By Cameron Zohoori
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.