04/25/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Teen Empowerment Creates Agents for Positive Change

The regenerative power of youth can heal violence. Kids just have to be empowered to do so. Since 2000, 36-year old Craig McClay has been a program coordinator for The Center for Teen Empowerment. He knows firsthand how teens will choose non-violence over aggression if they have hope in their future.

Drugs, gangs or today's materialistic culture are not the biggest threats. It is negative adult perception, according to McClay.

"We constantly suppress their voice, their talent and the skills of these young people. We put them down. We don't support them in ways they need to be supported and we don't listen to them," he said.

Founded in 1992 by Stanley Pollack in Boston, The Center for Teen Empowerment is a successful model for transforming troubled youth into agents for positive change. TE's "youth organizers," ages 14-21, tap into their community networks to bring peers into face-to-face dialogue about issues such as racism, drugs or violence. Teen events and performances inspire through dance, rap, poetry and music. Teens who once felt helpless speak publicly about hope and the skills to pursue their dreams. In Massachusetts, The Center for Teen Empowerment has three sites and one in Rochester, NY.

Youth organizers are paid $9/hour and work 8-10 hours during school weeks, and 20 weekly hours in the summer. They identify problems in their communities, creating strategies and solutions. They are active in outreach as positive role models. The focus is always on the respect and empowerment of teens.

"I can't reach those people. They wouldn't listen to me, but they listen to their friends," said McClay, who began with TE as a 16-year-old youth organizer.

An annual fundraiser, A Celebration of Hope and Caring, is set for March 4 in Boston at John Joseph U.S. Moakley Court House to honor Sonia Alleyne Matthews and Joseph Jackson. Teens will strut their stuff in dance, music and performance.

It is an organization that boasts measurable success. In 1992 it first tackled gang violence in Boston, which fast escalated in hatred and fatalities. Fourteen TE youth organizers brought together youth, police and adults in community meetings. At TE's first Peace Conference in 1993, leaders from five housing projects, previously hostile to each other, came together to put down their guns and sign a peace treaty.

Kids know their neighborhoods and who controls what. A community may seem disconnected but a network structure is always in place, according to McClay. For example, there's the person who knows everything that goes on, a valuable information resource. The "community caretaker" is known for open arms and an open door. The "gatekeeper" is the self-assigned protector who asks, "Where are you from?" Youth organizers know the turf and gain trust and credibility. Youth organizers bring other teens to TE events which showcases their peers who have overcome obstacles. Many are inspired to change attitudes and behaviors to build toward a future.

Teen Empowerment is the difference between life and death, according to 16 -year-old Arlene Baldwin of Dorchester. In 2009 alone, three of her friends were murdered. To give hope to someone else is her most important message as a youth organizer.

`"I feel like I am saving somebody's life. A lot of teens are wrapped up around guns or boys. All of us as role models show what you can be, what you can do and that you can definitely achieve your goals," she said.

Another youth organizer, 17-year-old Agnes Vargas, is no stranger to violence. Vargas remembers when a group of girls viciously attacked her, her 15-year old sister and her mother while the three family members were trying to protect Vargas' 13-year old sister. The beatings left her with a cut ear, dents in her ribcage and bruises on her body.

"If I weren't in TE, I would have gone after the girls but I heard everybody's stories in the community. Going back makes things worse. People die and it will not make you a better person and it won't do anything for you. I had to let it go and deal with it maturely," she said.

And now she applies her hard won maturity to mourning. On February 22 her neighbor, 72-year-old Geraldo Cerrano, was murdered in Dorchester. The elderly father of nine was working at a food store when he was shot in the throat for refusing to obey armed robbers.

"He was like my little sister's grandfather. It's going to be so hard for her. We're trying to explain it to her now," said Vargas.

But even in her grief, the 17-year-old is committed to being an agent for change. She has witnessed how life skills -- discipline, activism, communication and confidence - have turned young lives around. Even through her tears, Vargas believes her experiences will strengthen her for others.

"When you are working for something that you just hear about from others, you cannot connect as deeply as when you go through things yourself," she said.

Recently 600 teens marched on the Massachusetts State House to rally for funding of youth jobs. Two years ago, state funding was $12 million. Last year it had been slashed to $6 million with further cuts to come. Teens testified before senators and representatives that jobs for young people in at-risk communities save lives. They asked only to restore funding to the previous year's level with no further cuts.

"These young people have an amazing capacity to love and to be loved and to take care of themselves. The biggest challenge is to reconnect teens to the belief in themselves as powerful beings," said McClay.

Celebration for Hope and Caring
The Center for Teen Empowerment
March 4, 2010
John Joseph U.S. Moakley CourtHouse
One Courthouse Way