DeJuan Patterson attended Generation Progress’ criminal justice roundtable in Baltimore, Maryland this past fall. This piece is part of a series of profiles on young leaders moving the needle on criminal justice reform, accompanying a series of columns highlighting the recommendations produced by those conversations. To read the column on recommendations from Baltimore’s roundtable, click here.
As an activist with ties to Capitol Hill lobbying as well as grassroots mobilization, DeJuan Patterson traces the road of his advocacy work back to his roots growing up in Baltimore.
“Ten years ago, going into my senior year of high school, I was robbed and suffered a gunshot wound to the head,” Patterson says. “Surviving that—it put me on a path to wanting to understand why…I wanted to bring about solutions for people in front of the gun, and behind the gun as well.”
As a “highly-segregated” city, Baltimore has continuously grappled with issues of social justice and reform, according to Patterson, and the systemic issues start early for kids growing up in the city.
While he was a student at Bowie State University, Patterson started studying social psychology and youth development. In his second year, Patterson started his first youth outreach program, and in doing so started to see over and over again the factors and the patterns leading and triggering youth violence and aggression.
“It was a deeper issue as opposed to one quick-fix,” Patterson says. “It had to be dealt with on a political level…I learned that personally, that for myself, that if I wanted to be a greater change agent, it needed to be done from going from a more localized and grassroots level.”
Patterson went on after his undergraduate career to get a Masters in Public Policy, focusing in particular on education and social justice.
“We are over-criminalizing the youth inside Baltimore,” Patterson says. “And that compels and reinforces other people to treat the youth as criminals. Instinctively. Before they even conduct the act.”
So far, Patterson’s group, the BMore Family Group, has hosted events to build community through dinners, voter registration drives, toy drives and art exhibits, with a special focus on youth development. Going forward, Patterson hopes to facilitate even more educative programs that encourage youth to start being involved in civic engagement processes and working to change the system early.
“Some of the challenges that come into play when you go grassroots organizing…is reaching the people and gaining access to community spaces, that are supposed to be public spaces for community purposes,” Patterson says.
In looking to bring more education programs and resources to public housing neighborhoods, administered by the Department of Public Housing, Patterson has been trying to gain access to the community centers in public housing areas for those types of events.
“We are doing all the work ourselves to get the message out and get the resources,” Patterson says.
However, the Baltimore city government and administration has not been cooperative, making Patterson and other like-minded individuals jump through hoops. A lack of media coverage doesn’t help.
“We’re facing the red tape, the politics, the people trying to shut you out, the people not really doing their jobs…We get no support from these public entities that are supposed to support you,” Patterson says. “[People] are trying to keep the system as it always is.”
But when Freddie Gray died in police custody in April of 2015, existing severe flaws in the city’s system that fail its residents were highlighted in the ensuing protests on the national stage, triggering more of a momentum of change than before.
“It was inspiring and very heartfelt to see the grassroots organizations together [after the Freddie Gray incident],” Patterson says, citing that many of those nonprofits involved have been working on social justice issues since long before Gray’s death. “The Freddie Gray incident brought us together and let you see who all the people who have actually been going to work.”
For Patterson, the renewed camaraderie and strengthening of relationships among the like-minded coalitions in Baltimore is essential to channeling change.
“I feel like it’s my duty, my purpose here to educate and inspire people,” Patterson says. “Change comes with numbers.”
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