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'This is my history and my city'

By Elizabeth LundStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 4, 2004

Elizabeth Miranda remembers how it felt to be a teenager living in one of Boston's toughest neighborhoods. She was tired of the poverty, the drugs, the violence. She wanted a better life for herself. She wanted out of the city.

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But for Ms. Miranda, now 23, getting out meant taking a detour across town.And she's not the only one. That's how more than 160 local high schoolers have learned to see another side of their city - and themselves.

What prompted this change of perspective?

They began to look at their hometown in a different way, thanks to MYTOWN (Multicultural Youth Tour of What's Now), which hires teens to give walking tours of the city's South End.

This is no typical employer, and these are no ordinary tours. Instead of telling groups about Paul Revere and his famous ride, the guides talk about A. Philip Randolph, the grandfather of the civil rights movement, who began his career as a labor organizer while on a trip here. They point out Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe, one of the few places to serve blacks and whites in the days of segregation. A young Sammy Davis Jr. used to dance in front of the shop for quarters. And they show people where Martin Luther King Jr. lived in 1952-53, when he was a graduate student at Boston University.

These are glimpses into the city's hidden history - the stories of blacks, Latinos, and other immigrants who have shaped life in Boston but seldom make it into the history books. Sharing these tales is a crucial part of MYTOWN'S mission, not just as a way to educate the public, but to teach the young tour guides that their predecessors' stories - and their own - matter.

That's a message that takes some minority teens by surprise.

"Many of the young people who come to MYTOWN say they don't like Boston," says Karilyn Crockett, who founded the organization eight years ago. They believe "the city doesn't have anything to offer them. They don't feel grounded in or connected to this place in any way."

Ms. Crockett's hope was that MYTOWN would give teens a sense of ownership and inspire them to work for change.

MYTOWN also provides second-year guides a chance to help develop the tour scripts by doing neighborhood surveys and interviewing residents and community leaders. Once oral histories have been collected, MYTOWN verifies the information by working with the Bostonian Society and using established historical research.

But long before the high schoolers start researching or giving tours, MYTOWN teaches them communication skills, critical thinking, work readiness, and "cultural competency" - tools they'll need to be orators and unofficial ambassadors.

One crucial early task is learning to understand one another's backgrounds and how to work as a team, coming as they do from 15 different schools.

During this training period, many guides learn to appreciate their own heritage for the first time.

Miranda, whose family emigrated from Cape Verde, remembers one session in which the high schoolers watched a video about New England's whaling industry and the important contributions made by Cape Verdean workers in the 19th century. "It answered so many questions for me," she says. "I went home and asked my family, and there began my love for history as a way to understand [what's happening]today."

For other students, a sense of connection comes later, after they've begun learning the tour routes.

Maria Guerroro says her light-bulb moment came when she learned about her first stop, the Martin Luther King Jr. residence.

"When you think of MLK," says Maria, "you think of the South, but he lived here on Mass. Ave."