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Urban nonprofit celebrates 25 years of giving youths a voice

KEITH BEDFORD/GLOBE STAFF

Performers Taya Hopkins (left), John Turner, Carrie Mays, and Carlos Barbosa rehearsed for an upcoming Teen Empowerment production.

By Globe Staff 

The stage is a long way from the Dorchester stoop Jair Ferreria was on three years ago, when two youth workers with the Center for Teen Empowerment approached him.

The 23-year-old said he was “getting into trouble in the streets,” but he needed money — and the organizers offered him a job. For two years, he worked with the youth development organization, planning community forums, dialogues with police, and the annual peace conference (this year’s will be the 25th anniversary), culminating in a play.

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And while Ferreria no longer works for Teen Empowerment, advancing to a job teaching health to sixth-graders, he returned to rehearsals to help with this year’s production of “Break the Binds.” It’s a play about the enduring effects of racism, in everything from education to housing to public health and politics, that will run Saturday at the Paramount Theatre.

“I know the impact I can have on people, from those you invite personally, to random old ladies, to 5-year-old boys,” he said. “I have friends who are still living that life . . . and they came and it changed their perspective.”

And that – nurturing young people to be a positive influence on their peers – is the goal of the 25-year-old organization, according to Stanley Pollack, the founder and executive director. “Peer culture,” as Pollack calls it, helps lower crime and violence while building relationships “across barriers that seemed insurmountable,” such as warring neighborhoods or the tensions that can exist between youth and police.

The nonprofit started in the South End in 1992, a violent time in the city.

“It was wild,” Pollack said. “Crack was out there, and poverty was much more intense at the time. There were no jobs.”

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Teen Empowerment began advertising to hire young people as community organizers, teaching them skills such as public speaking and conflict resolution. Twenty young people were hired at $8 an hour, and one of the first things they did was organize a community meeting attended by some 120 youth, Pollack said.

More community events were organized, he said. Peace treaties between feuding gangs were brokered. And violence began to subside, in part, because, Pollack said, peers began to hold each other accountable, hashing things out with words instead of weapons.

The first peace conference was attended by about 250 young people, many of them gang members who had to turn in their weapons at the door to attend. “They all had knives. No one had guns, which was a good thing,” Pollack said. “I was terrified that no one would show up . . . but they showed. That’s really what got Teen Empowerment on the map and allowed us to raise the money to continue over the years.”

Today, the organization has grown, hiring more than 2,000 young people over the last 25 years. There are sites also in Somerville and Rochester, N.Y.

A large part of what the organization does includes facilitating conversations with police officers called “dialogues.”

KEITH BEDFORD/GLOBE STAFF

A performer stood on the tip of his shoes as he ran through a performance during rehearsal.

“We put people in a room to have those hard conversations, but in a way that’s productive and really gets you somewhere,” said 18-year-old Taya Hopkins, a senior at Boston Latin Academy. Most importantly, she said, they learn each other’s names.

“Knowing a name creates a bond,” said Hopkins, who will attend Salem State University this fall.

Carlos Barbosa, a senior at Catholic Memorial High School, agreed, saying that before he participated in his first dialogue last summer, “I didn’t know what to expect really because the whole thing about police brutality.”

But the 18-year-old said the experience hardened his resolve to become a police officer, a career goal since he was a sophomore.

“I just kind of want to change the culture of police and how people view them,” he said. “We need more police officers of color in these areas, in Dorchester and Roxbury and just Boston period, because we have white officers policing an area they don’t live in and that brings all the problems we have.”

“A lot of people see the youth as savages, that we don’t care any more,” said Daniel Benoit, 18, a senior at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. “But it’s not even that. It’s just a lack of guidance.”

“You feel me?” he asked. “Teen Empowerment, it gives us a voice.”

KEITH BEDFORD/GLOBE STAFF

Performers ran through a performance during rehearsal for Teen Empowerment's 25th Annual Youth Peace Conference.


Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com.