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‘The Wire’ sparks a connection

Initiative uses cable series to inspire Boston’s at-risk teens

Sonja Sohn, who played a tough, morally grounded detective in the HBO series, is helping with the curriculum. Sonja Sohn, who played a tough, morally grounded detective in the HBO series, is helping with the curriculum. (David Lee/ HBO)
By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / October 29, 2009

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To the casual viewer, “The Wire’’ - the gritty HBO crime series set on the tough streets of Baltimore - might not seem like the kind of program that would inspire self-improvement.

It featured gun-toting drug dealers, heartless thugs who murdered anyone who got in their way, and hard-drinking, foul-mouthed police detectives who were often powerless to stop them. The storylines were typically bleak. The most beloved characters were usually doomed.

But some say its grim premise may be exactly what many of the city’s most troubled young people need to explore in order to change their lives for the better.

For almost a year, one of the show’s stars has been working with a Boston community activist to create a curriculum based on “The Wire’’. The program would gather a group of young people already involved in the criminal system or at risk of being drawn in, and for at least five hours a week for at least six weeks, show them episodes.

After each show, the participants, with the help of at least two facilitators, would receive worksheets listing questions designed to spark in-depth discussions about the parallels between the young viewers and the characters on the screen .

“We offer the opportunity for these young people to look at the show, to use the show to take a good hard look at their lives and make a change,’’ said Sonja Sohn, who played the role of Shakima Greggs, a tough-as-nails, morally grounded detective.

Since January, she has been working with James Dauphine, director of programs at the Ella J. Baker House, on the curriculum.

“We not only help facilitate the transformation,’’ Sohn said. “We also try to help them connect to the resources they need to actually make that transformation real.’’

This summer, she launched a pilot of the program in Baltimore. In the next few months, she and Dauphine plan to meet with a group of about 15 young people, between the ages of 14 and 19, who will gather at the Baker House in Dorchester.

The initiative, part of a program called “reWIRED for Life,’’ has many city officials excited.

Boston police, many of whom are hard-core fans of the show, have agreed to refer some of the troubled young people they meet on the street.

City officials are trying to determine how to implement the idea citywide.

J. Larry Mayes, the city’s chief of human relations, said officials would like to see the program take place in community centers, libraries, and possibly schools around Boston.

“ ‘The Wire’ is a cultural phenomenon that will cause a serious national conversation about violence and poverty in urban centers,’’ Mayes said.

“We’re not Baltimore . . . But I think it’s in our best interest to take lessons on what has gone wrong in Baltimore so we don’t have any duplications here.’’

“The Wire’’ never enjoyed huge ratings, but it won almost universal praise from critics and transfixed a diverse audience of intellectuals, police, middle- and upper-class viewers, and people living in some of the country’s poorest neighborhoods.

Criminals and gang members were known to be big fans of the show, which focused on the unforgiving nature of life in the city.

The series ended in 2008, but its raw, unflinching portrayal of how industry, city government, police, schools, and media can break down and ultimately fail the people they are supposed to help still captivates many.

Tonight, Harvard and Yale professors will lead a panel discussion in Cambridge about how the show can influence policy. Expected to be there are Sohn and two other actors from the show, Michael K. Williams, who played the charismatic stick-up man Omar, and Andre Royo, who portrayed “Bubbles,’’ a tragic, but compassionate and surprisingly resourceful heroin addict.

Dauphine said it seemed natural to use the show in the curriculum, given the strong similarities between characters on the show and the teenagers he has mentored on the streets.

“It was one of the most [realistic] visuals I’ve ever seen that represents the work I do on the street,’’ said Dauphine, a sturdily-built man with long dread locks.

“They actually got into the character of the personality of the street characters. . . . You get to hear what they think about how they live their lives, about how they got down to where they were at.’’

The Rev. Eugene Rivers, director of Baker House, who met Sohn at President Obama’s inauguration, introduced Dauphine to the actress, who had already founded “reWIRED For Change,’’ a nonprofit that includes other cast and crew from “The Wire’’ and is geared toward helping underserved communities.

In Baltimore, Sohn and two facilitators, both former criminal offenders, met with 11 teenagers and young adults in a classroom at the University of Maryland over several weeks last summer. By the program’s end, three participants had decided to return to school, two began pursuing their GEDs, and two others who had been in danger of dropping out stayed in school. Sohn said that summer program is the first component of a four-part initiative she is developing that would eventually reach broader aspects of the participants’ lives, including their interactions with their families and communities.

Dauphine tried to launch the curriculum during the summer but had to end it halfway through because of state budget constraints.

This time, he is hopeful he will be able to finish the program.

Over the summer, he began to sense changes, even in the first week, when the participants watched an episode featuring one drug dealer telling another not to mistreat an addict because it is poor customer relations.

Dauphine said that after the show, the participants discussed how it is foolish to chase away someone who is supplementing your income.

They did not say this because of some revelation about being kind to their fellow man or because of the evils of drug dealing, Dauphine said, but at least they launched a discussion about why it can be important to treat other people well.

“They start to develop their own moral compass,’’ Dauphine said. “They get to see what’s right and what’s wrong.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.