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Investment in Inner-City Teens Yields Communitywide Benefits

By David HolmstromStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 24, 1996


Alan Jones leans forward, hands spread as if to show how it happened. "Teen Empowerment cracked me open," he says with a touch of wonder in his voice. "I used to be shy, too scared to give a speech, but now I have a lot of confidence."

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Nilda Amado echoes his sense of surprise. "I used to walk the halls [of high school] looking for fights," she says. "But Teen Empowerment opened my eyes, taught me how to take criticism and work on being better. People can't believe it's me now. If it wasn't for Teen Empowerment, I'd probably be selling drugs or locked up."

Ringing testimonials are familiar to Stanley Pollack, the executive director of Teen Empowerment in Boston. For the last four years he and his small staff have done trench work in the city's South End and other areas, changing the lives and raising the expectations of dozens of inner-city teenagers. The results reach farther than their own experiences.

Many have laid down their guns, abandoned drugs and gangs, avoided pregnancy, discovered their own worth, and then worked together to change their community, including reducing gang violence.

Against the backdrop of a society faced with rising youth violence, Teen Empowerment's bold intent - matched by its powerful impact on some of Boston's toughest neighborhoods - has earned it a reputation as an unusually successful model for helping at-risk young people.

"We have to stop looking at youth in the inner city as either just needy or the enemy," says Mr. Pollack, a youth worker for the last 25 years. "The best approach is to invest in youth as valuable, viable assets, as leaders that can make changes in the community," he says.

For Pollack, the key is making an investment in what a large portion of America perceives as an unreachable hard core of inner-city youths lost in a haze of drug-dealing gangs, violence, and early pregnancies. To him, no one is unreachable, be they teenage boys toting guns and sporting gold chains or girls who are high school dropouts all too familiar with shoplifting.

Using a complex, copyrighted methodology, Pollack and his staff have cut through inner-city stereotypes and hopelessness to uncover and harness the energy and intelligence of young people long encumbered by negativity.

Teen Empowerment addresses a central American problem: Many young people resort to destructive behavior if denied any "access to legitimate forms of power to meet basic needs and aspirations," Pollack says.

In Teen Empowerment, he says, "We get youths to internalize change, and therefore become the agent of their own change."

With this change comes a ripple effect, say Pollack and other community leaders, leading to a safer community. This in turn encourages new businesses, helps stabilize schools, and

reduces fear. In the South End, crime has been reduced over the last few years. The neighborhoods have been stabilized partly because of neighborhood associations and police efforts, but also because of the work of Teen Empowerment.

"There has been a marked drop in gang violence," says Joe Yonan, editor of the weekly South End News, "and Stanley's claims to have reduced this are born out by the facts."

Each youth, between 14 and 20 years old, is hired as a Youth Organizer under a Teen Empowerment contract paying $7 an hour for at least 10 hours a week during the school year, and 20 hours in summer. A unique interview process, combining exercises in a group setting as well as one-on-one, brings together teens from different neighborhoods and "risk" levels.

They progress through a series of interactive group sessions focusing on analyzing community issues. With staff guidance, the teens plan public events to address the issues. Through innovative workshops, playful exercises, and intense feedback sessions the youths learn communication skills, how to complete projects, and how to evaluate their choices and results.

Responsibility is continually placed in their hands. If they break the contract - anything from being late to meetings to using drugs - penalties result, such as fines or being fired. Everyone is treated equally. The Teen Empowerment approach is not janitorial. No cleaning trash from inner-city lots, or painting out graffiti.