“Street-smart” Activists Use Street Wisdom to Turn Around Broken Lives and Broken Neighborhoods

January 2000 / Abell Reports / Community Development

“We believe you have to change the minds and the hearts of these people, that you have to empower them to enhance the quality of their own lives, and that you have to do it one human being at a time.

“We believe that to get people out of trouble you have to give them a sense of humility, so that they come to see for themselves that there is another way to go. We believe that if you treat troubled people as human beings, not just talking to them but listening to them, too, you bring out the human qualities in them.

“Then, then, they can handle criticism, and get on with the kind of free open exchange that leads to the building of a trusting relationship. Getting this trusting relationship is our goal—it’s the ticket out and up.

“They have to come to believe that you, the person or the organization looking to help, is really trying to help them, and not looking to make a reputation for themselves.”

This is Clayton Guyton, a 42-year-old African American, who works nights as a prison guard, stripping the vocabulary of a hundred years of the healing arts down to street-talk ideas on how to change a world. He carries no credentials as social worker, psychologist, or psychiatric counselor. No diplomas hang on the walls of his spare, bare, first floor office/classroom/store room at 831 Rose Street at Ashland Avenue on a forgotten corner of East Baltimore. But he, and his friends, Elroy Christopher (retired on disability from the BG&E), Vincent Richardson (retired from the Marine Corps), and Ms. Callie Brown, have taken it on themselves to treat street-bred problems with street-bred wisdom. Theirs is, by size and structure, barely an “organization”; they are the “organization,” three very concerned men and one very concerned woman, products of the untamed street culture they are fighting to tame (drug gangs have already burned them down once), and armed for their mission with only experience and saintly resolve.

The four of them live in the neighborhood of Ashland and Rose Street and watched in frustration and anger as the drug culture swept through the tiny streets like a poison cloud, snuffing out the lives of young men and young women, forcing them into dropping out of school, teenage pregnancy and parenting, crime—both petty and hard. But they refuse to accept what so many in impoverished, drug-infested neighborhoods seem resigned to—the slow, grinding deterioration of life and property. They declared all-out war; they wanted to stand and fight and turn lives around. But in a world where many sophisticated programs designed to deal with the city’s drug and drug-related crime problems already exist, what could three men and one woman with no background in programming human services, and little in resources, do?