As the Boston Red Sox completed their historic march to the world baseball championship in 2004, a fledgling alliance of the city’s youth workers did something that seemed foolhardy: It held a forum about kids on the night the beloved Sox won the World Series.
Nevertheless, the forum drew a standing room-only crowd. And while such gatherings typically produce lots of talk and promises, a year later the alliance had a victory: a significant boost in state and city funding for youth employment programs.
Alliances among youth agencies operate around the country with varying degrees of success. United Youth Workers of Boston has enjoyed quick impact and runs differently from many such groups, including its 1990s forerunner in Boston.
“ We’re driven by youth workers and youth, not executive directors or trainers,” says Sandy Martin, coordinator of the South End/Lower Roxbury Youth Workers’ Alliance and an organizer of the initiative. The initiative is driven by 10 to 15 youth workers and youth from such organizations as Teen Empowerment, Chinese Progressive Action and Catholic Charities of Greater Boston.
This month, United Youth Workers plans its third citywide forum, to discuss stabilizing funding for summer jobs and to identify its next moves. “We want to build on our accomplishments,” Martin says.
The fact that the alliance has accomplishments to build on says something about how it was formed and how it operates. Says alliance member Maria Dominguez Gray, coordinator of Mission Hill Youth Collaborative: “We’re as grass roots as it gets.”
United Youth Workers resurrects an idea the city’s youth workers and advocates have been trying out for more than 15 years. In 1989, organizers Mel King and Kristen Mehr formed the Youth Workers Alliance, a citywide initiative that focused on promoting professionalism in the youth work field. The organization held monthly training sessions, hosted professional development opportunities and sponsored statehouse rallies, says Mehr, who served as the first executive director.
As grants for the alliance ebbed and flowed, so did its activities. The city group eventually became more neighborhood-oriented, recalls King, now an advisory board member for United Youth Workers.
“ Some of the initial folks kept meeting, and the idea of a citywide alliance continued to percolate,” Martin says.
A spate of youth violence that broke out as the city hosted the Democratic National Convention in July 2004 provided a new spark. As city officials met with youth leaders to discuss youth problems and potential solutions, Martin and several colleagues floated a plan for a multi-organizational effort to support youth workers and youth causes.
Advocates figured that although Boston’s neighborhood alliances dealt with community challenges – such as the lack of documentation among immigrant youth – a citywide effort could better address larger, common issues, such as municipal budget cuts.
One of the networks of local youth workers – the South End/Lower Roxbury Youth Workers’ Alliance – took the lead. The Roxbury Alliance has full-time staff members who could fulfill the critical mission of organizing others in the field, Martin says.
Among their first steps was hosting a citywide youth forum in October 2004 to identify issues beyond budget cuts. But like a bride whose June wedding gets hit with a freak snowstorm, organizers watched the Red Sox ride to their first championship since 1918, with the fourth and final game of the World Series landing on the very night of the forum.
“ We realized the first meeting could flop,” Martin recalls.
An estimated 150 youth and youth workers crammed into the meeting.
That meeting spurred surveys and discussions among the existing neighborhood youth work alliances, which in turn identified four areas on which to focus: youth summer jobs; stable, long-term funding for youth services; living wages for youth workers; and youth leadership.
Unlike the previous citywide alliance, this one would focus on public policy issues more than on staff development. It would work with no funding of its own.
Mission No. 1: Summer jobs. City and state funding for youth summer jobs had been cut by more than half – from $8.61 million in fiscal 2001 to $3.8 million in 2004. That had forced cuts at organizations that place youth in summer employment. Boston Youth Fund, the city department that runs the summer jobs for youth program, says it went from providing 5,000 jobs in 2001 to 2,556 jobs in 2004.
Martin says United Youth Workers believed that increased funding for summer jobs was a reachable goal that could help youth and demonstrate the effectiveness of the alliance model.
Martin and other youth workers organized a second forum, in April 2005, inviting all city councilors and state legislators from Boston. Nearly all of them attended or sent representatives, Martin says. Gray says organizers turned away participants because they couldn’t squeeze more than 300 people into the room.
The alliance then sent a delegation to the state House of Representatives to press the jobs issue.
The result: For 2006, the state legislature put up a total of $4 million for youth summer jobs, and the city council brought Boston’s contribution up to $3.8 million. That restored the combined funding almost to the 2001 level. Gray estimates that the money will fund up to 8,000 jobs this summer.
It’s not a total victory. “Neither body made a multiyear commitment,” Martin notes.
That battle will continue. Gray says teens from two organizations – the Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project and Action for Community Environment – meet twice a month and are getting input from their peers about the need for summer jobs. They plan to present their findings at a statehouse rally.
In the long term, the alliance’s success won’t be measured in dollars alone. Like the previous citywide alliance, United Youth Workers wants to promote professionalism and communication in the field.
“ This is about youth and youth workers having a forum to support each other and have a voice,” Gray says.
“Success in this field comes from peer learning, networking and support. … We hope to focus on building relationships among youth workers and programs.”
Contact: South End/Lower Roxbury Youth Workers’ Alliance (617) 425-2081.