The room of teens whoop and look on as a young man in a Harvard sweatshirt brings in a large, decorated box. On its sides are images and maps of the City of Somerville, from Clarendon Hill to Union Square.
The Mental Health Wellness Ambassadors at the Center for Teen Empowerment have been gathering what could be described as intentions in the box: poems, quotes, letters, and messages from attendees at open mics and workshops expressing their fears, their hopes, or whatever else they had on their minds.
One poem found after rummaging among the papers is titled “Toxic Masculinity.” Fifteen-year-old Elie Billon, who wrote the poem, sits down in the second-floor room of the brick community center and performs it to his captivated peers, who urge him on.
“He was 15 when he saw his brother lose his life / Just wish one of them brought sense to a gun fight / All this stress and anxiety is pressing me so I’m unable to fly / But I’m worried about my image so I’m unable to cry.”
The Root of the Challenge
The Center for Teen Empowerment, a nonprofit that gives Somerville teens jobs as facilitators and change-makers in their community through programs like the Mental Health Wellness Ambassadors, is frequently host to the kind of vulnerability and connectedness that leads to healing.
Danny McLaughlin, the Director of Teen Empowerment Somerville—one of four branches throughout New England and New York—is keenly aware of the group’s place in the city given Somerville’s history. He and his whole staff grew up in Somerville, he says, and know the city inside and out.
Mayor Joseph Curtatone brought Teen Empowerment to the city in 2004-2005 and tasked the group with taking on a rash of overdoses, violence, and suicide among teenagers. Working with people throughout the community, Teen Empowerment sought to mend ties between youth and police while serving as a coordinator of the city’s outreach.
McLaughlin, now in his mid-30s, remembers his own teenage years as being different from what today’s Somerville teens are seeing.
“When I first came on, we were losing a kid a month—overdose, suicide, or murder,” McLaughlin says. “We lost almost 30 kids in a five-year span. The year I graduated Somerville High School, we lost two classmates immediately.”
McLaughlin calls the last several years “the peace times” compared to that earlier stretch, a period when the city, through groups like Teen Empowerment, has been able to get at underlying factors like anxiety and depression with far less violence and fewer overdoses than in years past.
But despite the city’s progress, the violence is not gone altogether. Back in August, McLaughlin notes, a 16-year-old was murdered in a high-profile shooting in the city.
The mental health challenges in Somerville stem from a whole host of sources, including school anxiety, racism, sexual harassment, and threats to undocumented immigrants.
“We’re hearing that anxiety and stress levels are higher,” McLaughlin says. “And one thing on affordability—these kids know what gentrification means. They know their friends are moving out. They know it’s hard to live here.”
Ten teens are part of the Mental Health Ambassadors program, where they pioneer workshops, open mic nights, dances, and more for their peers across the city. The program includes projects like the box of intentions, and other events like a recent workshop titled “How to Have a Hard Conversation.”
According to a study by the Department of Sociology at UMass Boston, Teen Empowerment has been broadly successful in hitting its goals. Serious youth violence shrank by 50 percent in Teen Empowerment’s first six years, according to the study. The program had the most impact once it started focusing its efforts on East Somerville, where youth crime was most prevalent, the study says.
“If you can get at those root things around voice and feeling heard and meeting the right people, it dramatically decreases your chances of negative behavior,” McLaughlin says of connecting with Somerville’s youth. “The role of the ambassadors is to remove the stigma, and give these people a voice … and a platform for people to share these issues too.”
Empowering Each Other
Taylor Copeland, a Teen Empowerment community facilitator who works closely with the Mental Health Wellness Ambassadors, hears the teens’ challenges every week. And sometimes, more often than that.
“We definitely like to talk about larger issues that are impacting youth, and there are big hitters: depression among youth, anxiety, time management, and stress, which I think is connected to a lot of things,” Copeland says.
Copeland recommends techniques to teens to de-escalate stressful situations—taking someone away from a fight, talking someone through a loss, or even something as simple as getting a friend a glass of water. In intense moments, decisions like those can be deeply impactful, she says.
Overall, these issues relate to being seen and heard. The Teen Empowerment website offers several videos made by the teens that get across feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress in a way that the community—and parents—can understand.
“One big thing was students talking to their parents or adults at large—and feeling like [the adults] don’t know where they’re coming from or don’t necessarily support what they do or feel,” Copeland explains.
Speaking at a debrief after the Hard Conversations workshop, the ambassadors share the sense that when they’re at Teen Empowerment they feel heard by staff facilitators and their peers.
“Being here and knowing everyone here makes me feel so comfortable,” says Carlos Dasilva, 17. “The facilitators, John, Taylor, and Josh—even after work or before, they’ll do anything to see a smile on your face. They’ll do anything to help create a solution to your problems.”
Another ambassador, Melissa Orasme, 15, says that after a long week at school, coming to the program is good closure, a space that can sometimes feel more meaningful than the classroom does.
“It’s not just going to school and sitting there … coming here means talking about the issues in our community,” she says. “They make you feel happy because they know how it is. They know how hard it is to be a teenager.”
The ambassadors often take their lessons—and the spirit imbued in Teen Empowerment’s internal culture—out into the larger community.
That includes individualized projects like the boxes—described by 18-year-old Liam O’Keefe, one of the teens involved, as something meant “for people in the community to share what’s important to them.”
It can also include working through anything impacting the community, like President Donald Trump’s immigration bans or the recent shooting in the city.
Overall, McLaughlin says that one of the biggest aims of Teen Empowerment is bringing young people into the fold and helping make their voices heard in the city.
“There are a lot of recent events that have been occurring that have been traumatizing for us, so as teen ambassadors, we create events to help people feel comfortable and safe,” Carlos says, referring to both local and national events.
“So many communities act like they know what’s best for them. In Somerville, we bring youth to the table and ask them what they feel about things,” he says. “They have new ideas that we never think about.”
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