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When The Mercury Rises, Teen Violence Doesn't Have To. Here's One Way To End It.

Mark Culliton: "Jobs programs for youth are important and powerful, but if we don’t target the dropouts who exert a pull of their own, we won't stem the problem of youth violence in summer." Pictured: A pop up memorial for Jonathan Dos Santos on the corner of Washington and Fuller streets in Dorchester, Mass., where the 16-year-old was shot and killed on June 10, 2015. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Mark Culliton: "Jobs programs for youth are important and powerful, but if we don’t target the dropouts who exert a pull of their own, we won't stem the problem of youth violence in summer." Pictured: A pop up memorial for Jonathan Dos Santos on the corner of Washington and Fuller streets in Dorchester, Mass., where the 16-year-old was shot and killed on June 10, 2015. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

There’s a universal simplification about summer in the city that goes something like this: When the temperature heats up, teen violence erupts.

As a result, organizations and businesses in cities across the nation rally together to create teen jobs and community centers that offer free programs and volunteer opportunities for urban youth. The system works with varying degrees of success. Their main goal is to keep youth occupied and to distract them from getting into trouble that tempts them in their neighborhoods.

...teens are not inherently violent. In order to become violent, youth must be led into violent situations.

But teens are not inherently violent. In order to become violent, youth must be led into violent situations. So, the question is, who are the ones leading our youth astray? From whom, exactly, are we trying to protect our youth with these summer programs?

The answer: We are trying to hide teens from the demographic that has no summer programs. The invisible and undervalued group of men and women who lost the summer job that they had four, five, six years ago and have since dropped out, or have been kicked out, of every community program they ever entered. They are the ones who have been left on the corner; they are older, they are street-seasoned, and they are ready to recruit.

These individuals were the same students who disrupted their classrooms while in school, and who then then dropped out of high school and convinced others to do the same. They joined a crew or gang, and others followed. These young adults are misguided leaders who are ready to train the next generation.

Maybe the sole antidote to increasing summer violence, then, is to educate and motivate the young adults who call the street corner home, rather than try to keep youth who show potential off the streets.

While some call these young people gang bangers or thugs and dismiss them as lost to society and not worth the effort to reach them, I call them core influencers. I see their disruption, but I reject that that is who they are. I believe in their ability to affect the world around them. They have shown the aptitude to do so in a negative way; I know they can do so positively, as well.

This is because core influencers are just as capable and smart as any other 20-something in any other community. Disruption is what they do, not who they are.

John Smith-St. Cyere, 28, is a classic example of a core influencer. By the time he was in second grade, he was navigating Boston’s streets and mass transit system alone. He did not have a relationship with his father, who was in and out of jail during much of John's youth, and friends outside of school were in gangs that spent their time defending their territory against gangs from other neighborhoods.

John's love for playing basketball often took a back seat to violence and drug use. He was expelled twice from high school for fighting and possession of a knife. When reassigned to an alternative school, he eventually dropped out to run the streets.

...we need to flip the system on its head by heavily investing resources in those who are on the corners, ready to recruit the kids who don't get the summer jobs.

A few years later, John found his way to College Bound Dorchester, and he began attending college prep courses. Despite road blocks and challenges along the path to success, including incarceration, John persevered. He has since earned an associate’s degree in psychology from Bunker Hill Community College and is enrolled at Southern New Hampshire University, working toward a bachelor’s degree in social psychology. Coming full circle, John is employed as a college readiness advisor at College Bound Dorchester, influencing young people like him get to a better place.

Jobs programs for youth are important and powerful, but if we don’t target the dropouts who exert a pull of their own, we won't stem the problem of youth violence in summer. In addition to trying to keep young people off the street, programs, organizations and cities need to flip the system on its head by heavily investing resources in those who are on the corners, ready to recruit the kids who don't get the summer jobs.

It's time to prioritize engaging these core influencers and to help them find a way to become positive influencers on our city streets. If we don't, I worry that summer will continue to prove to be a violent and dangerous season for too many of our young men and women.

Related:

Mark Culliton Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Mark Culliton is the CEO of College Bound Dorchester, an organization that employs education to end systemic, generational urban poverty.

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