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Investment in Inner-City Teens Yields Communitywide Benefits

(Page 2 of 3)

Teens are challenged to use their intelligence. They speak out, wrestle with assumptions, and plan all details of major events such as a teen-pregnancy conference, a citywide youth peace conference drawing 800 youths to a downtown hotel, or a "Vigil for Votes" campaign. At all events, the youths give short speeches on related topics before big audiences.

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Part of the methodology is to continually evaluate attitudes and behavior, often an exercise done for the first time by many of the teens. No hiding in sullenness or shyness is allowed, even though many youths are from unstable families.

"It's like joining a big family," says Nikki Jones, one of the Youth Organizers. "I used to be the kind of person you wouldn't want to talk to, because I had a real bad attitude, but I've learned how to be better, and how to be around others so I can help them."

Pollack says Teen Empowerment is replicable in any city, in schools and juvenile institutions. As a consultant he has adapted Teen Empowerment methodology to an AmeriCorps project in Houston and a youth project in Louisville, Ky.

In Boston, teachers, youth workers, and police who know Teen Empowerment use words like "profound" or "life changing" to describe it. Police credit the program with dispersing gangs in Boston's South End. This year, more than 80 percent of the organization's $500,000 budget was provided by 20 private foundations such as The Church Home Society, the Mabel Louise Riley Foundation, and the Charles Hayden Foundation.

"Part of the difficulty in raising funds is that we sometimes get pegged as simply a violence-prevention program," says Laura Miller, a coordinator for Teen Empowerment, "or that we are too expensive. We don't just pay youths $7 a hour to get them off the streets. We pay them to work to change the community."

Quantified results

While almost all teens in the program struggle at some point, only a small percentage of the total 124 youths that have been in the program so far have slipped into the juvenile justice system. Of the 58 young women in the program, four became teen mothers. Of the 21 youths who came to the program as school dropouts, 16 went back to high school and 9 of those graduated. More than 200 youths applied for 32 positions for this summer's program.

One high school teacher says, "Teen Empowerment is years ahead of other teen-training programs and ought to be taught to adults."

Pollack is in the enviable position of having almost no serious critics of Teen Empowerment's methodology or results. "It's certainly not for every kid," says Gerry Nuzzolo, neighborhood service coordinator of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative in Boston. "So many of these kids have never had a childhood, and Teen Empowerment asks them to be mature adolescents and leaders," he says. "Some kids can handle that, and most can't."

Seated in his sparse office in an old brick building on Rutland Street in the South End, an energetic Pollack traces the origins of Teen Empowerment back to a place called Ratti's. "It was my father's restaurant in Boonton, N.J." he says fondly. "People came together, the town drunks, a few blacks, all kinds of people."

At 12 years old, and wearing a white apron, Pollack sat and ate with this cultural Rolodex of people every day. "I learned a lot about human relations and political perspectives this way," he says.

Fast forward through college, and Pollack became drawn to youth work. For the next 25 years, as a street worker and later as program director for a youth agency in Somerville, Mass., he came to two conclusions: Cultural patterns are often stronger than individuals, and youth work must be done in a community context.

Second, Pollack asserts that young people might be the only ones who can solve some of the problems that hound inner cities. "Gang problems, sexuality problems, disrespect between young men and women, these problems are not accessible to adults," he says. "My view is that they have to be solved on a peer level."

In Somerville, Pollack slowly shaped the elements of his methodology.

In 1986 he worked for the city of Boston using an early form of the Teen Empowerment model in 10 locations. "I was mainly training other people to run the program," Pollack says. He also used the methodology as a consultant in training the staff of City Year, a highly visible youth program pairing inner-city and suburban youth on projects.