How Roca Works with Young Men Most at Risk of Violence in Baltimore

Two Roca Baltimore participants smiling
By Farhana Hossain, Kyla Wasserman

Founded in 1988, Roca is a nonprofit organization that works to change the lives of young people who are involved in the justice system and are at high risk of participating in violence or being affected by it. Such young people include those with a history of arrests, incarceration, violent behavior, or gang involvement, and often a disconnection from education and work. The organization focuses specifically on reaching those who are not likely to connect with mainstream institutions or traditional programs, and engages them in cognitive behavioral therapy and an array of education, employment, and supportive services that seek to address the traumas and challenges that have shaped their lives.

Roca has been working with young people in communities across Massachusetts for more than 30 years. Building on that record, it launched its program in Baltimore in 2018 as a part of an initiative to curb high levels of violence in the city. In Massachusetts, Roca operates programs for young men and women, but the program in Baltimore currently focuses on the city’s young men. MDRC is partnering with Roca to study its Baltimore program. An introductory brief in July 2021 describes Roca Baltimore’s program model, the characteristics of its participants, and the characteristics of the local communities that shape its work.

Roca Baltimore: Participant Voices


“Some programs, some people they’d try once or twice [to engage me], and they’d give up. [The Roca staff] never gave up on me. They constantly kept coming… to all my hangout spots looking for me.”


“I feel I’m capable of doing a lot of things that I didn’t know I could do, as far as positive things…. I’m not in the streets no more.”


“[We need] more jobs, more businesses. Young people want something to do and not just stand outside. [We need to] make more people come to the neighborhood, and not stay away from the neighborhood because it’s [messed] up.”


“I feel like [Roca staff members] hear us out. They don’t be quick to judge. They get our opinion, more than they give their opinion. They just wanna hear us. I feel like that’s what we need.”

This report, second in the series of publications from the evaluation, presents findings from a small-scale, qualitative study designed to use participant cases and voices to create a more detailed picture of the young men Roca Baltimore serves and the ways the program works with them. Between March and May of 2022, the study team interviewed 10 young men at different stages of participation in the program about their experiences, seeking to better understand the program from their perspectives. More specifically, the goals of this qualitative study were to explore the young men’s pathways to Roca Baltimore, experiences with Roca’s offerings, and perceptions of changes arising from their participation.

  • Pathways to Roca Baltimore: the life experiences that have shaped young people’s trajectory to Roca, including factors related to their families and communities in Baltimore, experiences with traumatic events, and involvement with the criminal legal system
  • Experience with Roca’s offerings: how young people have experienced the relationships and services Roca offers, and what they value about their experience
  • Perception of change: how participants describe any changes in their behavior, outlook, and relationships that have arisen during their engagement with Roca

The study was not designed to produce broad, generally representative conclusions about Roca’s participants or program, but rather to understand the life paths of some participants in a deep and meaningful way, and to generate case studies that provide helpful insights into their program experiences.

Document Details

Publication Type
March 2023
Hossain, Farhana and Kyla Wasserman. 2023. How Roca Works with Young Men Most at Risk of Violence in Baltimore. New York: MDRC.