Editor's Note: This article is part of a larger series of stories on the same subject that was published in the Dec. 16, 2010 edition of the Dorchester Reporter.
After 30 years of ground-level violence intervention work at the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, executive director and founding member Emmett Folgert has little time for ponderous citywide shifts in intervention strategies.
The Youth Collaborative opens its doors to more than 100 teens in the Fields Corner area daily, offering them a safe environment to practice break dancing, play ping pong and find employment opportunities, which Folgert believes is key to restoring a sense of self-worth to kids who have fallen through social service nets and see street violence as an unavoidable reality.
“If you live in what the police consider a crime hotspot, the likelihood you will be a victim, a witness or join a gang is 100 percent,” Folgert said. “The only way to avoid it is to provide some kind of alternative.”
While social service departments refer a small number of teens to Folgert's program, the youth collaborative often targets those who live under the radar of these departments, teens who have already given up on school and need structure to their days. With more than 1300 students failing to graduate from Boston public schools annually, Folgert says there is no shortage of teens who feel they have nothing to lose.
Folgert believes the gang landscape has changed drastically over the past decade, from large organizations dependant on teen drug dealers working corners to more dispersed operations involving older dealers who receive text-message orders and deliver to clients doors.
With less employment opportunities, teens without GEDs are now scrambling for honest jobs more qualified, recently laid-off adults have turned to during the recession, this in turn leaves many kids with no means to support themselves and little sense of worth, a “perfect storm” for street-level gang membership to swell.
In hopes of providing at-risk youths an alternative to crime, Folgert has appealed to their wallets and minds through what he calls the “second chance school.” Through this program, the DYC can offer kids who have dropped out of school a weekly stipend of up to $100 in exchange for entering a GED program during school hours and spending their free time maintaining city-owned foreclosed homes throughout Boston.
Through this “no BS jobs program”street staff can offer a potential gang member a paying, legal job regardless of whether they can produce social security cards or other documentation, a hurdle which Folgert said would make it nearly impossible for the 30 young adults in the program to find honest employment themselves.
Folgert said his organization also keeps close tabs on potential grudges between rival gangs because the youth collaborative staff is largely made up of local teens who have grown up in the neighborhood. This staff serves as eyes and ears on the street, catching rumors of escalating gang rivalries, allowing street workers to identify key players and mediate conflicts.
While the Dorchester Youth Collaborative has made strides in reducing gang violence, its reach only extends into a small corner of the Dorchester community. Folgert suggests similar programs could begin building what he calls “cultures of peace” in as little as three years by inviting kids 11 and under to participate in a community setting, instilling nonviolent principles at a young age and training these early adopters as role models for the next generation of youths.
Even with a tiered approach to peace, Folgert said organizers must be ready to face setbacks when teaching kids that they can escape inner-city violence. Sometimes, Folgert said, even the most well-prepared teen can become collateral damage on their way to school or home, causing others to ask whether or not there really is a peaceful way to reach 20.
Folgert said that despite these losses, workers need to press on for the thousands of children who visit the DYC annually in hopes of finding a safe haven.
“The loss of an innocent is a real blow, but you’ve got to pull them out of the predestination mindset and you do it one relationship at a time.”