Making Youth Voices Heard: Teens Work Against Gun Violence in Lower Roxbury
Youth from Boston’s Roxbury say gun violence is an ever-present threat in their neighborhood. The eleven teens of the Making Youth Voices Heard initiative are determined to do something about it.
On a freezing February day, eight dauntless youth guided shivering Boston College graduate students on a tour of the Lenox/Camden area. The tour route included their own housing complexes, a shiny new hotel, and other neighborhood gems, including where to get the best pizza.
But they also shared with these future social workers how gun violence has impacted their friends and loved ones. In a later shared listening session, the teens opened up.
“I have to worry about my family walking outside and getting shot in our own neighborhood,” says one student who grew up there. “We don’t feel safe.”
“Violence affects the people I care about,” says another teen. “I have a couple of friends that passed away through gun violence.”
As a group, three boys and eight girls, ages 14-19, now meet together twice a week at CrossTown Church, as part of the Making Youth Voices Heard program. CrossTown Church, located on Lenox Street in the Lenox/Camden area, is part of the Melnea Cass Network, a local collaboration of leaders “dedicated to ending family poverty and violence, one neighborhood at a time.”
The youth began their team effort by sharing insights from their own experience. “Violence affects the neighborhood as a whole,” said one. “The crime rate keeps increasing and many teens have been dying lately.”
They also discussed poverty—its causes and effects in the neighborhood. “Most of the people in my community [are] suffering from poverty,” shared one teen. Another reasoned, “There is gun violence because youth don’t have money to get what they want.”
But these courageous young people hope to learn more—they want to hear the voices of other youth who live in five housing developments in Lower Roxbury.
They plan to survey students not only about gun violence but also a host of related issues. Their goal is to hear from the community which issues feel most pressing, to help guide the team to action steps that they can take to strengthen the community.
The whole experience is an empowering process for the youth. The graduate students and collaborators are facilitating, but the teens are making all the decisions. The youth will decide what question they’re going to research, and they will present the results of what they learn.
Making Youth Voices Heard
The Making Youth Voices Heard (MYVH) program trains youth in community research for action. It is a collaboration between EGC’s Boston Education Collaborative (BEC), the Vibrant Boston program for youth, St. Stephen’s Youth Programs, CrossTown Church, and Boston College’s Graduate School of Social Work.
A summer 2017 pilot program with three young people provided early results, paving the way for full-year grants from the Church Home Society of the Episcopal Diocese, and the Paul & Edith Babson Foundation. The MYVH initiative does not yet have full funding for their proposal, which includes work stipends for the youth. The BEC is working on securing the remainder of the funding.
The students will be replicating Youth Hub Boston's model of Youth-led Participatory Action Research and Innovation (YPARI). Youth Hub Director Rachele Gardner and youth residents of Codman Square, Dorchester, co-created the YPARI model based in part on UC Berkeley's Youth Participatory Action Research Hub.
In YPARI, youth learn how to design, implement, and analyze a survey, and then create action steps out of it. Ms. Gardner is serving as a consultant to the MYVH project, prepping the team every week to know how to structure the program sessions. Youth learn how to design, implement, and analyze a survey, and then create action steps out of it. Ms. Gardner is serving as a consultant to the MYVH project, prepping the team every week to know how to structure the program sessions.
After a welcome pizza party in December, students kicked off the program in January, getting to know one another’s stories. After a time of team bonding, setting expectations, and orientation to the program, they discussed:
What issues do you care about most for the community?
What issues have most impacted the neighborhood?
What issues are you most passionate about?
“The issue I care about is violence because it leads to peer pressure,” responded one teen. “We do certain things to express how we feel, and use violence to fit in with other people, or just for fun.”
“Violence affects me and the people I care about,” said another. “Violence is killing people who are 16 and 17, or just anyone. We just need better ways to protect the youth.”
After the youth chose to learn more about local gun violence, they started by exploring its causes and impacts. They identified other issues related to the level of gun violence in the area. So they decided to design a survey about five related topics: gun violence, poverty, drugs, employment, and education.
The teens will next be paired off to conduct the surveys. The group is aiming to survey 100 youth who live in five housing developments in Lower Roxbury—Mandela Homes, Roxie Homes, Lenox, Camden, and Camfield Estates.
Eight students from Boston College’s Graduate School of Social Work are committed to helping. They’re doing some added background neighborhood research and will guide the youth in survey design and analysis. They’ve also contributed food and supplies for the youth.
Cherchaela Spellen is the Lead Facilitator of the program. Studying Social Work at Boston College, she is an EGC intern with BEC and a member of CrossTown Church. She works with the assistance of Amber Ko, an EGC intern with BEC and Greater Boston Refugee Ministry.
Our Goals for Community Impact
“It’s a learning process,” says Ruth Wong, BEC Director. “This can be a launch pad—that’s the prayer and the desire. Our end goal is a group of youth asking what steps they can take to help strengthen their community. We hope the youth come to see themselves as change agents, where they can impact the community by coming up with the action steps.”
Practically, through their participation in this year-long experience, the teens are developing bankable skills—in community research, critical thinking, team-building, leadership, and general job readiness. When the youth go into the community to conduct the surveys, they’ll be developing their social connection skills.
“I’ve been impressed with the leadership skills among these youth, “ says Wong.
These young people also have access to what would otherwise be a somewhat closed community to the graduate students. Our teens themselves represent three of the five complexes.
“I went with some of the girls to visit the community in the summer,” explains Wong. “I went into their buildings with them, and they were saying ‘hi’ to people left and right. We were able to enter the homes of people that they knew. They have a lot of connections!”
While they already know some peers, the youth are also creatively thinking of how to connect with more youth. They’ll reach out to property managers and leverage other community connections. That kind of networking will be new for them.
MYVH sees the youth as developing leaders for the health of the community. They plan to host a closing presentation and celebration event to invite the adults in the community to hear the youth present their findings. Such an event can be a catalyst for more cohesion and collaboration within the community.
Ruth Wong (left) Ruth is the Director of EGC's Boston Education Collaborative and a founding member of the Melnea Cass Network in Lower Roxbury.
Cherchaela Spellen (right) Cherchaela is the Lead Facilitator of the Making Youth Voices Heard program. Cherchaela is studying Social Work at Boston College and attends CrossTown Church in Lower Roxbury.