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Meet Jamal Jones, Youth for Healthy Schools Fellow, Leader in the #BaltimoreUprising


By: Nijmie Dzurinko; Cross-posted from Youth for Healthy Schools

Jamal Jones is a fellow with Youth for Healthy Schools, the Co-Executive Director of the Baltimore Algebra Project, and the tactical leader of Baltimore United for Change, the coalition that has emerged in the wake of the murder of Freddie Gray by Baltimore PD. Here is his story:

I just remember street lights. And cars passing by.

Growing up, I spent the majority of my time with my brothers, Antwain (Twan) and Gregg. We spent more time together as brothers than any other group of brothers I knew. We spent so much time together that people who didn’t know us that well would try to convince us that we weren’t brothers; as if anything they could say would wash the similarities in our genetics away. It was always that way. We were the three musketeers, or the three stooges, depends on who you asked. One thing everyone agreed on was that we were inseparable. If one rode, we all rode. That was the code. That was our bond.

As the years passed, we experienced life the same way other inner city youth did. We played basketball at the local court. I remember having arguments about people hanging from the nets – probably because we had to buy our own. We wanted to spend time with girls, of course, trying to be cautious of whose sister it may be and what time it was; the city curfew for youth warranted arrests after 10pm. Also, we hung out with our friends. It was important to have friends. You had to have people to watch your back and look out for you, especially when the brothers couldn’t do it for one another.

One day our friend, Lurlz (short for Larry) called us up and was like “hey, you guys have to get to the harbor.” Even though we were dirty from the rock fight (like a snowball fight, but with rocks) we had just had, we made our way down there. After about an hour and a half of bus riding, we made it to the restaurant they were in, only to see them all running out of it. So we did what anyone would do, we ran with them. Turns out they were skipping on the bill and the police were chasing. We got caught, but thankfully, the police let my brothers and I go after a “gracious” three-hour questioning. We headed home, but there were three new problems: 1) It was past curfew 2) You don’t walk around downtown Baltimore at midnight with just two other guys and 3) Our mom was not the one to play with and it was already two hours past when we were supposed to be in the house. We got jumped by 25 guys that night in the middle of weekend life. The altercation is blurry apart from the street lights and cars going by.

Once we got to the hospital and the police got there, they told us it was our fault. As this officer spoke to my brothers and I, and proceeded to tell us that we were lying and that we must’ve been a part of some gang initiation, that was “the moment”. The moment I realized how much I was not a child regardless of being 14 years old. The moment I realized that this was going to be my reality for as long as I did nothing about it. The moment we decided to find something to keep our heads on straight and stay a part of; something that meant something.

Then Gregg found us the Algebra Project. I joined the Baltimore Algebra Project (BAP) in January of 2008. I had to do something to keep my head down. I was a borderline “at-risk” youth. I was on the verge of being put out of my high school, which I loved, and a photo away from being sent to Toronto to live with my god-father. When faced with all of these areas of possible loss, I had to get myself together and joining BAP as a youth organizer was my way of doing that.

When I first joined I was really skeptical of this foreign space. I had never seen so many people in one place that wanted to be nice to me without me knowing them. They even fed me at the first meeting. Needless to say I stayed. Not just because of the food but because they were like me and were staying out of trouble. More importantly, they were talking about performing civil disobedience, and getting school funding back, and holding the Governor accountable. It was a completely different world than being in my classroom where my peers noticed the disgusting conditions in our school, but would only complain and laugh it off as a defense. These people made me feel like I had so much power; and it turned out that I did.

A few months after completing the organizing 101 training and the civil disobedience, I was encouraged to put one together and facilitate it for some new 9th graders. I agreed to do so and it was structured so that we were meeting Monday through Friday that week. I believe that it was that Wednesday when one of my trainees, Chardae, would not focus. I had to keep trying to get her to be central to the group, and she just couldn’t. Something was wrong; and so I asked. Chardae then let us all know that earlier that day she had eaten maggots that were living in the corn she got from her school lunch. I was irate for her. I immediately thought of all the days that my classmates and I sat and would complain about the school food amongst ourselves and then laugh it off. I kept thinking, “I could’ve done something about that”. Soon after I realized we could now. I realized she could, and as if a light switch was flipped I realized I could now.

The very next committee meeting we had, I brought Chardae and had her tell the tale of her trauma. We, as a committee, voted to take on school food as one of our main campaigns for the year under number eight of the national student bill of rights which states, “Students and youth shall have the right to healthy and high quality school food.”

And just like that, the “Quality Food Justice Campaign” was born. Over time, I became the committee chair. The campaign was multi-faceted and encompassed some competitive foods work along with work around salad bars and scratch cooking kitchens as student driven ways to create healthy school meals and have an impact on the larger culture in Baltimore City by introducing healthy food culture to students. To date, we have worked to establish nine salad bars in high schools, and stopping competitive foods in a local high school.

About the Algebra Project: The Baltimore Algebra Project is a democratic, student-run and organized program mainly focused on the one-on-one tutoring of math at the middle and high school levels. Our mission is to carve a community of leaders as well as exhibit leadership while remaining committed to the education of those in need of advancements in their socioeconomic status.