She's 'walking the walk' with teens on the corner

Inita Jones

Years before becoming director of operations for Boston Uncornered, Inita Jones was a METCO kid, splitting her time between home life in the Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester and school days in the wealthy suburb of Wellesley. 

“I always had one foot in my neighborhood and the other foot in the METCO program,” said Jones. “All of my education was in Wellesley, so I was able to see the two worlds and two sets of expectations around education and college.

“College was always the expectation in my house, but not in my neighborhood, so it was definitely easier to get mixed up in the wrong crowd. I had different sets of friends— friends in Wellesley, and friends in the neighborhood that weren’t always into the most positive things, so I had to often make a choice about what path I was going to lead.”

Now, in her work with Boston Uncornered, a College Bound program aimed at getting gang-involved youth off of street corners and into education and positive employment, Jones finds herself dealing with teens who are facing similar decisions about their future. Both back then and today, finding activities to occupy a teen’s idle time has been an important piece of encouraging positive choices.

“My mother did a good job of keeping me in theatre. I was a member of the Strand Team Players, the youth theater group,” recalled Jones. “I was really into dance and the arts, and she really did try to keep me as busy as possible. I knew she knew of the negative influences of the neighborhood.”

Jones is grateful she avoided the allure of street life. But having been in the shoes of many of the troubled teens she works with — referred to as “core influencers” by Boston Uncornered — she recognizes how that experience makes her more trustworthy and approachable to youth in the same situation.

Oftentimes these kids “have real bullshit detectors,” said Jones, “so they know if you’re just trying to talk the talk and you’ve never walked the walk.”

Having that experience alongside her ability to adapt to different friend groups and environments has made Jones a natural leader and educator at the organization, where she tries to help teens recognize their potential and draw them away from the streets she left behind.

“The guys I hung with in my teenage years, they’re still on the corner right now. I bump into them from time to time and they’re still doing the same things they were doing. So, I do think my experience growing up and being able to relate to different groups of people — the street guys, the affluent folks in Wellesley, my neighborhood friends — help me to be able to relate to the guys I work with now.”

Other skills that have proven useful in Jones’ line of work? The lessons she’s learned as a mother, namely, knowing how to collaboratively problem solve. That means using not Plan A, which is ‘do what I say because I said it, but Plan B, which is collaboratively solving a problem by having the child help come up with solutions where I help them understand my concern and also have their concern on the table.

“This is something I do at home, and we train our staff to use this approach for solving problems with students.”

Another parenting tip that comes in handy, Jones said, is letting kids fail, learn, and come back stronger. She offered as an example her decision to not wake her son up for school in the morning until he learned to wake up himself.

“Kids and young adults, they have to make mistakes on their own. They have to see how their actions and choices have repercussions. You can best advise them, but, ultimately, they have to go through the struggle to be self-actualized and understand where they went wrong. We can’t stand in the way of that, because that’s how they learn. And I do that with my own kids, I let them make mistakes, which is hard.”

At Boston Uncornered, College Readiness Advisors (CRAs) must find that delicate balance of providing support and advice while allowing room for failure and growth. 

“As hard as our CRAs are on our students,” said Jones, “they definitely allow them to make mistakes and learn from their mistakes.”

Over the past year, the pandemic has placed strains on the interpersonal ties at the heart of Boston Uncornered. With in-person interactions out of play for months at a time and dollars normally reserved for the program being funneled toward immediate Covid needs, employees struggled to keep in touch with teens who, without refuge at school or their jobs, were once again being tempted by the streets. 

“Supporting their development hasn’t changed as much; what has changed is the relationship aspect,” explained Jones. “We’re used to seeing each other every day, the staff and students and me, so that creates a’s been hard on the relationships, and we’re such a relationship-based and family-based organization that when you don’t see each other every day, you know, you miss them.

“The collaboration piece has been harder, but as far as the work itself, we’ve been lucky to continue to be able to stipend students, continue the academic piece of what we do as far as one-on-one tutoring.”

As the vaccination campaign continues in Boston and the CDC continues to roll back safety guidelines in the coming weeks, Boston Uncornered will look to resume some of its regular programming before the spikes in gun violence that tend to accompany the warmer summer months. 
“We’re hoping by the summer we’ll be able to be onsite in some capacity,” said Jones.

The Boston Uncornered team will still face the difficult task of forging relationships with troubled youth, building up their trust, and gradually altering their psychology so that they can learn to heal from past trauma and fulfill their potential. 

“It’s a long process of getting someone to change their mindset; they’ve been told all their life that they cannot measure up to a certain expectation, or, you know, this is the hand you’re served, so you just have to deal with it and make the best of it. We’re here telling them a different narrative: you’re capable of so much more.

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