“Gun shots make everybody deaf and blind,” writes Jason Reynolds in his book, “Long Way Down.”
It’s been more than a month, and we still do not know who committed what has been called the largest mass shooting in Baltimore history, at Brooklyn Homes. In “Long Way Down,” Reynolds suggests that neighbors avoid telling the police what they witness, fearing that they might become the next gun violence victim from a potential revenge shooting.
The shooting at Brooklyn Homes took place during its largest annual celebration, but police, housing officials and violence interrupters had no adequate security plan in place. No one secured the scene for evidence before it was cleaned up.
What has happened since the shooting reminds me of a set of behaviors known as “learned helplessness.” It occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. People come to believe that no matter what they do, nothing will change. So they stop trying to bring about change — even when opportunities for it happen, according to a Medical News Today article.
I began recognizing learned helplessness while working for Roca, the nonprofit organization that seeks to reduce gun violence and address mass incarceration. It’s an incredible organization with capable people leading historic changes in Baltimore communities of great need. But as a Roca digital specialist intern in the summer of 2021, I saw a learned helplessness that was pervasive — in the the streets and in local government.
It sometimes even manifested itself in our work at Roca. In my role, I noticed the resistance among some staffers to learn or use computer skills. I was determined to help them push past that. I emphasized how learning those skills could allow more of the staffers to work independently.
As the first Asian-American employee at Roca, a majority Black organization, I knew learning about the staffers and the community they were serving was crucial. Part of the familiarity I gained during my short time there came from realizing that I was no stranger to the learned helplessness I witnessed. While growing up, I saw it in those around me, and I eventually realized its origins.
My parents grew up in a society where education was so overvalued that they were completely ignored just because they didn’t go to college. They also grew up in a China that was post-civil-war and post-largest-manmade-famine. They were then in post-WWII Taiwan. I tell people that my dad lost everything twice: once when his family fled from China to Taiwan and again when he emigrated to America.
I’ve seen many cases of, and heard many stories about, attitudes of learned helplessness being passed on for generations, even when conditions changed. Believing in a better tomorrow just wasn’t imaginable for too many people.
My experiences have provided me with a different outlook. I received a research opportunity through my community college, then got to attend Johns Hopkins University on a full scholarship. One day, a computer science classmate at Johns Hopkins told me about a low-cost but life-changing online app-building course that also taught me how to Google my computer problems.
Everything I learned from these experiences mattered when I taught my mom how to do her community college homework or find a new job, or when I taught my dad how to read and fill out Medicaid forms. All these experiences made me capable of enabling independent technology troubleshooting at Roca. I could believe in people because someone else believed in me. They gave me financial and intellectual support, even though they didn’t know exactly how things would turn out for me if they intervened.
But many people in Baltimore live a different reality, one in which even people in power believe that no matter what they do, things won’t change. They speak and behave as though they can’t imagine exactly how the conditions that lead to violent crime could be solved in the long term. Whatever hope they had that led them to run for office faded away. They seem to have learned helplessness too: It’s all over Baltimore.
Gun violence in America is nothing new. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold those in power accountable. We should keep saying that we don’t need more people to die for our sins. Freddy Gray, Aaliyah Gonzalez, Kylis Fagbemi and countless more shouldn’t have died for authorities to acknowledge how bad things are.
For the mentality in Baltimore to change, we have to enable people to see a way out. We must find the people who can have a foot in both Baltimore and somewhere else, a foot in both the present and the future, no matter how hard it gets. We have to empower people to imagine what is possible, provide resources to witness the special moments of what can change and then have eyes everywhere to spot these visionaries no matter where they come from.
When things finally work, despite everyone saying that they wouldn’t before, I’m going to tell everyone that things changed. I saw a way out. Do you? You saw a way out. Do we? I’m going to make sure everybody knows, and I’m going to make a big deal about it. Maybe then, they’ll finally believe again. Maybe then, they’ll finally start to look for the clues and evidence for a more beautiful truth, instead of just quitting and clearing away evidence of the problems before working to solve them.
Keidaï Lee founded “Color of My Voice,” an animation studio startup and diversity training organization. He was a digital specialist intern for Roca Baltimore in the summer of 2021 and is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and of Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York.