Asked to describe their neighborhoods, the first words that came out of the mouths of the Boston teenagers were “troubled,” “disappointing,” and “dangerous.”
But the 40 or so teenagers and young adults who gathered Saturday afternoon at the YMCA in Roxbury also emphasized the fact that improving the communities they live in is possible.
“There is so much potential, so much talent, so much skill,” said David, a teen from Roxbury, speaking about how some of the youth in the community disregard their abilities and intelligence, which only go to waste.
The racially diverse group of teens and community members attending the forum hailed from across the city — Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Charlestown — and spoke during more than two hours about issues plaguing their neighborhoods, as well as potential solutions.
The gathering, which took place in a colorful activity room late Saturday afternoon, was organized by Boston mayoral candidate Charlotte Golar Richie, who at various points served as a moderator.
The event began with a series of stand up/sit down “prompts,” in which the participants responded to a series of statements by standing up or remaining seated.
Three questions had the entire room standing: Did they know someone affected by gun violence? Did they want to go to college? Were they ever followed by a store employee who found them suspicious?
Next came a series of one-on-one conversations about how they would handle specific issues if they were mayor.
“Honestly, I find the police intimidating,” said Tiffany, as the teen spoke with Golar Richie about what changes she would make to the Police Department. “I would make it so that they have to spend more time out in the community, just talking to people.”
Golar Richie, one of the dozen in the running to become Boston’s next mayor, organized the forum after the controversial George Zimmerman not-guilty verdict, which prompted protests across the country and renewed national discussions of racial profiling.
“But we’re not just losing 17-year-olds in Sanford, Fla.,” Golar Richie said. “We’re losing them here in Boston too.”
Coupled with a spike in shootings, the verdict thrust public safety to the forefront of the mayor’s race as candidates delivered speeches and began rolling out public safety platforms.
Golar Richie, the lone woman in the race, is a former executive for YouthBuild USA, an organization that focuses on providing education and job training to at-risk teens and young adults.
“You can help make this city better,” Golar Richie told the group. “When I’m elected mayor, I want to have youth leaders involved in my administration, in a Cabinet-level role.”
After a series of small group discussions, the participants gathered together to brainstorm on potential solutions, including after-school programming and community policing initiatives.
“I wanted to signal to our young people that they have the opportunity to speak directly with the people who can influence the situations in their communities,” Golar Richie said after the forum. “I was heartened that they had that opportunity today.”
And the teens took advantage of that opportunity, pushing the discussion well past the scheduled end time as they continued to raise their hands and put out more ideas.
Nickeirah Straughter, 16, of Roxbury, called the event a success.
“It makes a community feel like they have presence,” she said. “It makes it feel like they matter.”
Straughter said conversations like these are especially important to teens.
“It’s giving teens the opportunity to listen and to talk. It gives us a great perspective on the different minds of our community . . . Getting into politics is really good for kids our age. “
The feeling was mutual for Coleney Victor, 17, of Roxbury. He said the conversations in the forum touched on important issues that the community faces.
“I just want to come to more events like this,” said Victor. “People actually try to stand out and better the community.”