Martin J. Walsh, two days away from his mayoral inauguration, stood before an auditorium full of teenagers at Roxbury Community College Saturday and encouraged them to pursue their dreams by asking what would have happened if he gave up on his.
“What if I quit high school? Would I have run for mayor of Boston? Would I have run for state rep.? Would I have gone to college?” Walsh asked, to a chorus of “no” from the audience. “Would I have gotten in trouble? Would I have gotten arrested?” he continued, and the teenagers nodded.
“What’s the common theme there?” the mayor-elect asked rhetorically. “Perseverance, not quitting. Hard work, not giving up.” He said he hoped the students in the audience would do the same.
Saturday’s youth summit, an effort to connect with Boston’s teenagers, was part of a four-day pre-inaugural tour. Saturday included morning visits to Boston Children’s Hospital, Chinatown, and a South End homeless shelter.
Some questions from teens at the youth summit were biographical. Where did you go to high school? (The Newman School in the Back Bay. “It sounds fancier than it was.”) What was it like to have cancer when he was 7? (He was too young to fully grasp it, but his family was scared.)
Other questions dealt with what teenagers want in their daily lives, like in-school driver’s education classes, more outlets for people dealing with depression, and better school lunches.
The rest were policy-centric: how to improve relationships between police officers and the communities they serve, how to get public and charter schools on an even playing field. Walsh said he would encourage more communication among the people involved in both cases.
Earlier on Saturday, Walsh donned an apron and helped serve lunch at the Pine Street Inn: cheeseburgers, peas and carrots, cream of mushroom soup, and cantaloupe for dessert.
“There’s a lot of people who need help in this city, whether it’s Children’s Hospital, Pine Street Inn, Boys’ Club, Girls’ Club,” Walsh later said. “You know, there’s a lot of need in this city, and it’s important for us to support these different institutions.”
Walsh said he is preparing to enter a bigger stage than he was used to as a state representative.
“I can feel it already, the difference,” he said.
Lyndia Downie, president of the Pine Street Inn, said she spoke to Walsh about things she has brought up with him before — homelessness, shelters’ need for more funding, and the dearth of affordable housing for very low-income residents.
“He’s not new to this issue at all, which frankly we’re grateful for,” she said. “We’re not starting at zero.”
On Saturday morning in Chinatown, sitting on a crate in front of a gaggle of young children, Walsh read a picture book called “Chinatown” by William Low, about a little boy growing up in New York’s Chinese enclave.
The community room in an Asian Community Development Corp. building was filled with parents, community leaders, and reporters, many of them photographing Walsh with their cell phones and cameras.
“Wanna keep a secret?” Walsh stage-whispered to a group of children. “I’ve never read a book with so many cameras taking pictures.”
The mayor-elect then made his way around the room, shaking hands and taking photos.
Community leaders and activists said they would like to see Walsh bring more affordable housing to the downtown neighborhood. New and proposed luxury developments in the neighborhood have made working-class residents fear they are getting pushed out.
“You really see the diversity of Chinatown” in the room, said Janelle Chan, executive director of the Asian Community Development Corporation. “You see the families, you see the kids, you see the senior citizens... Part of why we have such diversity in Chinatown is because we have prioritization of affordable housing.”
Debbie Ho, a third-generation resident of Boston’s Chinatown who volunteered for Walsh’s campaign, said she was thrilled to see how many of her neighbors wanted to meet the incoming mayor.
“They need to know who the mayor is, they need to know that the mayor cares,” Ho said. “It’s important that the mayor identifies what’s important to this community.”
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at email@example.com.