SOMERVILLE — What keeps Stanley Pollack going after all these years?
The wiry 63-year-old stands amid the cacophony in a converted firehouse on Broadway, beaming as a slight girl raps to a thudding base line about being pressured into sex. Nearby, a group of kids rehearse a play. Steps away, in a stifling office, a teenager practices a speech above the din.
“I want my parents, and all drug-addicted parents, to realize that their kids won’t always be there to take care of them,” shouts Ashley Mento, 19.
This is Teen Empowerment, the movement Pollack founded two decades ago, in one of Boston’s darkest hours. The city’s streets were full of horrors in the early 1990s, a kid killed every few days as gangs held entire neighborhoods hostage.
The city needed a miracle. And for a while, it got one. Police forged closer connections in black neighborhoods, enforcing the law more thoughtfully by targeting key gang members. Black ministers united and joined the battle. And Pollack — among other visionaries — focused on tapping kids’ talents and better angels to change a culture. For a couple of years, not a single teenager was killed.
Teen Empowerment’s approach is as simple as it is visionary. Instead of treating at-risk kids as walking problems, Pollack saw them as untapped potential. Even the hardest cases could gather friends and come up with ways to solve their own problems, especially if given the extra incentive of an hourly wage. The point wasn’t to keep kids off the streets with busy-work, or even to save individual kids, though both of those things happened — it was to create agents of change when they returned to the neighborhood.
His teen organizers convened peace talks between rival crews. Some agreed to truces, some of which held. They drew hundreds of their peers to peace conferences and parties, which went off with next to no trouble. “We really saw a shift,” Pollack says. “It was cool to be in a gang and carry a gun, then it wasn’t.”
And then it was. The Boston Miracle fell apart sometime around 2000. There are a few theories as to why: The police lost focus, unity among ministers dissipated, the economy worsened, jailed gang bangers returned to the streets. Pollack reckons it comes down to money and wasted potential. State funds for teen workers dried up, leaving kids who found purpose, an opportunity to influence their peers, and a little money, back on their own.
Pollack’s outfit has struggled ever since, even as it has expanded into Rochester, N.Y., and Somerville. In 2004, Mayor Joe Curtatone invited Teen Empowerment in as Somerville struggled with suicide and drug addiction. Pollack and his employees went into the hardest parts of the city and recruited youth leaders. For $8.50 an hour, they drew friends to Teen Empowerment events like the annual daylong Peace Conference, where Mento and the others performed for 500 local teens. The city has a better handle on the woes of its youths these days.
You might think this 20th anniversary year would be a good point for Pollack to hang it up. He’s struggling with dwindling resources in Boston, which has reverted to something that seems to him way too much like the bad old days. Instead, he’s talking about growing the program to other cities like Chicago. Though he loses kids all the time, he sees many more like Mento, who was headed down the same path as her addicted parents, but turned away from the abyss.
“I’m not going to stop doing it,” Pollack says. “It feeds my soul.”
Lucky for us.