Cut violence by putting teens to work

Youth violence is a public health crisis in some of Boston’s most distressed neighborhoods. The odds of being a homicide victim are 39 times higher for young black makes as compared to young white males.

Boston Police records show that 45 percent of all 2011 homicides were committed in Dorchester, with almost 100 percent being committed in only three Boston neighborhoods.

During the three-year period spanning 2006 – 2008, 96 youth were killed in Boston, 79 of whom were black. This means there was one young black homicide victim in Boston every two weeks, on average, during this time period.

Given the severity of the problem, the Youth Violence Prevention Collaborative led by the State Street Foundation decided to evaluate the role of employment in reducing risk taking behavior and isolation and increasing pro-social skills and the availability of positive adult relationships. The results showed several statistically significant decreases in risk-taking and deviant behaviors (having sex, drinking, weapon-carrying, authority conflict, physical fighting, etc.).

The pilot research project was a learning opportunity and we indeed learned a lot regarding the characteristics of many youth, namely that there is: 1) hopelessness, procrastination and an inability to plan for the future; 2) school truancy and tardiness; 3) exposure to violence; 4) an inability to meet basic needs particularly with respect to food and shelter; and 5) anger. Importantly, I also noticed tremendous internal fortitude, a desire to persevere in the face of adversity and an uncompromised and unconditional desire to love and to be loved.

In summer two, we set out to understand why so many youth were angry, what they thought caused youth violence and what they thought was the solution. With the help of career specialist at a local high school, I hired six youth to partner with me in this research project. The program started about two weeks before the July 4 weekend, which was a particularly violent weekend in Boston. The following week I noticed despair on the faces of several youth which ultimately led us to think deeply about the role of trauma and to conceptualize an intervention with the help of the Justice Research Institute’s Trauma Center.

As a result of this experience, I realized that the multiple, cumulative and complex traumas that some youth face are the real root causes of youth crime. I also came to understand the need to re-conceptualize trauma to include the inability to meet basic needs particularly food and shelter, the lack of social support, the burdens of having to care for siblings, evictions and homelessness and of course the perceived threat of and chronic exposure to violence in the community.

With this as a backdrop, we then set out to explore changes in youth behavior at the end of summer two. Again, we found several statistically significant changes in risk taking behaviors such as smoking pot, authority conflict, feeling sad because there’s nothing to do, and skipping classes without an excuse. We measured a number of indicators in order to document the characteristics of employment that are most effective at changing these behaviors. These changes are more likely to occur when youth are provided meaningful employment.

Meaningful employment works by creating 1) connections to both adults and children; 2) increasing competencies through skill-building and by giving them the opportunity to participate in organizational decision-making; 3) building character by allowing them to appreciate the meaning of hard work; 4) instilling the confidence they need for positive identity development; 5) allowing them a space to look outside themselves and care about a process, task or individual; and 6) by allowing them to make a positive contribution and participate in community building, development, or organization. The current paradigm of education to employment is not working for many youth, but those organizations that understand how to tailor a program that will engage and empower these youth create a paradigm for academic persistence that is qualitatively different from the norm.

There is a clear connection between these principles and youth violence prevention. It should come as no surprise that what I observed, measured and documented over the past two years is perfectly congruent with the mayor’s three aspirational goals. Firstly, all people who serve youth offer a range of social and emotional services. While 1 in 2 youth said the program benefited them the most financially, 50 percent said it benefited them most either emotionally, by “making me happy and giving me self-esteem” or mentally, by “giving me someone to talk to about my problems and helping me hold it down.” Secondly, among youth who had a worksite supervisor, 71 percent and 54 percent said that their worksite supervisor was “extremely” or “very” supportive in either helping them do their job well or helping them deal with personal issues, respectively. Thirdly, all teens and young adults should be able to explore future career options and have access to meaningful, paid employment opportunities. This is a story about connecting the disconnected quickly and efficiently and then providing them with the skills necessary to become productive adults. Clearly, if we are serious about preventing youth violence these types of meaningful employment programs must be brought to scale in Boston.

Dr. Gia Barboza is an assistant professor at Northeastern University.