Governor gets street-level view of teens' struggles; He hears their complaints, suggestions

Yes, that was Governor Deval Patrick striding through Codman Square with a pack of teenagers and aides last Friday, Oct. 5.

"Wow he's walking in the hood. That's beautiful," said one man as the Massachusetts governor entered clothing shops, convenience stores, and hair salons, embracing and conversing with a wide array of supporters.

Less than 24 hours after the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Steven Odom - killed in front of his Dorchester home - youth programs such as the BOLD Teens and FAMILY Youths Advocates Inc, invited the governor to discuss plans on how to decrease the ongoing violence in their community.

Just before 5 p.m., Patrick joined dozens of teens at the Great Hall waiting to voice their concerns on everything from street violence to health risks posed by cigarettes.

Cynthia Loesch, director of community organizing for FAMILY Inc., says these Dorchester youths have been anxiously planning this meeting for weeks and Patrick did not let them down.

"This was an important step for us and he [Patrick] wanted to be there. That shows how rooted he is," said Loesch, who is also one of the coordinators for BOLD Teens, a Codman Square based organization. "This conference was organized to gives youths a chance to be part of making decisions to improve our society. Governor Patrick has said that he does not want to tell youths what he will do; he wants them to tell him what they want for their community and on Friday he heard them loud and clear."

"Youths and cops do not trust each other so these kids take matters into their own hands," said Ashley Deleon, 15, from BOLD Teens, after the meeting. "We need to find ways for youths to work with police officers and other authority figures. We need a statewide youth council that is truly geared towards making decisions for us. We also need a stronger parental outreach because if youths are getting a sense of security at home then they will not feel the need to look for it on the streets."

Patrick had some questions of his own, including "Would youths take advantage of programs if they were there?"

The governor also asked: "How many of you know how to get a gun or knows someone who has a gun? How many of you are afraid to be in your neighborhood?"

Jobs and funding for youth programs topped the list of needs outlined by the teens assembled at the Great Hall.

"There are too many youths on the streets who need somewhere to go," said Joel Williams, 18, from FAMILY Inc. "They are on corners and hanging in bus stations doing nothing. We need programs like sports, community centers and jobs to help keep them busy."

Several young people expressed frustration with youths being "judged" and "harassed" by police based on preconceived notions. Some spoke of youths with criminal records having no hope and giving up. But the common ground throughout the meeting was the need for mentors to help put them on the path to becoming "productive" people.

"I feel the connection between the governor and the youths went very well," said Loesch. "He was impressed by the diverse group and their various insights and they were impressed with how personal and engaging he was - not as a politician, but as a person. He made a real commitment to us."

After the meeting, the teens walked with Patrick for several blocks to the Courthouse Convenience store on Washington Street, where he helped label cigarette boxes with tobacco awareness stickers created by BOLD Teens.

"We made them as a warning and to promote awareness for teens," said Deleon. "We had trouble getting facilities to use our labels, but Courthouse Convenience was the first to agree. They were actually excited to be supporting us.

"I think the meeting was effective, but the walk through our neighborhood definitely had an impact," said Deleon. "He [Patrick] could see what we were living with and with stores like Courthouse Convenience - he could see what we were doing to make a difference."

"Seeing him [Patrick] walking down the same street where there are shootings all the time shows that he is coming inside the community," said Marc Stallworth, owner of Courthouse Convenience. "He is taking the time to listen to us and that is inviting. I have not seen the mayor or any other senators walking down our block, but the governor wants to help. He is here for an ultimate purpose."