Takoma Park councilman teams up with former gang leader to help city’s youth
| By D’Ante Smith |
It’s a clear, dark fall night. The streets are quiet, with no signs of anything or anyone. The audible sounds of doors slamming from the street echoes this sentiment. This is not the typical Saturday night in Ward 4 of Takoma Park.
“The Alternative: Crime, Prison and Death,” the first event organized by LaunchpadMaryland, a music concert headlined by local talent, could be contributing to this quiet. With 10 to 15 youth in the audience, that’s 10 to 15 fewer who could potentially be on the street corners making noise, and possibly getting into trouble.
This is a victory in the eyes of the program’s creator, Councilman Terry Seamens, and producer, Jerry Cowan.
Launchpad is a non-profit organization created to address the problem of the youth loitering on the corner without anything to do, which often has a negative connotation, and give them the opportunity to do something positive for themselves.
“I hear a lot about the young people on the streets in our neighborhood. I see some of them getting in trouble,” Seamens said.
“Some drug activity, but a lot of the young people are out looking for a job.”
Takoma Park’s need for an Alternative
The problem is twofold: The youth often don’t have anywhere to go or anything productive to do. But the community often prejudges them and assumes they are criminals.
As a former gang leader from Takoma Park, Jerry Cowan, makes clear: “Everyone that is standing on the corner is not a thug.”
Cowan reiterated that if the youth feel there isn’t anywhere free and convenient for them to hang out, of course they are going to be on the corner, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing any wrong.
“This has been an ongoing issue for years,” said Diana Kohn, the president of Historic Takoma Inc.
Kohn recalls one of the successful ways the community kept kids off the corner was by keeping them in the same place they had been all day, school.
“The schools used to step in. You could stay after school and use the gym,” she said. “We had a wonderful youth mentor, Lee Jordan, who made sure you could play in the basketball gym. Sports are a great way to organize but it isn’t for everyone.”
Kohn, who attended Launchpad’s first performance, “The Alternative,”, is proud to see someone is actually doing something about this problem and not just talking about it.
“There are a lot of folks in town who talk about ways to they want to help at-risk kids, but there isn’t any organized mechanism for making decisions and going for money and it keeps getting swept under the rug,” she said.
Many area residents can’t fathom the idea of Takoma Park having a problem with youth on the corner because it is known to be an affluent, diverse community.
The community is diverse, as Takoma Park has a large minority population, but residents of all races say there is a noticeable divide between the races – two cities within one.
“The fact that we have a very diverse community, doesn’t mean we have a well integrated community,” said Seamens, who is white.
“I think in the case of African Americans, some of the problems are exacerbated by the lack of interaction between the two communities.”
And this is where Launchpad comes in, bridging the gap between the city’s minorities to its white population and the youth to its elders.
Cowan uses past experiences to reach youth
Cowan, who is black, says it’s easier for the minorities and youth in the community to talk to him when he is out promoting for the program’s events. It also helps that he has lived the life of a gangster, so his story of truth and redemption really rings home to its listeners.
“I was a leader in one of the largest gangs in the state of Maryland that runs the prison system,” he said. “So the same guys these guys trying to emulate and take after, I let them know that’s not the way to go.”
Niko Smith, a local teenager who attended a Launchpad meeting, appreciates their efforts to help the youth.
Smith, who is interested in music, says he’s outside on the corners because that’s the only place for free rehearsal. “Around here there aren’t a lot of opportunities,” he said.
Smith and his friends were immediately drawn to Cowan’s easy-going attitude. “His approach was very likeable, original so we were all drawn to that,” he said.
“He told us to come down here and we were all pretty excited to hear there was a guy interested in us.”
This powerful one-two combo of the business-savvy councilman and local former gangster packs a powerful punch. They believe that is just what Takoma Park needs.
Seamens has lived in Takoma Park since 1983 and knows that his experiences in the neighborhood are completely different from Cowan, making them that much more valuable.
“With Jerry (Cowan) actually suffering through some of the environment that some of the young people on the street share, it gives him a perspective that I could only dream about but I couldn’t really understand it,” Seamens said.
“Jerry brings a perspective that is needed for us to reach the young people. My perspective on problem solving and a business environment is something that is also needed for the project,” he said.
Launchpad will not only host performances and concerts to entertain the youth, but also sponsor job training and mentoring programs.
The next event will be a community forum bringing both teenagers and adults together to discuss the problems and the possible solutions for the neighborhood.
“In order for Launchpad to be successful, we need varying perspectives on the situation,” said Seamens.
Seamens and Cowan both expressed the importance of having both sides being able to speak and hear each the other out.
“The youth have to learn how to respect their elders and the elders have to learn to listen to the youth. It’s a compromise,” said Cowan.
This compromise may be a long way away, but Cowan and Seamens hope the forum will get the community started in the right direction.
Only time will tell how Launchpad will affect Takoma Park, but they have already taken the first step, and look poised to be running full stride very soon.