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Changing Lives One Episode at a Time

Students listen during a Rewired for Change event in Baltimore - Christine Langr
Students listen during a Rewired for Change event in Baltimore - Christine Langr

Just because HBO's hit series The Wire run has come to an end doesn't mean people aren't still watching the ground-breaking show. In fact, it isn't just the fans who are intrigued by the show's gritty depiction of certain aspects of life in Baltimore -- sociologists have even begun studying the crime drama.

At Harvard University, sociology students analyze the show to gain an understanding of the "systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the poor." In Baltimore, however, troubled teens live the reality that inspired the show and who could easily end up like characters depicted in the series, watch it as part of a program called reWIRED for Change, founded and supported by cast and crew of The Wire.

Seek and ye shall find

Actress Sonja Sohn has always known she wanted to help people. In fact, she believes that everyone is born with a purpose. For some, discovering their purpose takes time and for others achieving it is the challenge. Speaking to the students at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, Sohn, best known for her role as detective Kima Greggs on The Wire, encourages them to be "a seeker of purpose."

Although Sohn knew her purpose in life was to help people, her journey to that goal did not follow a straight path, she tells her rapt audience. Her life has truly been one of chaos and drama. But despite a painful home life she took positive steps to be happy. She was a good student, an athlete and even homecoming queen. She headed to college with the idea of becoming a child psychologist, but dropped out after a semester.

Refusing to give up, she tried her hand at college again. This time Sohn went to art school in New York, but withdrew when she realized that it would be difficult to have a career as an artist. Returning home to Newport News, Va. she became part of the negative elements in her neighborhood. It was then, she says, that she realized the influence she could have on others.

"I was always smart and popular. I was attracted to being 'the one,''' she tells the Cristo Rey students.

Her audience nods in agreement when as she continues, "Young people are most influenced by their friends. You know, when your friends say 'I'm down for whatever�I got your back,' you have to be careful of these people. No one should be down for whatever. This is what's killing our city."

Reflecting on her history, she encourages the students to find their "inner compass." 

"I was intelligent and had principals and values, but it didn't keep me on course," she explains.

Third tries the charm

At 27 Sohn says she turned her life around. She returned to college, this time as an English major and following her inner voice joined a poetry group. Friends encouraged her to become an actress and after resisting for a time she changed course again and enrolled in acting classes.

"I wanted to live a life with no regrets, she says.

It was through acting that Sohn became aware of what her life's purpose. And, it was while filming The Wire in Baltimore, that she realized her career as an actor could help her achieve that purpose -- to help others.

It was the Obama presidential campaign that brought everything together for Sohn. After the show wrapped, she and other cast members volunteered for the historic campaign. She saw the positive impact the cast had and became determined to use the popularity of the show to help at risk kids.

She enlisted her fellow cast mates and crew members, and founded the non-profit reWIRED for Change, an organization whose mission is to empower young people living in the most underserved communities across the country through education, media advocacy, and street-based intervention.

Reality TV

With the support of the entertainment community, Sohn developed the program format. Then, she found Greg Carpenter, a partner to help facilitate her efforts. He not only brings a male presence to the program, he has a criminal background and thus lends credibility to the idea of change.

"I've had involvement with at risk youth�being one myself," says Carpenter. "I made poor choices. I found my way into the criminal justice system, but I found my way out, and have been free from that for more than 15 years."

For six weeks last summer Sohn and Carpenter hosted the non-prof's pilot program, reWIRED for Life, designed to help prevent violence and teach life skills while also building self-esteem.  Together the kids and the facilitators watch episodes of The Wire and then analyze them.

"The show is a platform to talk about some of the challenges they face like peer pressure and life in inner city," says Carpenter. "It works well because The Wire is so true and it's home. When they're watching they say, 'Oh, I know where that place is at�.'"

During the group discussions about the episodes a lot of themes emerge and the kids have the chance to share their thoughts. "When you listen to kids and what they think, you can see some kids know there is a better way of life, says Carpenter.

"Others look around and see what's happening to their friends who are in jail or dead. It's interesting that this is all they know. The beauty of this (reWIRED) is that we can introduce them to other things," he continues.

But, it's not all TV and talk. Participants are encouraged to keep a journal and in this module, the first of four, to express themselves through poetry which they read to the group at the end of the session. Additionally, Carpenter works with the kids to develop personal mission statements and Sohn arranges for speakers, from all walks of life to address the young adults. 

Thus far, the unique format for the reWIRED for Life classes have proven effective. Based on the success of the pilot, a second session ran in the fall with participants referred by Yo! Baltimore (Youth Opportunity Baltimore) and the Department of Juvenile Services. Whether the program has a long and successful run changing the lives of its participants is a question even the savviest TV exec couldn't answer.

Season Two

Sohn, who is cautiously optimistic, feels the program is too new to talk about success stories. "We have certainly seen changes in attitude, approaches to life and decision-making," she says. "The young people are beginning to internalize some of the lessons that are being taught in the reWIRED for Life program. In some cases, it has led to them making better decisions. I have heard them speak about now being able to reflect on themselves and the affect they are having on their families and their communities."

"There will be four modules and so far, two classes have completed the first module. By this time next year we will be able to talk about changes," says Sohn, who has taken a year off from acting to launch the reWIRED effort.

She is currently refining the curriculum so that reWIRED for Life can be offered to existing programs with wraparound services such as Yo! Baltimore where many of the kids are working to earn their GED.

Carpenter agrees that the program will be successful. "The reWIRED program has a lot of potential because it's taken from real life and taken from a city that everybody can identify with. Everyone can identify with Baltimore City in some way or shape, so we'll just have to see how things unfold as we go down this road," he says.

"You try and give kids something to see and hold onto," Carpenter continues. "We hope the reWIRED program will help instill hope and confidence; and give them a purpose so they can continue to walk the streets of Baltimore and not be pressured by the things going on around them."

Sohn puts it this way, "They [the participants] all offer something. It's like different flavors of ice cream. They are all good. It really is going to depend on the future choices that they make. At this point I see a lot of promise. I want to see solid evidence and commitment to making healthy positive choices�to go against the grain and the lives that they have led thus far. Promise is one thing actuality is another. You've got to show me a lot before I go, 'alright.'"

Sohn, the cast and crew of The Wire, and people like Greg Carpenter are passionate about reWIRED for Change. It is their purpose.

"If you can help one child you've done a good job," says Carpenter. "That one can do so much, especially if he is a leader among his peers or if he has a strong presence in his or her family. They can make a difference. If you improve your own situation it affects others."

It's a lesson that both he and Sohn have learned to live.

Freelance writer Meredith Bower is a Baltimore native and mother of four. She and her family enjoy "city life" not just in Baltimore, but across the country and around the world. Comments? ideas of your own? Email Bmore.

Photos courtesy of:
Christine Langr and Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore
Greg Carpenter portrait, ReWired for Change 

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