Andre Ware interned with Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation in Boston.
Every major news network in Boston was present. Over 100 young adults were chanting, and the police presence was pronounced. I found myself in the midst of organized chaos. What added to my confusion was the spreading rumor that my supervisor, Seth Woody, who I heard was participating in a sit-in, had been arrested. This had all occurred within my first couple of hours working for Dorchester Bay Youth Force.
Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation (DBEDC) is located in the Uphams Corner section of Dorchester Bay, Boston. The liveliness in the streets of Uphams Corner at all hours of the day, combined with a very diverse population created a vibe that honestly felt similar to my home-borough of Brooklyn. I arrived at DBEDC early on my first day with the belief that it would be slow-paced, filled with learning the ins and outs of Youth Force. I was mistaken. Not too long after my arrival I received a call from Seth telling me to meet him downtown later in the day at the “sit-in,” and that two students would meet me in the Youth Force room to help guide me there. I was given an address, and he hung up the phone. After a quick tour of Uphams Corner, and being greeted by staff members, I made my way back inside DBEDC and into the Youth Force room, and for the next two months this would be a location for education, dedication, and perseverance. I was greeted by Angela, and Devens, both high school students and veterans to the organization. I immediately got along with Devens; his calm demeanor reminded me of myself as a high school student. Angela is a natural leader, and as a recent high school graduate, she was beginning her first year at Northeastern University, one of the most competitive universities in the United States.
Devens, Angela, and I, made our way to 10 Park Plaza. “Do you know where we’re going?” I asked.
“Yeah. I think the State Building,” Angela responded.
On this sunny and humid day, we made our way across the green Boston Commons towards the Boston State House. We went inside and searched for Seth. Scrambling to find him, we made every possible turn in the building and came up empty-handed. As we came to the conclusion that the “sit-in” wasn’t in the State House, we turned and bumped shoulders with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.
“Hey Governor, Patrick,” Devens stated
“Hey guys, how are you doing?” Governor Patrick responded.
I was in awe. I didn’t think my day could get any more exciting. (As a political science major, I treat politicians as celebrities). We scrambled around the downtown area looking for the correct address, and soon heard chanting in the distance. Dozens of young men and women were chanting outside the Massachusetts Department of Transportation building; I later learned that they were protesting in favor of a $10-a-month MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) youth pass. Unlike New York City, where a solid portion of middle school and a majority of high school students don’t have to pay for public transportation to and from school, Boston school students pay $26-a-month. Seth, and 20 other young adults were arrested and charged with trespassing for conducting a sit-in outside the Transportation Secretary’s office. This moment epitomized the tense but constructive relationship between the Youth Force and government.
I worked with 17 highly-intelligent and curious high school students. Each student, ranging from ages 14 to 18, were paid though a government source, that is, the Massachusetts summer youth jobs budget, as well as funding from private donors. Youth Force was sort of an ironic twist for summer programs; we essentially protested government policies ranging from mass incarceration to gentrification – and voiced our opinion on issues in Boston pertaining to race – yet the state government was the one funding the program. Youth Force students in the past have been fortunate enough to brush shoulders with some of the biggest names in politics in an effort to promote the benefits of youth summer jobs. Prior to the election of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Youth Force members made him pledge that if he were to become governor, that he’d increase the youth employment budget. He delivered on that promise. In 2008, the summer youth employment budget in Massachusetts was proposed to be cut down to $12 million. Today, thanks to courageous youth activists from Youth Force and other community organizations, the youth employment budget is $31 million.
The hard work these students showcase isn’t a reflection of their neighborhoods. A majority live in pretty rough communities. Being exposed to drugs and violence, combined with lack of adequate educational resources has always been a plague in minority communities. In a world so different from mine, these teens overcome obstacles I cannot imagine facing. One of my students, Devens, witnessed his brother being shot a couple of days before the official start of the summer program (his brother passed away during my last week in Boston). During one of our last conversations, I vividly remember him looking at me and saying: “I know the consequences of retaliation. And I don’t want to fight back. But if I don’t, imagine how will I look to the entire neighborhood? … Like I don’t got my brothers back.” What could I say to him? Suddenly, the problems in my life became miniscule. In a world filled with violence, and what I’d consider atypical dilemmas end up becoming an almost casual reality. My task was to educate these students on the political system around them, and how the oppression and dysfunction they often see in their neighborhoods could be diminished by community activism. From the people we saw standing on the street corner to the immigrant population, we sought to change the circumstances in these neighborhoods.
My students had saying: “everyone wants to see ‘the youth’ working to better the community, but they shrug us off when we approach them with solutions.” On Wednesdays and Fridays, the students would fan out into primarily African-American neighborhoods and register potential voters, as well as ask current voters to promise to vote in the upcoming election. We were sometimes faced with animosity by those who thought we were wasting time and taxpayer money, but I give credit to the resilient teens with whom I worked. The rest of the week consisted of educating the students on topics pertaining to their lives such as gentrification and mass incarceration.
At times we forget that we live in a democracy. Although the democracy is flawed, community activism directly leads to results. The preparation and dedication my students displayed was a product of their jobs and willingness to improve the conditions with which they had grown familiar. Many of them were first time employees, and it’s also important to understand that many of them wouldn’t have had the opportunity for employment during the summer if it wasn’t for their Youth Force predecessors. These teens would be spending their days on the streets of Boston, being labeled irresponsible and lazy youth, wasting away their summer. Instead, these students are being paid (which is an added incentive) to dictate how their community is being shaped. Our government and private funders were practically our target audience – those in power, and those with affluence. My students were, by registering people to vote for leaders who would create societal change educating others on problems that need to be addressed, actively changing the perception that teens are passive. This approach to relieving poverty based on issues dealing with teens is effective. Youth Force molds students into experienced workers, takes teens off the streets, as well as educating and fight for community improvements. While some may look at it as the government is paying teens to criticize them, I look at it as an investment in the future. There’s now a group of teenagers who has meaningful job experience, as well as a unique education on poverty-related issues. Furthermore, in the short term, these teens are no longer roaming the streets during the summer days, which decreases crime.
Youth Force cultivates teenagers into community activists. I witnessed a transformation in all of my students, from untapped minds to eager activists. Youth Force did much more than educate and provide a sanctuary for teens; it encouraged engagement and results, benefiting from the government and non-government connections DBEDC possess. There is a true connection between voter turnout and government action. I study the effects of government policies as a political science major, but being on the ground, and witnessing why people are living in certain conditions, I see the direct correlation between government action and holding elected officials accountable by methods of community activism. A safer and better world begins with the millennial generation. I’m proud to be a part of it.