Some UNDERGRADUATES mastered corporate finance. Others, Japanese literature. Still others set their sights on curing tropical disease. But us? We saw doing good in the world as our thing.
Our fearless leaders, Eric Dawson and John King, were teen prodigies at the Phillips Brooks House Association of Harvard University, a student-led service nonprofit. As freshmen, too young to drink, they raised $40,000 to run a summer camp in the Mission Hill public housing project.
They hired me to work with them. My job entailed moving into a roach-infested apartment, planning six hours of activities a day for a group of eight sweaty third graders, and meeting with their parents once a week. We made ice cream, published a magazine, slept at a farm. We even took the kids to Philadelphia, where we told the hotel we were a family reunion.
I loved it. I did it for three summers. It was one of the few things about college that always felt good.
We didn’t know it at the time, but we were watching an experiment that tested the validity of the American dream for Boston’s poorest children. The kids we taught at camp and tutored during the school year were growing up in a tough place at a time of widening income disparities. We debated in our dorm rooms at night: How much can we do — or should we do — to try to change their lives?
It’s now been 20 years — long enough, surely, to assess how that experiment has turned out. I’ve wondered what happened to Jennifer, who fell in love too early. To James, whose mother battled addiction. To a girl I’ll call Keisha, who seemed destined to do great things. How real were the bonds we’d made? What good did we really do?
Our camp launched in the early 1990s, in the tail end of the crack epidemic, before welfare-to-work, before Mission Main was transformed into the respectable townhouses of today. Our Mission Hill was the old Mission Hill, made of bricks as cracked as a junkie’s lips. It was the very definition of concentrated poverty: Sixty-eight percent reported no income at all. Those who worked earned a median income of about $15,000 a year, in today’s money. It was a place where a janitor’s child could be “the rich kid,” with sneakers nice enough to rub in other children’s faces. Simply having a dad could make a little girl feel as special as a queen.
There were moments that underscored our sameness: You discovered that the most urine-stained hallway contained a door to an apartment as meticulously scrubbed and decorated as any brownstone on Beacon Hill. Then there were moments when you thought you’d landed on another planet: A friendly mother asked you to help her quit smoking, and it dawned on you that she was talking about crack.
In recent weeks, as I researched the families we’d met back then, perhaps the most powerful story I came across was about the unlikely friendship that developed between Eric and Tawanna, the mother of two of our campers. Keep in mind, Eric’s a white guy from Ohio. The first time he put on a tie and went door to door in Mission Hill, he looked so out of place that people called each other on the phone as he walked by. Look out your window! Is he lost? By the time he got to Tawanna’s house, she wasn’t sure it was safe to send her kids to his camp. “Who’s this guy coming to save our children? To take our children?” she wondered. If a gun battle broke out on the playground, would he know what to do?
Tawanna had good reasons to distrust. Her own mother, who was mentally ill, set fire to their apartment. Another time, her mom claimed to be blind. That madness is what brought Tawanna to Mission Hill, far from the Brooklyn home of the grandparents who’d raised her. One day, just before Christmas, in the middle of the fifth grade, her mother dragged her to the train station and told her to pick a city off the board. Hours later, they were homeless in Boston.
By the time Eric knocked on her door in Mission Hill, Tawanna was 24, with two kids and another on the way. But she was determined to get out of the projects. She’d even set a deadline for herself: her daughter’s 13th birthday, the age men began preying on girls.
Tawanna didn’t like leaving her kids with strangers. But Eric promised her he would personally pick up her children every morning, and return them home every afternoon. Still, her distrust lingered. That first summer, she didn’t let her son go camping. The second summer, she scolded Eric for a lesson he’d taught about discrimination that had upset her kids. But by the third summer, she started trusting Eric. He was the only person she knew who was willing to study college brochures with her. Later, she helped him teach violence prevention in schools, a part-time job. By the fourth summer, they were almost family. Eric had just graduated from Harvard. He was traveling a lot and needed a room to put his stuff in. Tawanna had just graduated from Simmons College, but still couldn’t afford to rent in a safer neighborhood. Together, they decided to share the cost of a house in Malden. That’s how Tawanna finally achieved her goal of moving out of Mission Hill.
“I know I would have gotten them out of there eventually,” she told me recently, over lunch at a crepe restaurant in Somerville. “But it helped. People love a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ story. But that’s not real. You need people who are willing to be a resource, who won’t think that they are getting taken advantage of.”
Some sociologists believe that poor people remain poor because everyone they know is poor. They lack the social networks to help them climb out. That’s part of the reason for the national trend of destroying public housing projects, and resurrecting them as mixed income communities. Today, white college students are no longer oddities in Mission Hill. It’s safer, with better services. Last year, public housing residents living there who worked earned an average of $21,060 a year, more than in the past. But living in mixed-income neighborhoods doesn’t automatically boost economic prospects. Jobs aren’t contagious. Watching someone go to work every morning doesn’t suddenly make you employable. Perhaps we aren’t seeing as many gains as we had hoped because there’s little interaction between public housing tenants and their wealthier neighbors. Indeed, some mixed-income developments forbid socializing on front stoops, to lessen the possibility of conflict. That’s a shame. Policymakers ought to be thinking more about how to produce more friendships.
For us, our experiences with the Phillips Brooks House camp in Mission Hill launched our careers. Eric Dawson founded Peace First, a national violence prevention organization. John King is commissioner of education for the state of New York. In fact, most other directors of our camp from that era are also doing impressive things in public service: Scott McCue founded Boston Prep charter school. Henry Fernandez founded LEAP, a signature youth program in New Haven. Rich Beury is deputy mayor of New York City. Angel Taveras is mayor of Providence, running for governor of Rhode Island. My path was somewhat different, but I got my start in journalism in Kenya, where I was teaching street children. I’m also married to a former director of Phillips Brooks House Association who is now assistant dean at Harvard College for public service.
And at least for a few Mission Hill residents, our camp made a lasting difference, if not always in ways we would have predicted. These days, Tawanna pays $3,000 for her youngest son to go to summer camp. But she’s still a regular at the Sunday brunches that Eric hosts with his wife, Tammy, who also worked with us at the camp. Tawanna’s daughter, who just got married and completed her master’s degree, stops by, too. Tawanna’s son, whom Eric calls his “godbaby,” is no stranger either: He lived in Eric and Tammy’s spare room, while he was getting on his feet.
“Having a network of people on the outside who are willing to throw you a lifeline . . . is priceless,” Tawanna said. “At first, I didn’t trust it. But we’re still friends, because he didn’t let go.”