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Juneteenth Speaker Series: Roca Baltimore

Roca founder and CEO Molly Baldwin, along with her colleagues Kurt Palermo and Jamal West of Roca Baltimore, joined the Middle School and Upper School assemblies on Friday, February 11. Baldwin, whose 90-year-old father attended Gilman, started the organization in 1988 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a community that was predominantly Latinx at the time. The word “roca” means rock in Spanish; Baldwin said that they wanted to use a name that sounded strong.

Roca’s mission is to disrupt the cycle of poverty and incarceration by helping young people transform their lives. On the organization’s website, they state their strategy for doing so: “find the young people who are in the throes of violence, the ones who are not ready for change yet.”

West, the director of outreach at Roca Baltimore, shared how he was incarcerated for seven years, got his life on a better path, and wants to help others do the same. He described how he and his team go about connecting with young men ages 16 to 24 who are at the highest risk of being involved with gun violence. He refers to it as “relentless outreach” because oftentimes it takes 60, 70, or even 100 times of knocking on someone’s door before a young man becomes open to the support Roca offers. He said their trust level is so low at first, but then, eventually, these men become like family to him.

At the heart of Roca’s program is brain science and cognitive behavioral theory (CBT). Palermo, vice president of Roca Maryland, explained how the men who Roca serves have all been traumatized, which means they experience fear that never turns off. As a result, they live in constant survival mode. “They genuinely think everyone and everything is out to get them, and because of that, they react,” Palermo said. When people are in survival mode, they have three options: fight, flight, or freeze. These young men typically choose fight, and sometimes they have a weapon. The consequences can be life-changing, or even life-ending.

Palermo used an example to which Gilman boys could relate. “How many of you like going to school? Raise your hand. Keep your hand up if you value your education.” All hands in the auditorium went up. “Keep your hand up if you’ve ever not wanted to do your homework.” With some hesitation, most hands stayed up. Palermo connected for them how they can value their education and yet, not want to do homework, a behavior that is in conflict with that value. The young men who are at the highest risk for gun violence say that they value their lives, their children, and their freedom, but sometimes, their behaviors are out of line with those values because they don’t know how to be intentional with their actions.

With CBT, they learn how to take a pause when they have uncomfortable thoughts and feelings before acting on them. These skills can be life-saving for them. Once a young man is engaged in the program, Roca works with him intensively for two to four years to learn new behaviors, get necessary resources for mental health and education, and sets him up with transitional employment. In their new jobs, they begin to have opportunities to practice the CBT skills they are learning, like pausing when frustrated instead of lashing out at a coworker or supervisor.

“It’s not a job,” West told the Upper School students. “It’s a lifestyle.”

Watch a short video from Roca, followed by the Middle School assembly with the Roca visitors.

Learn more about Roca Baltimore.

Juneteenth Speaker Series: Roca Baltimore



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