A Baltimore teen’s death inspires three loved ones to combat youth violence in different ways: ‘It’s our medicine’

A Baltimore teen’s death inspires three loved ones to combat youth violence in different ways: ‘It’s our medicine’

Even as a small, skinny child, Dakarai Baldwin was brave.

A funny and bright student, Dakarai talked easily to girls and adults. He carried himself with confidence and never shied away from a challenge, loved ones say.

Marquise Williams, his best friend, said Dakarai, nicknamed “Bonk,” rarely expressed vulnerability. Until the 17-year-old believed he was going to die.

He died in a triple shooting in May 2022, one of 20 minors aged 17 and under who were killed in Baltimore last year.

Some of the people closest to Dakarai — his mother, his best friend and that friend’s father — tried to intervene in the life the teenager chose. In his absence, they question what more they could have done and have begun taking steps they hope will save the next youth violence victim.

The loss moved Ebony McClenny, Dakarai’s mother, to start a nonprofit to educate young people who live in stressful environments about mental health and coping strategies. Williams now teaches at-risk kids how to express themselves through art. His father, Terry Williams, an established youth mentor known in the community as “Uncle T,” mentors between 25 and 60 children and young adults at risk for committing acts of violence through his nonprofit, Challenge 2 Change.

Dakarai’s privately growing fear reached its pinnacle in May 2022, when he video called Marquise, red-faced and crying, and said he was in trouble.

Loyalty ran deep for Dakarai, who would fiercely defend his friends, even those who put him in dangerous situations. Dakarai had gotten involved in another friend’s drama, Marquise said, and felt a target on his back.

Dakarai Baldwin, left, with his mother Ebony McClenny,
Dakarai Baldwin, left, with his mother Ebony McClenny,

Marquise also began crying and reminded Dakarai that he had his whole life ahead of him.

“‘It’s never too late, bro. You’re only 17 years old,’’ Marquise, now 20, recalled saying. “You think your life is over at 17? This is crazy.”

After venting for two hours, Dakarai calmed down. They joked about Instagram posts and laughed at funny videos.

The next night, Dakarai was shot multiple times just off Baltimore’s North Avenue. The shots erupted just after midnight, also killing a 39-year-old man and injuring a 38-year-old man.

Dakarai died in the hospital a day before his 18th birthday. The double homicide investigation remains open.

There have been more young homicide and shooting victims in Baltimore this year than any other in the past decade — despite Baltimore’s overall homicide rate falling to an eight-year low, according to a Baltimore Sun data analysis. Ninety minors have been shot; 15 have been killed.

That means a record number of families, classmates and friends have been traumatized by this year’s violence, which sometimes occurred on school grounds.

Six months after Dakarai’s death, McClenny started a nonprofit called Surviving Our Neighborhoods. Her mission is to help at-risk youth cope with traumatic experiences and guide them to make positive life decisions.

She speaks with kids at recreation centers and summer camps about identifying trauma and using tools to address it. McClenny, 38, also partners with other nonprofits to educate kids about financial literacy and how to resolve conflicts. She volunteers her time while working to secure grant funds.

For McClenny, protecting any number of children, even just one, is enough, she said.

“I know we can’t save them all,” McClenny said. “Grabbing up the few we can and keeping them on the right path is really what I strive to do.”

A hunger to save the next child

Terry Williams, 61, knows the pain of losing a child and the urgency to save others that follows.

The 2013 shooting death of his oldest son, Terry Williams Jr., moved him to preach on drug corners with a bullhorn, begging young people to make different choices. The anguish fueled his energy to create his youth mentoring after-school program and summer camp.

Spending significant time with Baltimore’s children, showing them love and protection, is the path to changing the city’s murder rate, he said

“For me and, I believe, just like with Ebony, it’s our medicine,” Williams said. “It’s a hunger that we have developed to save the next child.”

Williams became a father figure to Dakarai, whose father was incarcerated on a 20-year sentence when Dakarai was 4 months old. Still, Dakarai yearned for his dad.

In his last phone call with his best friend, Dakarai told Marquise Williams: “I’m lost, and I want my father.”

As the boys grew up in Middle River, Terry Williams tried to keep Dakarai out of trouble, chasing him off dangerous blocks in Baltimore. But with so many kids in his youth program to watch over, Dakarai could slip out of Williams’ sight.

“When you look back on Dakarai, he was always rambunctious. He wanted that attention. He craved for it,” Terry Williams said. “And sometimes when you crave stuff like that, you run into the wrong people that will really feed that.”

Dakarai started carrying a gun during his sophomore year at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in East Baltimore.

Marquise, who went to high school at Baltimore School of the Arts, said he was shocked to learn his friend was involved in a violent lifestyle. When Marquise first asked Dakarai about it, the teen laughed off the question.

Terry Williams, a youth mentor and family friend, poses with Dakarai Baldwin, right.
Terry Williams, a youth mentor and family friend, poses with Dakarai Baldwin, right.

“That’s when my heart dropped,” Marquise said. “Right then and there, I started putting it in my head like, ‘Dang, if this is what he’s into, I could lose this kid any day now.’”

Guns are easily accessible, Marquise said, and repeated exposure to gunshots and attendance at friends’ funerals makes the risk of carrying one clear.

Marquise and Terry tried to spend more time with Dakarai. Maybe if they could keep him away from potential violent conflicts, he wouldn’t need to settle them with a gun.

“What am I doing wrong?”

Four months before Dakarai died, he asked Terry and Marquise to go with him to get new car tires. Before they left the house, Terry joked that Dakarai had better not have a gun.

When Dakarai acted nervous, Terry grabbed Dakarai’s leg and told his son to take the other.

“We flipped Bonk upside down, and the gun fell straight out his pants,” Marquise said, laughing at the memory. “Bonk just started dying laughing.”

But Terry’s disappointment at the sight of the gun deflated the moment. He confiscated the gun.

Dakarai said he needed the gun for protection, that he couldn’t go anywhere without it.

“Protection from what?” McClenny recalled asking Dakarai when he told her the same. “What are you afraid of?”

McClenny, a real estate agent who grew up in poverty without a father and whose mother struggled with addiction, did everything she could to give her two sons a better childhood than she had in West Baltimore’s now-demolished Murphy Homes. She moved her family to Baltimore County when Dakarai was a toddler.

Dakarai grew up dancing in a church group. He received lavish Christmas gifts, went on annual vacations and attended sports and summer camps.

Still, Dakarai focused less on sports and school. He started selling drugs, despite having a job at Amazon and financial support from his mother. He was arrested twice on firearm and drug possession, spending a total of six months in a juvenile detention center and on home detention.

McClenny couldn’t understand the shift in her son’s personality. His bravery turned into arrogance. Feeling hopeless after two years of fighting, McClenny kicked Dakarai out of her house.

“It’s heartbreaking to see so much potential go to waste,” McClenny said.

But Dakarai’s top grades in middle and high school made him eligible for graduation a year early while he was incarcerated. McClenny has no high school memories of her oldest child, who started at Mervo during the coronavirus pandemic.

“You start to beat yourself up as a parent. You start to feel guilty, like, ‘What am I doing wrong?’” McClenny said. “It was a point where we were arguing and my son literally told me, ‘You raised me right. I chose to do wrong.’”

In his absence, she is left with the persistent, maddening question: Why?

Initiatives and outlets

McClenny still listens for the sounds of Dakarai coming home at night, followed by the thud of the fridge door or the hum of a microwave. Imagining that he is still incarcerated makes the silence bearable.

“I feel like he’s locked up; he’s going to call home one day,” McClenny said. “And then the reality snaps back.”

Dec. 5, 2023: Ebony McClenny started a nonprofit called Surviving Our Neighborhoods (S.O.N.) after her 17-year-old son, Dakarai Baldwin, was fatally wounded in a triple shooting last year. She visits the 1900 block of North Collington Avenue where the shooting occurred. (Kim Hairston/Staff photo)
Dec. 5, 2023: Ebony McClenny started a nonprofit called Surviving Our Neighborhoods (S.O.N.) after her 17-year-old son, Dakarai Baldwin, was fatally wounded in a triple shooting last year. She visits the 1900 block of North Collington Avenue where the shooting occurred. (Kim Hairston/Staff photo)

McClenny’s days are consumed by her job; schoolwork for a bachelor’s degree in business; raising her 14-year-old son, Raymond; and educating herself on trauma-informed care. She earns certificates and attends victim advocate trainings that inform her youth workshop.

By keeping busy and helping her community heal, McClenny processes her own grief.

At a recent workshop at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, McClenny stood before a group of teen girls, no older than her son, and asked how many people have been involved in or witnessed a traumatic event.

Ten hands slowly raised.

“If you don’t understand the traumatizing experiences you have, then you don’t know how to really address them,” McClenny told the group on an October morning.

They discussed strategies to respond to depression and anxiety, who to ask for help and the benefits of therapy. McClenny’s also teaches about how to save and manage money, lessons geared toward helping youth navigate living below the poverty line.

Access to mental health services is a major challenge, said Kyla Liggett-Creel, executive director of Embrace Community Engagement at UMB and a licensed clinical social worker. Community members can be the best group to create communal spaces that reach kids in their neighborhoods.

“That’s a real strength in Baltimore; there are a lot of nonprofits and grassroots [groups] who are out there every day that young people can go to for support,” Liggett-Creel said.

Yet local nonprofits often struggle to secure funding. Liggett-Creel’s Embrace initiative partners with grassroots organizations and helps find funding for their intervention work.

It’s also important for young people to have opportunities to pursue their passions, Liggett-Creel said, and use them to express their feelings through outlets like paintings and poetry readings.

Marquise, a former art student, found purpose through a camera lens after Dakarai’s death.

He was a freshman at the Savannah College of Art and Design when Dakarai was shot. After he died, Marquise failed his final exams, lost his scholarship and dropped out.

Now, he teaches at-risk kids how to make short films and videos. He also designs clothing with gun prevention slogans and recently traveled to Atlanta to speak at Everytown for Gun Safety’s national youth summit on gun violence.

“I have kids coming to me telling me they want to kill something, they want to rob something,” Williams said. “And I just be like, ‘Bro, let’s go shoot something, but with this camera, not no gun.”

Kids are carrying guns every day, Williams said, making the need for action immediate.

“There’s a lot of little Bonks out there,” he added.

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