Inside his 8- by 8-foot cell, Alex Diaz looked at his daughter’s pictures every day.
On the prison walls, she remained 5 years old. Outside, she grew taller, older.
He spent the first eight years of his daughter’s life incarcerated. His daughter was his blood, his kin, but his gang had been his other family.
Her photos kept him looking toward the future. That, and the encouraging phone calls of a longtime friend he had grown up with, Francisco Depina. They’d both belonged to gangs as teenagers.
The streets were their second homes. Neither expected a second chance.
This fall, Diaz will be paid to study at a community college, while also receiving social and emotional support. It’s part of an initiative called Boston Uncornered, started by the education nonprofit College Bound Dorchester. Diaz, who is 30 years old, is one of 40 former gang members being compensated to resume their education.
“Everyone out there has a genius in them, they’re smart,” said Depina, a college readiness adviser with College Bound Dorchester. “They have a potential to do a lot of things, but just like me, people have shut doors in their face so many times that they sat there and believed that. But that is not true.”
The goal of Boston Uncornered is to engage with 900 former gang members, convicted felons, and high school dropouts, and to eventually enroll 250 in college over three years.
The program pays participants $400 a week, to focus on school, tutoring, and work-based learning as an alternative to making money on the streets, officials say.
The project will cost close to $18 million over three years. Program officials have already raised $4.8 million through private and public grants and donations. Boston Uncornered will work with researchers from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab and the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University to evaluate the program.
“We see gang members and gang-involved youth as the means to community change,” said Mark Culliton, CEO of College Bound Dorchester. “Not as a problem, not as somebody to save, but as agents of change.”
This is the hope: that former gang members, who can be powerful figures in their communities, will use their leadership qualities to motivate and inspire others to change their lives.
On the street, Diaz was “Ace.” He dropped out of high school in ninth grade and committed a series of misdemeanors and felonies, including possession of a firearm, armed robbery, and kidnapping. Tattooed on Diaz’s forearms are headstones bearing the names of family members who died while he was behind bars. He got out in 2013.
“It ain’t worth it,” Diaz said. “It really ain’t. It ain’t worth it. I didn’t just mess up my life, I also messed up the people that I love’s life because I wasn’t around for them, I couldn’t support them, or I couldn’t even be there when they needed me.”
It took time to get used to the outside world, Diaz said. He found himself still wearing flip-flops in the shower, still sitting so he could see everything around him at all times.
The scariest moment was seeing his daughter, Diaz said.
“My actually seeing her, holding her. It kind of made me feel like the man I should’ve been when I first had her,” Diaz said. “Instead of still acting a fool and running the streets.”
He apologized, promised to be there for her, and to make no mistakes. She told him I love you.
Diaz’s exam for a high school equivalency degree is in a week. He’s planning to study automotive technology at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, so he can work in his father’s automotive garage.
Antonio Franklin, 31, got out of prison last year, after serving 10 years for assaulting a police officer. Behind bars, he wrote poetry to free his thoughts. Now, freedom is being able to spend time with his family and attending Bunker Hill Community College in the fall. He plans to study sociology. He dreams of being a motivational speaker for kids and is expecting his first child. He wishes someone would’ve given him this advice:
“There’s other things in life than this little box you’re trying to put yourself into,” Franklin said. “Life is about going places, seeing things. If you want to keep yourself stuck in that one place, you’re going to miss out on everything.”
It took Depina years to realize his potential. He didn’t know the word “goal” as a young man. The only goal he knew was achieved while running down the soccer field, not striving in life.
A teacher once told him he was going to end up dead or in jail. He never forgot that.
Depina, who’s 32, was kicked out of a school, out of a vocational training program, and his family’s home. His neighbors called him a bad influence. Now, they say “good morning” as he leaves for work.
He wants to be a better man for his 3-year-old son.
Depina’s job at College Bound is to check on students, appearing with them if they have a day in court, helping them focus on school. He and Diaz made a promise they would enroll in Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology together. He’s going to study computer engineering.
“This is not a job for me. This is personal,” Depina said. “Because I get to walk in my neighborhood and talk to young men living the lifestyle that I left behind. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy because it wasn’t easy for me, but you just have to keep trying, not giving up.”
Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.