaks to the range of outcomes for the kids in our study. We didn’t get the sense that she would be one of the ones to make it.

You noted that sometimes drugs and street violence become identity projects of their own. What was true about instances where this was the case?

SCL: For a few youths, it really did seem like their time in the street gave them a sense of identity. For one of our students, Ron, street life was really a way for him to work out his masculinity. He had a tough time in school, and dealing drugs was one way for him to boost his self esteem.

But we found that gaining your identity on the streets brings with it so much more risk. So even when a youth wanted to turn away from it, like Ron eventually did once he had a son, they were not as likely to succeed as others who had less risky identity projects.

For middle-class adolescents, the stakes are not as high, you write. Their identity formation was about discovery, not survival. How did that idea emerge in your research?

SD: All young people are searching to find the right fit for themselves. That transcends class. We found that middle-class kids deal with a meandering adulthood, a luxury you can have when you plan to go to a college, when you know you have four more years to explore the world before you enter adulthood. But for the kids in our book, there is a sense that life is short. The life expectancy in a few of the neighborhoods we studied is almost 20 years shorter than those in middle-class white areas in the city. They feel more pressure to grow up. We call it expedited adulthood, or a pressure to launch because you don’t sense that you have the time to figure it out. Part of this is because there was just a lot of violence and drama our youths really wanted to get away from. And for them, the quickest way to do that is to get a job, or to enroll in an exploitative for-profit trade school or university, just so they could move out of their troubled neighborhoods.

What would you say to people who would read your book and say it affirms the idea that racial inequality is about culture, about broken family structures that don’t support the formation of identity projects?

SD: This is precisely the trite narrative that we hear in conservative circles and in public opinion based on narrow images portrayed in the media. It’s easy for people to fall prey to the sensationalizing narratives about culture and poverty, which aim to blame the victim. But it’s impossible to walk away from the data in this book and think culture can explain everything. Over 80 percent of our youth were either working or in school when we left them in 2010. That tells me, if anything, that their culture is everybody’s culture. That the culture of kids in inner-city Baltimore is American youth culture. They are aiming for and adhering to mainstream values. That’s the culture they were striving for. The real challenge is how do we help them get there.

Kids in our book hailed from some of the most dangerous neighborhoods. They spent some of their early years in the high-rise projects. In these places, poverty rates exceed 60 percent. Violence was rampant. Coming out of that as they approach adulthood, we saw this drive and determination to avoid street violence. It’s really striking. We don’t ignore that some portion of the kids in our study turned to the streets for a brief time. It’s not about not making mistakes. Everyone does. But the overall picture is that this is not about poor people lacking the will to make a better life for themselves.

If identity projects are prescriptive as a violence prevention measure, what recommendations would you give to ensure students have the right tools to identify a passion?

SD: I see part of the solution as a bigger issue around housing, neighborhood change, and giving families access to the same resources and housing affluent people have. But for short-term, we could start by reinstating the sort of programs that help students find and cultivate identity projects, like music and arts programming at schools. If we did that tomorrow, we know that would really help kids in Baltimore. If we leave things in place the way they are, we make it difficult for youth to leave areas with concentrated violence.

SCL: This is a long-term prescription, but students are getting poor quality education. Students really get the message from schools that they don’t matter. These feelings emerge when their extracurricular programs have been cut, when they have police dogs sniffing their lockers, when police mace students, when they have to deal with significant security measures just to get to class, and when schools are closing down. Students are not clueless. And so long as that message — that they don’t matter — is pervasive, some youth are going to think that there’s not much to live for. I think this perception kids have can fuel violence, too. Unless we get serious about providing quality education to these youths, we’re always going to have a huge amount of violence occurring.

[Photo: Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun/TNS via Getty Images]