'This is my history and my city'

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.

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."

That fact is important to MYTOWN teens because they see the results of his actions every day. In 1965, King led 22,000 marchers who were protesting the state of the city's schools. The march led to the passing of the Racial Imbalance Act a few months later, which set the stage in the 1970s for court-ordered busing to desegregate Boston public schools.

"Thanks to Martin Luther King, I'm in school with people of different races," Maria says.

That sense of connectionis exactly what inner-city youths need, say experts.

"MYTOWN allows them to cultivate a knowledge base in which they see themselves," says Christine Woyshner, coordinator of the social studies program at Temple University in Philadelphia. "They're taking ownership, saying, 'This is my history. It's not the Boston Massacre site, which happened so long ago and was so unlike me.' They're seeing that important things did happen and were accomplished by people like them."

That's crucial, she adds, because "people need to see themselves as bigger than their own homes and families."

Using oral history to do this is particularly effective, she adds, because many minority families trust local stories and oral tradition more than they do the textbooks and historical documents - such as the Constitution - that are taught in school.

"At-risk kids are skeptical of those documents," she says, "because they know that equality doesn't always play out the way it should."

Professor Woyshner isn't the only one singing the group's praises. Last fall MYTOWN was one of 18 nonprofit organizations to win a prestigious Coming Up Taller award from the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

In 2003, 43 young Bostonians led 1,500 people on MYTOWN tours from May to November.

Sometimes the audiences may be a bit intimidating, but the guides are taught to rise to the occasion.

During the last trip of 2003,for example, Lashaunta Santos was speaking to a group of philanthropists from across the country about the crowded Back Bay railway station.

"We are standing in front of the statue of A. Philip Randolph," she began, ignoring a commuterwho refused to move from where she was sitting at the foot of the statue.

The teen remained unruffled when the woman started giving her details about Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black union, which Randolph helped organize.

Lashaunta simply wove the new information into her presentation, thanked the woman for her contribution, and flashed a large smile.

The guides say the chance to be seen as leaders has a powerful effect on them. And telling the stories of one part of Boston encourages the teens to start thinking of the city's other neighborhoods.

"I see how all the neighborhoods are necessary to make up Boston," says Alyssa Arzola, a second-year guide."I know how far [the city] has come and what it has to offer.

Such comments delight Marinell Rousmaniere, MYTOWN'S executive director, who emphasizes the idea of "past as prologue."

"There is the often- quoted phrase that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it," Ms. Rousmaniere says. "When it comes to local history, the flip side of that phrase can also be true - that people are doomed not to repeat [good] history."

But Miranda, like many alumni of MYTOWN, has no intention of doing that. She used the skills and confidence she developed to gain admittance to - and graduate from - prestigious Wellesley College.

"At MYTOWN I realized that I had many strengths," she says, "but I also learned that I had challenges [and] that if I worked on them, they would be strengths. I dropped the attitude that I was a statistic waiting to happen."

Now, instead of leaving Boston, she has decided to stay - as MYTOWN'S youth guide director. Her new goal: help other inner-city teens start the journey from their part of town to success.

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