Investment in Inner-City Teens Yields Communitywide Benefits
BOSTON — 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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
But as Boston budgets were tightened and the political winds shifted, his program simply faded, and Pollack resigned. Then, just as he revived the program in 1992 at one location in the South End, Jorge Ramos, a popular youth worker, was murdered there as a result of gang warfare.
"We hired 16 youths then, the highest risk group we've ever had, and many were angry friends of Ramos," says Steven Godfrey, a Teen Empowerment coordinator who grew up in the South End and became a staff member after the Ramos murder.
Using the Teen Empowerment methodology, the hired youths defined community problems and designed a strategy of change to stop gang hostility. Over a period of months, the group organized conflict resolution sessions, planned Teen Empowerment's first "Youth Peace Conference," and arranged the signing of a peace treaty among five gangs.
It also developed a network of contacts reaching deep into the community, enabling Teen Empowerment to squash rumors and defuse tempers. "People trust Teen Empowerment," says Lieut. Gary French, commander of the Boston Police Youth Violence Strike Force. "Time and again they have resolved volatile situations before things exploded." At least one murder was solved when Teen Empowerment persuaded eyewitnesses to step forward.
This year Teen Empowerment operates at two neighborhood sites in Boston, and two institutions - Madison Park Vocational High School and inside the J. Connelley juvenile facility of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. "In the future, we hope the schools and institutions will offer to fund the programs," Pollack says.
Sarah Repetto, the Teen Empowerment coordinator at Madison, learned from her teens that the No. 1 problem at the school was poor relationships between teachers and students, a common problem in inner cities. "Our goal was to help students and teachers see each other as people [and have] mutual respect," she says.
In the strategy that defines the program, the teens were trained across a spectrum of skills by Ms. Repetto and staff member Luis Santos, while they organized to meet their goals. The outcome was a series of separate workshops for students and teachers, followed by joint workshops that helped lessen intimidation on both sides.
They also planned and organized a student/teacher talent show that brought the school closer together with humor and spirit. "Sarah constantly reminded me that if you really want to involve students," says Diana Jones, dean of the Health Academy at Madison, "you don't make decisions for them; you involve them all the way."
Richard Fields, executive director of technical and vocational education for Boston Schools says communication at Madison improved because of Teen Empowerment. "Positive bonds have been created that weren't there before," he says, "and the student body organizations were greatly strengthened." He wants to continue with Teen Empowerment but can't promise ample funds to support it.
Pollack, ever the entrepreneur who believes in his program, says, "We can change schools, lower absenteeism, lower the rate of fights, increase the level of satisfaction for teachers and students. All this for about $110,000 a year. If your school budget is $3 million or $4 million, you can afford us, because we empower youth to be assets not liabilities."
Pollack copyrighted the Teen Empowerment curriculum to ensure that it is used with appropriate training and understanding at school sites or in neighborhoods. "In the past, when people would steal pieces of it and use it without training," he says, "they would say, hey, it doesn't work. You need at least two full-time trained staff, continuing training support, and you have to pay the youths."
Those who support Teen Empowerment see its success now as closely linked to Pollack, but if the model is to be replicated widely, they suggest he has to step back and focus on staff development.
"Stanley is one of the most talented entrepreneurs I've even seen," says Angel Bermudez, program director for The Boston Foundation, which contributed $50,000 to Teen Empowerment.
"He can be headstrong too, but his results speak for themselves, and he is willing to detach himself and shape a replication strategy that will allow his work to become institutionalized," he says. "The issue is how to import it without weakening his anchor project, and that takes resources."