Parenthood is not something I think about much on a daily basis. I’m able to make day-to-day decisions without regard to children or other dependents. But for many of the youth at UTEC, parenting is a normal part of their lives. More of the young people I have spent time with than not are parents. Some had their first child as young as 16, and in many cases their children are now a driving force behind their presence at UTEC.
In the past several weeks, I have spent a lot of time with a group of young men from the building trades work crew here at UTEC, accompanying them in their workdays and listening to their stories. Too often the stories are of childhoods that didn’t last long enough; of parents that were not present, or didn’t provide the support necessary for their children to succeed. But a common and remarkable thread has emerged. Many of these young men are also young fathers, driven to transform their lives and give their children a future they perhaps never envisioned for themselves.
Remarking on many of these young parents, UTEC transitional coach Tom Sun says, “When you have children either it changes you completely or you’re just completely pushed away. It’s never really in between. The father that embraces their children and accepts that responsibility…that’s your foundation, that gives you that drive.” And Geoff Foster, Associate Director of Political Action, says there can be even more significant changes in outlook for young fathers. “You see it a lot when our young men have kids. There’s a transformation that happens… they see themselves as good people that don’t need to be tough. They start to become proud of that – yeah I’m making goo-goo-ga-ga noises at my baby, what? That’s not tough? Well I’m a good father. So maybe a good father doesn’t have to be tough.”
Here, then, are a few of these fathers in their own words:
Mao Kang is a streetworker at UTEC. On a day-to-day basis, his work consists of reaching out to young people across Lowell, responding to violent incidents, and “planting seeds of peace” in the city’s youth. But Mao’s specialty is homeless outreach. Having been homeless himself for many years in his youth, he feels a special connection to the homeless of Lowell, and an awareness of the stigma attached to it. “What are the images that come to mind when you hear the word homeless? I ask a lot of people. They say, ah, some guy, the bum kicking a can, drug addict, long overcoat, have nothing better to do, beggar. You know, I say, that could be all of it. But you don’t know the rest.”
Young people can be particularly vulnerable to homelessness, as city shelters require parental consent for underage residents. “But if they’re 18 and older, they’ve got their own choices. Sometimes they’re on substance. And if you’re not clean you definitely can’t stay. So where you gonna go?”
“Our motto is, we never give up on anyone. Sometimes you have to call up your family like, honey, I’m going to be a little bit late. I don’t know what time, but I got some young person that got no place to stay. So there’s nothing I can do.”
Mao’s commitment to chipping away at the problem of homelessness in Lowell goes beyond the youth who come to UTEC for assistance. He frequently visits shelters and other hotspots around the city, checking in with previous acquaintances young and old, offering basic hygiene products and food supplies, and making new connections. For some, home is found in semi-permanent collections of tents near rivers, woods, and bridges around Lowell. These tent cities, many of which have been or will soon be removed, have been home to some residents for many years. Now many sites lie abandoned, the residents having left ahead of city efforts to clear them out. A walk through these partially abandoned homes reveals images both sad and uplifting, everyday and sublime: a trampoline with a gorgeous river view; partially charred family photos; pet rabbits in orderly hutches, with an extra constructed for donation to the animal shelter; and ingenious repurposing, recycling, and reusing.
Riqie Wainaina works in the Workforce Development Program at UTEC, spending most of his days in the mattress recycling crew. He travels to a warehouse in Lawrence, MA each day with the rest of the crew, under the supervision of two UTEC staff. There they dismantle and prepare discarded mattresses for recycling, part of UTEC’s push for sustainability in social, economic, and environmental practices. He has been at UTEC for several months, and has quickly gone from being homeless and unemployed to being a leader within the center. Here are a few glimpses of his current work, with excerpts of his story as told in his own words:
I think I had more fun growing up in Kenya, where the fun thing to do is to play soccer out in the streets or go to a farm to pick fruits in the trees, not just like sit around and be watching TV. I really want people to see the better side of Africa. It’s not all about like, “Oh we’re poor, we need something to do.” Everywhere has their pros and cons. Every person has their pros and their cons.
I came to the States almost two years ago. April 2010, to be exact. I won a green card lottery. They say it’s like one in a million chance for you to win. I was that one in a million. And when I got here I was dazed by the new life, the new change of culture.
I was living with my aunt. I started becoming Americanized, started talking slang, hanging with the “cool” people. I ended up joining the wrong crew and started selling drugs. That’s when my life started taking a downward trend. I think I got swallowed in that life; I didn’t see anything better than money.I had this friend; his name was James. And he wouldn’t twist it around. He was always like, “You’re either gonna end up in jail, or you’re gonna end up dead.”
I heard the gunshots going off six times. It was the craziest moment of my life. James just fell on the ground. He passed right in my arms. It’s so much to take that you don’t even feel it; you don’t know what to feel. And at that moment, I took that vow: I will never go back to that life.
Then my aunt got sick and she couldn’t work anymore, and a few months down the line she passed away. I got evicted from the house cause I couldn’t pay the bill anymore. I went to a homeless shelter for two months. I had lost complete hope. You don’t even see yourself as a person anymore.
One of my friends at the shelter was like, “Hey, you know this place UTEC? They help you out if you need a GED, they give you work skills and stuff like that.” So one day I decided, let me go and check it out. Ever since the first day I stepped in the doors of UTEC, it’s been life-changing.
Having a family you can depend on any time you need them, any time that you just need somebody to talk to… as soon as you come into UTEC they’re there for you. I think that’s pretty amazing.
Before I came to UTEC I felt like I had nobody to support me, or support my dreams. But for now, I think if I just set my mind right and concentrate on what I’m doing, I think I have enough support from everybody to achieve my goals.
In my time at UTEC thus far, I have seen the remarkable and diverse youth who spend their days in this center, and have begun to explore their stories. But it is not only in the young people that UTEC serves that there are untold stories, and it is not only in the ‘media’ as traditionally viewed that they should be heard. Last month, I had the opportunity to attend and observe the first ever conference of streetworkers from across the New England region. These are the people on the streets, reaching out to young people who are homeless, involved in gangs, or disconnected from resources in their community. UTEC’s streetworkers are on call 24/7, and respond to incidents of violence, visit young people all over the city. They have uniquely privileged access to the nearby jail, allowing them to continue working with youth who spend time there. In many cases streetworkers at UTEC and elsewhere come from these backgrounds themselves, having experienced gangs, drugs, or prison before turning around to counter those influences. And every day they deal with the tragedies of violence in their communities. As Michael Saunders of the Boston Center for Youth and Families said, “This is a painful job. I still have the voices of some of my kids on my answering machines who passed away. I refuse to erase their voices off my machine.”
Having over one hundred such workers in the same room makes for some powerful energy and, of course, stories. As Teny Gross, executive director of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, said in addressing the participants;
“It’s the greatest profession I know. How many mothers don’t get a phone call at 2 in the morning because of what you do? How many brothers and sisters are today finishing college and are being great parents because of you? Tell me another field that does that.”
A police officer attending the conference reaffirmed this, calling the streetworker methodology “the future of what my profession is going to be doing… this is how we’re going to be addressing crime.” And yet the profession is not recognized, rewarded, or advocated for in proportion to the impact it has. The term ‘streetworker’ isn’t even universally acknowledged, with the facility hosting the conference preferring the term ‘street outreach worker’ in their signage to avoid possible negative connotations. It is only through telling these stories to a wider audience that life-changing work like this will be allowed to permeate communities in the way it should.
Just as the streetworkers tell a story often not told, much of the work UTEC does is outside the traditional ‘story’ of nonprofit organizations, and even other youth centers. This is why one of the projects I am embarking upon is to capture elements of UTEC’s model that are hard to demonstrate or explain with traditional methods. I have begun to take these large scale stories I have seen around me, and explore them at the individual level. Both through specific elements of the model and intangible cultural values, I want to document how and why UTEC operates in the way it does – and to do so through the stories of the people learning and working here.
I have been at the United Teen Equality Center for nearly a month and a half now, immersed in the day-to-day operations of an organization that empowers young people in Lowell, MA to transform their lives by “trading violence and poverty for social and economic success”. Working with and embracing the most disconnected youth in the community is of course no simple task, and UTEC’s model must be multifaceted and dynamic. The staff of UTEC play many roles: streetworkers reaching out to young people “where they’re at”, whether that be in gangs, in prison, on the streets, or at home; teachers who run GED and high school diploma programs; enrichment and organizing coordinators who facilitate basketball tournaments, social justice workshops, and Get Out The Vote campaigns; work crew bosses who employ youth in catering, construction, and mattress recycling companies; ‘Transitional coaches’ who manage cases on an individual basis from the first day a youth signs up at UTEC, connecting them with resources in the community, accompanying them on court dates, and simply acting as a friend and mentor. I still learn new things every day about the model that UTEC puts into action, because, in some ways, the model is to have no model. Every young person is unique; each has a different story, different challenges, and different resources and skills with which to face them.
More distinctive, and perhaps more important, than the things the staff and youth at UTEC are doing is the spirit in which those things are done. Every morning at 9am, ‘Eye of the Tiger’ plays on the center’s loudspeakers, and all staff and young people in the building gather in the gym to share answers to the “question of the day,” do icebreakers, and set the vibe for the day. The staff offices surround a drop-in lounge where ping-pong and pool tables are in use all day. The youth who join programs at UTEC are told that they will never be given up on; the staff remain supportive and judgment-free, no matter what challenges the young people face or questionable decisions they make. UTEC knows that some of the young people it caters to are suspicious of institutions, have run up against and fought institutions all their lives. It strives to be a different kind of institution, one that they can embrace and feel ownership of. Nowhere is that ownership easier to see than in the building UTEC resides in, a 173-year-old church in downtown Lowell, renovated in large part by UTEC’s youth employees, and now certified as LEED Platinum sustainable and energy efficient – the oldest such building in the country. Since its beginnings as a simple drop-in space in Lowell’s only gang-neutral neighborhood, the fundamental core of UTEC has been to be something different, providing a social and physical atmosphere that these young people don’t find elsewhere. This remains true today, though in the spirit of “thinking big” it now also means coming to school and work in a building with soy insulation, an electric car charging station, and 147 solar panels on its roof.
Embracing the “think big” philosophy, within 5 days of being at UTEC I was immersed in multiple media projects for the grand opening of the newly renovated building. Over the past month I have begun to look through all the photos and videos shot at UTEC over the past 13 years, and I created three multimedia pieces for the Grand Opening on November 13. After over 300 people, including the governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, toured the building guided by youth and staff, they sat down at dinner tables where the church pews used to reside, now outfitted with a gym floor and state-of-the-art A/V system, for an awards ceremony, entertainment, and fundraising. The ceremony opened with a 5-minute piece documenting the renovation of UTEC’s current home and introducing the teen MCs for the evening. Later, another video paid tribute to the work done by some of UTEC’s teens advocating locally and in the state capital for a bill to lower the voting age to 17 in Lowell municipal elections. Lastly I shot a very short video introducing the two young women jointly receiving the first Youth Transformation of the Year Award, featuring interviews with their friends, mentors, and the mother of one of the young women.
As I transition from the work of the last month and a half to more methodical and long-term explorations – and as UTEC explores a newly expanded space and reinvigorated self-awareness – I hope I can expand some of the slices of stories I have witnessed in the month I have been here. After hearing the two young women recounting their stories as they received the Transformation of the Year Award, Governor Deval Patrick said in his remarks: “As complicated, as awkward, as maybe even embarrassing it sometimes is; as overcoming as you feel, it’s enormously important for you to tell your stories. Your story is a powerful story.” I hope that message will resonate with the young people of UTEC, and I hope we can begin to collaborate on telling some of those stories in the months to come.