Alex Diaz’s story would not surprise anyone familiar with the effects of generational urban poverty. Born and raised in Dorchester, a lower-income neighborhood in Boston, Diaz grew up without a father and dropped out of school in the ninth grade. He joined a gang and committed a series of misdemeanors and felonies, including armed robbery and kidnapping, which eventually landed him in the South Bay House of Correction, a local prison. He spent eight years behind bars and was released four years ago.
But here’s where Diaz’s life departs from the common script. Now 31, Diaz recently passed his High School Equivalency Test (HiSET) and is pursuing a certificate in practical electricity at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. What turned Diaz’s life around is a program, Boston Uncornered, that formally launched this past spring, following a seven-student pilot in January 2016. The program pays gang-involved individuals, most of whom have spent time behind bars, a stipend of $400 a week to attend classes to pass their HiSETs and, where possible, to attend college until they graduate with an associate’s degree.
Students also receive social and emotional support from Boston Uncornered’s parent program, the education nonprofit College Bound Dorchester. Currently, Boston Uncornered is working with 170 students, 36 of whom receive stipends and 30 of whom are enrolled in college. “People coming out of jail need a lot of help,” says Diaz, who has guided friends into the program after enrolling himself. “I got a lot of friends that are in college right now, especially guys I know from the street, who thought they could never make it.”
Mark Culliton, College Bound Dorchester’s founder and CEO, calls Boston Uncornered a culmination of 10 years of trial and error, and key to College Bound Dorchester’s core mission of ending generational poverty. “Middle-class kids are essentially paid to go to college, so what if we paid these guys to go?” he asks. There are three components that make Boston Uncornered unique among gang-intervention programs, Culliton says: college as a “baseline” expectation of all students; stipends that enable students to focus on education full-time; and the hiring of former gang members as “college readiness advisors” who can help other students turn their lives around.
“I think it’s critical that you hire people with the same history and background and then you give them the tools, rather than try to do it with social workers or other people with expertise but not the connections,” Culliton says.
The Boston Uncornered program started with a white paper that Culliton wrote four years ago titled “The Core Influencer Theory.” The paper was inspired in part by an article in The New Yorker by writer-surgeon Atul Gawande about the idea of “super-users” in health care: people who represent a fraction of the US population but are responsible for 50 percent of the nation’s medical spending. Are there, similarly, “a small number of gang-involved individuals, or ‘core influencers,’ who are responsible for holding back entire communities?” Culliton asks. Recent research indicates that, indeed, roughly 1 percent of Boston’s youth participate in gangs, but they are involved in almost 60 percent of the city’s homicides.
In creating Boston Uncornered, Culliton also drew on research suggesting that each degree of separation from those involved in gang-related violence reduces one’s probability of getting shot or killed by 50 percent. With the help of the program’s college readiness advisors, Boston Uncornered looks to recruit people who are most likely to shoot or be shot, especially those recently out of jail and who might be looking to turn their lives around. Culliton believes that by connecting with those at the center of the network of violence, the program can help lift entire communities out of generational urban poverty.
“If you are able to change the people who are at the highest risk of being shot, I think you could have these second-order effects and do something about neighborhood conditions that seem to be intractable,” says Anthony Braga, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.
Although the program is still quite small, its numbers look promising. Of the participating former gang members, 85 percent have avoided being charged for crimes again.