Illustration: N’Deye Diakhate
“When I heard about the protests I was watching at home” says Ariel Mei, “I was just like, if we can get together for something like this, imagine what we could do if we were doing something positive.”
The 16 year old Baltimorean is chatting from a co-working space on Charles Street, recalling the events on the streets of Baltimore which received global attention last year. She’s grinning. “A lot of my friends weren’t allowed to go down but a few sneaked out and were telling us all about in school the next day.”
A year on, and Mei has been inspired to use the mobilisation of the city’s young people to literally, feed back into the community and today, she’s explaining how she wants to raise awareness about different local issues.
"You might just see us as kids but we see a lot here. And we’re doing a lot”
Her project is called Love Lunches, where she and other young people give out food (“made with love!”) to Baltimore’s local homeless communities. She travels around central and south Baltimore making friends, chatting and distributing packed lunches filled with anything from sandwiches and crisps to rice and peas.
“When I was growing up my mum always told me to think about how we treat people on our doorstep” she says. “A lot of the time, you don’t even realise the little things you can do to make someone’s day.”
For Mei, Love Lunches is about much more than simply providing a meal. She wants to be a role model for other people her age and to rewrite the narrative of ‘looters’ and ‘thugs’ that were thrown around in media coverage a year earlier. “After the riots and stuff people thought everyone here was just causing trouble” she says. “But there are so many cool people doing art projects and music, and fashion and I want to bring them together.”
With her work as a youth ambassador for the Coalition for the Transformation and Betterment of Baltimore (CTBB) she is trying to empower young local creatives to take the power back in B’more through art, protest and business.
“I have a lot of creative friends” she says. "They have blogs, and they do art projects, and I want to get more young people involved in Love Lunches so we can just see that we need to make changes. My mum is an activist and I want to follow in her footsteps. We can do whatever we want!”
Right now, Mei is focusing on one of the biggest things in her school - prom, and we’re discussing dresses, the trend of ‘promposals’ (where students ask would-be prom dates out in dramatically ostentatious ways) and where she wants to be in a year’s time. You get the sense that it’s here, through the work of real local teens that some of the most effective work will be done to improve Baltimore.
“Everything is happening in Baltimore!” she says. “Right now we have an election, then we’re doing a rally in remembrance of Freddie Gray, then I have prom, and then I have to think about lunches and new places to distribute them - you might just see us as kids but we see a lot here. And we’re doing a lot.”