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opinion | Mark Culliton

In our racially divided nation, ‘gradual’ change is no change at all

The police-related deaths of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore have made Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a world where his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character seem further away than ever.

Yet these events compel us to remember a lesser known but equally relevant quote from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

Despite the trillions of dollars spent on the “war on poverty,” little has changed for many African-American youths since King delivered that speech in 1963. We still live in a land of inequity and, worse, the slow trickle of attempts toward gradual change have led to stagnation, apathy, and a cultural numbing, not the major changes that are needed. As a country, we’ve been satisfied by the tranquilizing drug of gradual change. Isn’t it time to put the meds down and employ new tactics?

We need to encourage radical methods of attacking the root problem of systemic generational urban poverty on the streets where young people live. But many education programs use the gradual approach of plucking promising youth out of impoverished neighborhoods so they can leave and succeed elsewhere. This removes a potential source for change from the community and leaves behind those who don’t fit the “most likely to succeed” model. The individual success of some does nothing to change the neighborhood in which they were raised and where so many still reside. So, lacking the education necessary for jobs that earn a living wage, impoverished youth get caught in a downward spiral of crime or welfare dependency that is almost impossible to break.


In one challenged neighborhood of Boston’s Dorchester section, we seek out those “least likely to succeed.” Most have dropped out of school multiple times, and many have served time in prison. Many would call them gangbangers, drug dealers, or criminals because of what they do.


We call them “Core Influencers.” We believe disruption isn’t who they are; it is what they have done. Our Core Influencer theory contends that those who have the charisma and personality to lead peers into crime and other forms of disruption also have what it takes to lead neighborhoods to constructive behavior that benefits society. By supporting social disruptors, equipping them to earn high school equivalency and then community college degrees, and to earn a living wage, we are creating future leaders who can change their neighborhoods from the inside out.

Without education, Core Influencers are two times more likely to be incarcerated, are unemployed at double the rate of their peers, and cost the Commonwealth thousands of dollars in services. If we give them the education and resources to hold jobs that pay well enough to meet their needs, they become an important asset to help end generational poverty instead of being a drain on society.

Let’s experiment with radical new approaches, like college for the formerly gang-involved, and be bold enough to make huge, but meaningful, mistakes. What do we really have to lose? Today, an African-American male is still more likely to go to prison than he is to earn a bachelor’s degree, and the ripple effect this is having on our families, children, neighborhoods, and economy is just too big to ignore any longer.


It’s depressing. We haven’t been courageous enough to double and triple down on radical interventions and, as a country, commit to a different world. Martin Luther King Jr. was bold in his vision and in his quest to ease the racial divide in this country. Let’s take a page from his heroic playbook as we approach his birthday again this year. The future we dream about will come when we are daring and truthful about the real problems that exist in society and are willing to try new approaches for their repair. If we don’t, another 50 years will gradually go by and we will still be waiting for change.

Mark Culliton is the CEO of College Bound Dorchester.