A gathering to honor Teen Empowerment
Former youth, mentors reunited at fundraiser
When Teen Empowerment organizer Jennifer Bannister first encountered Calvin Feliciano in the 1990s, some South End community members were skeptical the teenager would amount to anything. He had a long juvenile rap sheet and a disdain for authority that came across in his interactions with adults.
Bannister wondered, what could a white woman from Rochester New York, teach a kid from Villa Victoria?
She wonders that to this day.
“I learned a lot more from him than he did from me,” she said.
But last Wednesday at a Teen Empowerment fundraiser held at the John F. Kennedy Museum in Dorchester, Feliciano opened up about what he learned at the Roxbury-based nonprofit.
The event, titled “Change Begins with Youth,” was something of a homecoming for the staff and youth organizers who came through the organization in years past.
Former youth workers Rep. Liz Miranda and Gerly Adrien were honored during the event, along with Feliciano.
Feliciano, now deputy political director at SEIU Local 509, who in his spare time works on electoral campaigns across Massachusetts, said the organization gave him the tools to straighten out his life and thrive. Standing on the stage at the museum, he sang its praises.
“For me, Teen Empowerment was school,” he said. “It was college. I was barely in school from sixth grade on and was expelled from school in the 10th grade. [Youth organizers] Craig, Jennifer and Banjineh pushed me to get my G.E.D. and always reminded me not to ‘let school get in the way of my education,’ so they had me reading books and doing all sorts of political research. It was at Teen Empowerment that I truly became addicted to community organizing and politics.”
The Center for Teen Empowerment uses a philosophy that founding Executive Director Stanley Pollack learned from his days as a youth worker in Somerville in the 1980s.
“When you work with teenagers, it’s critical to see that their efforts are a part of the solution,” Pollack said.
Abrigal Forrester, a former director of community action at the Madison Park Development Corporation who took the helm at Teen Empowerment in February, said it was the organization’s teen-centered approach that drew him to the job.
“A lot of organizations don’t allow young people to process what they’re going through,” he said. “We give young people the space to work on themselves. Part of that is giving them space to focus on issues they’re facing in the community.”
Forrester, who grew up in Codman Square and spent 10 years serving time in state prisons before earning a G.E.D. and graduating from UMass Boston, said he lacked adult guidance in his youth.
“I didn’t have an organization like Teen Empowerment to help me with the issues I was facing,” he said.
Teen Empowerment currently counts 125 youth enrolled in its programming at its sites in Roxbury, Dorchester, Somerville and Rochester, New York. Forrester says those teens conduct outreach and host events that reach other youths in their surrounding communities.
The organization hosts peace conferences aimed at helping teens from different neighborhoods learn to work together. Youth working with Teen empowerment often participate in dialogues with Boston police officers and have advocated for reforms in the ways police interact with youths. The organization also hosts a youth-run artist collaborative, through which teens express themselves through visual arts, music and dance.
In his speech, Feliciano recalled how many of the people with whom he grew up in the South End have died or gone to jail. The work of Teen Empowerment, he said, is a matter of “life and death.”
“I stand here before you, knowing in my heart that this organization saves lives and creates leaders who will make change forever,” he said.