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Youth center leader builds on Roxbury roots

Elizabeth Miranda takes helm at Hawthorne Youth Community Ctr.

Saphia Suarez
Youth center leader builds on Roxbury roots
Hawthorne Youth and Community Center Executive Director Liz Miranda (right) chats with teenagers at the Roxbury center. (Photo: SAPHIA SUAREZ)

Hawthorne Youth and Community Center executive director Liz Miranda is a Roxbury native whose experiences as a teen in youth programs inspired her career in youth development work. She grew up in the Dudley Street Triangle, graduated from Wellesley College, then returned to Roxbury to pursue her passion for youth organizing. At the Hawthorne Center, she oversees the educational, cultural and recreational programs for youth and adults, as well as community forums for residents of Roxbury’s Highland Park area.

You grew up in Roxbury and have worked for much of your life in this community. How does your upbringing here inform your work?

I grew up in a part of Roxbury and north Dorchester that for a long time was disinvested in by our city. You couldn’t grow up there and not want to make a difference, because the residents of that neighborhood took control and transformed that community. Growing up I learned a lot about resident leadership and community change through my work with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and other organizations that I was part of as a young person. I was very familiar with and active in the Orchard Gardens — which was then the Orchard Park — housing development, where I learned that Cape Verdean Americans — my family is from the Cape Verde Islands — and African Americans could really connect to create change in their neighborhoods. So that had everything to do with the woman I am today, because I know that power belongs to the people and that we are stronger together, so by working across bridges of race and class and gender and age you can make a difference.

What did you enjoy growing up in Roxbury? What did you find challenging?

Roxbury is very much the soul of our city. Culturally, it is very rich. I remember that growing up in my neighborhood I knew a lot of Latino, Black, Vietnamese, Cape Verdean, Caribbean and Haitian people. It was a very colorful, vibrant world. It was a world where you learned to respect, acknowledge and appreciate people’s cultures.

My mom was a teen single mom and she had just come to this country, and still I saw possibility. I always felt hopeful, even though I didn’t come from much.

Also, Roxbury is full of young people. I think at one point in time one in three people in the neighborhood I grew up in were under the age of 18. We had a lot of youth power. People listened to us. We were really engaged. And I think that that led to a lot of change in our community because young people felt powerful. So I really loved growing up in Roxbury, and I would say north Dorchester, because the Cape Verdean community is kind of like the edge of the Roxbury community and then it stretches into Dorchester. The community is alive, it has a fighting spirit, and that keeps me on my toes and engaged in my work.

Why did you opt to stay here? What do you enjoy about your work?

I currently live in Grove Hall. The reason why I choose to live here is because I want for young people in particular who live in these communities to know that you can be successful while being among your people. I think so often we’re taught that if you reach a level of success then you’re supposed to get out of the neighborhood, but we need more people to stay in the neighborhoods and buy homes, buy businesses and run organizations so that our children know that it’s possible too.

What do you see as the major challenges facing the teens that Hawthorne Center serves?

Well, the out-of-school-time youth development field was really decimated in the 2000s. There was a lot of funding cut from youth organizations. Youth organizations and youth programming in some housing development were cut or stopped getting funding, and so did many public health youth initiatives — like when you think about DARE, when you think about all the teen pregnancy work, all the sexual health work, a lot of that — the peer leader system was really decimated. What we found was that by the time I graduated college and came back into the youth work field, it was really robust in the early 2000s, and by the time it came to 2010 a lot of our funding had dried up. And so the young people are living in a city where youth organizations are just fighting to stay alive. Here at the Hawthorne I’ve reconvened the Youth Workers Alliance, because I really believe that more engaged and supported youth workers means more engaged and supported youth.

Also, our young people are facing a lot of trauma. There’s a lot of mental health issues, there’s not enough jobs. If we can fight off these issues together with young people, I think we can improve the outcomes for young people by asking for better policies and more resources. What I find is that all the young people that come to our door, they’re talking about the same things. They’re talking about their futures and how they feel like they can’t get jobs, they’re concerned about trauma, gun violence and mental health, and they don’t know where to go.

What in your work with the teens in your center gives you hope?

I always get hope from young people because they stay dreamers. They come here to work, and they always amaze me with their beauty, their talent, their strength and how they want to see their futures bright. I believe in them, and they believe in us, and that always gives me hope. When I look at them I see a lot of myself — I see where I’ve gone in 20 years and I know that they’re going to supersede any of the things that I have for myself and for them.