Months after an unexpected shutdown, the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, which works to foster youth development and deter neighborhood violence, is back with a different name but the same goals.
The organization is now a program under the aegis of Roxbury-based MissionSAFE: A New Beginning, Inc., and has assumed the name Safe City Dorchester. The organization is retaining its staff and its Fields Corner facility.
“This is the resurrection,” said Emmett Folgert, the founder of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative who is serving as director of Safe City Dorchester. “We’ve been out of business for six months, we’re coming back with the same kids, same space, same staff, and serving the same neighborhood.”
He added: “We put it back together and we’re very excited; so are the kids and so are their families.”
Last week, Safe City chose to err on the side of caution and observe the citywide heat advisory by cancelling its peewee programming scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday that was meant to be a kick-off for a basketball clinic geared towards neighborhood kids, seven to twelve years old, and coached by an older cohort of high schoolers.
Clacking vigorously at a video game controller escaping the sweltering heat outside, Diamani Nova, a 15-year-old junior staff member, said he’s “bummed out” about the game’s cancellation and is looking forward to safely resuming programming once it’s cooler.
“It’s fun to be with the little kids, it’s fun to see them collaborate, and work together, and just chill with their friends,” he said. “I realized with baseball and basketball that this was basically my family, and it’s cool to see the little kids start to realize that, too.”
Nova is “a brilliant kid, and very creative individual,” Folgert said. He’s an active participant in Safe City’s Center for Urban Expression (CUE), which introduces kids to screenwriting, filmography, and acting, and serves as a stealth literacy program for younger kids struggling with reading comprehension.
Nova is also one of many students who struggled to adapt to pandemic-induced remote learning. A freshman at the Snowden International School, he’s at risk of repeating the ninth grade, a school year that according to Folgert, a steadfast advocate of one month of intensive summer school learning, is a “killer for most kids.”
“We were pushed very hard to reopen because it was very clear that there’s something we do that no one else does,” said Folgert. “And those supports became especially important during the last year, which was hard for everyone.”
“Basketball is one of the easiest ways to organize hundreds of kids for the cheapest amount of money, but the work of steering kids away from gang involvement isn’t just about handing them a ball and saying ‘play,’” he said. “It’s much more than that.”
The merger made MissionSAFE’s deep pockets and trove of resources available to Safe City Dorchester’s collaborative staff.
During the DYC’s 40-year existence, staff plugged community needs big and small. Often, the need for psychological support, in the forms of trauma remediation sessions and counseling, was even greater than the need for material or academic help. Last year, a program participant lost his brother to gun violence, and over the years many more passed through DYC as they transitioned away from gang involvement.
Gean Negron, 14, recounted how he was recently jumped by seven teens. “He got away with barely a scratch because the kid can duck,” joked Nugget, a senior staff member whose commitment to bringing levity to the violence-streaked lives of Fields Corner’s young people rooted him at DYC for almost three decades.
Negron works with Steve “Nugget” Dosouto, whom Folgert calls his “right-hand man, a true God-send.” Dosouto recently arranged a Lyft ride to take Negron from Fields Corner to the South End where he could try out for a baseball league – rain, shine, or heat wave.
The program’s mission to deter violence through youth engagement previously garnered recognition from the Obama administration, which bestowed on Folgert the title “Champion of Change” at the White House.
That change, Folgert argues, starts at the personal level, from giving kids a ride home when it’s dark, to fielding “neighborhood intelligence” from teachers aware of community conflicts, and providing equipment for ambitious athletes like Negron, whose catcher’s mitt was purchased with funds from Safe City Dorchester.
“We know the families, and we keep a good eye on them and know how best to support them,” Folgert said. “Sometimes it’s putting a kid on a plane for junior tryouts, sometimes it’s helping with groceries or offering a ride home, but we always try to be there.”
With permission from donors, the newly minted organization is sustaining itself on residual funds raised in December 2020, prior to DYC’s reconstitution under the MissionSAFE umbrella.
The merger allows for participation in MissionSAFE’s boxing and podcasting programs, and it emboldens Safe City kids to take advantage of the existing relationship between MissionSAFE and City Hall, as well as join the mayor’s youth summer employment program.
MissionSAFE also sponsors men’s retreats, and makes a concerted effort to support boys throughout their development.
MissionSAFE Director of Programing and Participation Jumani Kendric, a chaperone on hikes at Milton’s Blue Hills Reservation, recalled asking boys to write their “hood names” on a sheet of paper, set the note ablaze with a rock and friction, toss the note down the hill, and devise new names for one another.
“These are young, predominantly Black boys and boys of color who’ve experienced generational trauma,” said Kendric. “That kind of thing has a ripple effect; it spreads if we don’t intervene, if we don’t teach them how to unburden themselves.”
When he was 19, Kendric was released from South Bay Correctional Facility, where he had served in juvenile incarceration for marijuana-related offenses. He believes it’s time to break the cycle that he fell prey to in his youth, where he saw “boys perpetuate more violence because they were victims of violence.
“We do this work, this kind of youth development, because it’s personal,” said Kendric, “we don’t do this for money. There isn’t any money in this work. We do this because these youth remind us of ourselves.”
But to operate, the organization needs money, and, as its funds run dangerously shallow, Safe City Dorchester hopes that the benefactors it relied on for four decades of the successful DYC operation will galvanize to help once again.
The organization, which earlier assured its alumni it wasn’t closing because of financial reasons, now has to cope with the months of absent fundraising as it moves to reopen and offer programming like the basketball games scheduled for its big first week.
“The big news is, we’re back, and it should be better than ever,” said Folgert. We’re two smaller agencies coming together with a better size and administrative capacity, but we’re still aching for funds. We have a small operating surplus, but we need support from the people who’ve always supported us for years.”
Community members looking to donate can do so through the MissionSAFE website.