“To the majority of the world, our students are thugs,” Mark Culliton told the crowd at a recent fund-raiser for College Bound Dorchester, the education nonprofit he runs that targets high-school dropouts, gang members, and other at-risk residents in the Boston neighborhood. The goal of the five-year-old organization, which has helped 126 people between the ages of 17 and 27 get into community college, is to end persistent poverty by going after the neighborhood’s most disruptive and influential residents — and reducing rates of youth violence, teen pregnancy, and gang involvement in the process. Culliton, 50, recently spoke about the program.
1. Culliton lived in Calcutta and Cambridge as a kid, went to Thailand with the Peace Corps, and attended Yale School of Management before settling in Dorchester — all of which helped shape College Bound Dorchester.
“I pretty quickly, after a little time in the private sector, realized I didn’t want to live in a country where there was such great inequity and where there were places where children happened to be born and that set the destiny of their life,” he said. “I’m a believer that either you’re fixing it or you’re supporting a problem.”
2. He believes his upper-middle-class upbringing kept him from having a criminal record. After his parents divorced when he was a teenager, Culliton found trouble: getting high, selling drugs, stealing. Once, he was hauled into a Cambridge police station several days after breaking into a classmate’s house — and got off.
“My mom came down to the station and yelled at the cops, this college-educated white woman, and they released me, apologized for ever thinking that I would ever do that, and got the mom of the kid whose house we robbed to call me and apologize.”
3. Culliton came up with the concept of going after “negative core influencers” — the handful of drug dealers and gang members and criminal offenders who have a big presence in many poor neighborhoods — and then turning them into a positive force.
“They have an outsized influence on the rest of the neighborhood. They’re visible, they’re cool, they’re on the corners. They’re there constantly. If they’ve risen through a crew or through a gang, then they have leadership abilities. When we can engage a well-known actor, and they can be a personification of this transformation, it has a much greater impact than some church-going quiet kid.”
4. His ultimate goal is to lift up not just residents, but all of Dorchester. Food stamps and subsidized housing have helped move people out of poverty, Culliton says, but the neighborhood has remained stuck in large part because of disengaged young people hanging out there.
“It’s really hard to build community on a street with a gang house. It just doesn’t happen. It’s really hard to get corporations to invest in inner-city neighborhoods if there’s gang members hanging on the corners. And it’s very hard to have a sense of hope and expectation if you’re somebody who lives next door.”
5. Culliton ran the Boston Marathon in 2014. In Crocs. After reading about the barefoot running craze a few years ago, he decided to try the soft, clunky clogs. He now logs 100 miles a month in them, minus the strap, and swears they are better than running shoes. An added bonus: When people see his footwear, no one expects him to be fast.
“I’m a very competitive person, but I’m a very slow runner, so I can always win the Croc division. Undefeated in the Croc division.”Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.