According to Program Director Danny McLaughlin, the organization serves as an intervention
(Somerville Wire) – Somerville’s Center for Teen Empowerment hires local youth for jobs around the city—having been founded to address drug use, gang activity, and suicide rates in youth—but it has also served as a vital support during the pandemic. For teens grappling with social isolation and anxiety, TE has offered them connection and a community that helps them feel that they are not alone. In light of recent shootings in Somerville, TE has also taken steps to address violence and gang activity in the city. Program director Danny McLaughlin said that during the time of the coronavirus, teens encountered some challenges.
“Anxiety was something that we saw pick up,” said McLaughlin. “ … Another thing that we talked about was abuse. People are at home now. Sometimes, being at school or being at programs is their escape; they can get away. Maybe it’s a tougher situation at home. Maybe there’s alcoholism there, or maybe there’s abuse there. That’s obviously not every youth in the program, but there’s a handful that have to deal with these things.” He added, “Think about kids that were juniors in high school in March , and they were told they were going home for two weeks, and then they never came back. … Having your whole world ripped out from under you, as a teenager, [is not easy for them].”
When the pandemic began, TE began holding programs for teens online over Zoom. Alex Morales, a youth member of TE, lives in East Somerville and is entering tenth grade. He first heard about the organization through a youth councilor, and he has joined the mental health program. Having felt somewhat depressed and lonely because of the isolation, Morales said that the program allowed him to share his story and listen to others. Understanding his peers’ problems and “helping them with their emotional state” was gratifying for him.
“I’ve seen a lot of teens my age talk more about their pasts and help others with [their pasts], understanding theirs as well,” said Morales. “ … It’s good understanding other people’s perspectives.” He added, “I feel inspired. I feel like they are brave, to talk about it.”
In response to shootings in Somerville, TE held an open mic event near the Mystic Learning Center, with the intention of bringing positive energy to the community. Over the years, McLaughlin said that his organization has endeavored to be a kind of “intervention,” an alternative for teens who might otherwise consider participating in gang activity. He said that after an interview process, TE “will hire you, if you are someone who is involved in that stuff … we also value their story.” In other words, said McLaughlin, while parents have complained that their high achieving teen did not get picked to work with TE, the program often seeks to help youth who may be more at risk. The reason a teen may join a gang, he said, varies and cannot be pinpointed to one particular motivation.
“You can never pin it on one thing,” said McLaughlin. “ … Maybe it’s a rough home, and [this is] an outlet, and it’s a way to make money. Maybe it just seems cool, it seems fun, and there’s boredom. You can never put it on a specific thing. You can see kids that were on honor roll, student athletes, who get involved in stuff like that. You can see kids from different situations. [Maybe] you didn’t have many role models, and people took care of you. Maybe it was just quick money, and that seemed appealing.”
John Norena, a program coordinator with TE, said that as a teenager, he had had gang affiliations and that when he joined TE, he began to “see life in a different way.”
“It was very tough, as a teenager—I just wanted to be like a normal kid,” said Norena. “I’m just like everybody else. It was very hard, because the people that were around me were just gang affiliated. I was just one of those people that was made a product of that environment, because of being there and being able to defend myself as a young individual. After a while, you think, is this what life is going to really come to? It was like a wakeup call, and I started working here as a teenager.”
McLaughlin added that he is hoping that Teen Voices will be activated to serve as a force for change. The city has come a long way, he said, since the time when it was hard to catch the ear of a local representative. Now, city officials want to hear from young people. At meetings about the development of Foss Park and Healey School, representatives called TE and asked for teens to attend.
“Kids came to those meetings and talked about what they want to see—kids from the area,” said McLaughlin. “It’s been really powerful to see a lot of the policy change happen on that level.”
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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.