As we continue to navigate the obstacles this pandemic throws at us, we are met with another, pervasive crisis – the recent explosion of gun violence in our community. Its impacts have reached far beyond its young victims, Xavier Louis-Jacques, Robert Favreau, and others who have been injured, and has penetrated into the lives of each of our residents. Their families carry a heavy weight in their hearts, while the kids we have failed suffer in silence and our neighbors, who COVID forced indoors for over a year, are now forced inside by gun violence. But the violence and fear our community is now feeling has been years in the making.
We know that poverty and trauma is the root of most crime, so when the only two options to escape poverty are heading to college or turning to the streets, it’s no surprise that so many of our kids get caught up in the cycle of violence. If we’re serious about addressing dangerous crime in our community, that means creating sustainable, alternative opportunities for long-term, upward economic mobility, starting with taking stock of our existing programs and re-imagining our support structures.
In these situations, we so often hear well-intentioned calls to institute new programs to target this vulnerable group. While additional interventions may be needed, so many organizations in our community are already doing critical work to help our youth and young adults get on or stay on the right path, but without significant City investment, their impact is limited. Take Friday Night Hype (FNH), a mentorship program that connects middle school students with community leaders, therapeutic activities, hot meals, and more. I joined the FNH team and 100 middle schoolers last week for an afternoon of engaging programming, and was impressed, but not surprised, at what I saw. Each mentor either already knew every student by name or spent the four hour long event getting to know each scholar individually, demonstrating their unparalleled dedication to these kids. But by asking the organizers to rely on community donations and their own funds instead of providing routine City funding, which I called for in a recent policy order, we’re undervaluing their contributions to our community, and preventing them from expanding.
For our teens who don’t see college as the right fit for them, RSTA is uniquely positioned to prepare them for post-graduation life, but some kids are systemically labeled ‘problem students’ and are cast aside into these vocational programs for trades they don’t intend to pursue. Without a real career plan, too many are sucked into bad situations when their prospects don’t pan out. Next month, we’ll be starting a long overdue assessment of RSTA so we can take what works, leave what doesn’t, and mold this program into an opportunity for our young people. Setting our students up for success means meeting them where they are, and creating an approach with mental health support as well as education or relevant job training to stop the cycle of violence before it begins.
After graduation, Building Pathways helps prepare Cambridge residents for an apprenticeship in the building trades, opening the door to a career in construction and well-paying union jobs. This six-week experience plays a crucial role in training and advocating for young adults interested in construction jobs, but since it’s unpaid, far too many of our low-income youth, who this program could help support with a meaningful career opportunity, cannot access it. The City has an important responsibility here to put our dollars to work to get these young residents into work, by, for instance, providing living expense stipends to program participants who are seeking career advancement but just need this vital tool for success.
These are just a few examples of the many programs in the City that are already doing critical work to support our youth and young adults. By building on this existing infrastructure to target at-risk youth with holistic opportunities, we can leverage their well-earned community trust and ties to develop short and long-term interventions that truly work for the people they serve. Investing our time, our effort, and most importantly, our dollars, is the only way to get to a strong, interwoven support system that ensures these young residents are guided through every stage of life, so when they age out of one specific program, they can enter a new one if needed.
Our community is at a critical juncture. If we want to keep our young people and young adults safe and set them on a path towards long-term success, we have to close the opportunity and resource gaps through mentorships, workforce development, internships, re-entry programs, and more, so no kid falls through the cracks. That means checking our egos at the door, taking a hard look at programs that need revamping, and committing to developing a collaborative, multi-faceted plan to address gun violence. Re-imagining these interventions won’t be easy, but we need to meet the moment, because these are our kids, and we can’t lose one more.