Matt Jackson, 34, recently wrapped up his first full semester at Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts. He hopes to have an associate degree by 2019 and eventually add bachelor’s and master’s degrees to his collection.
Jackson got his GED while he was in prison in 2004, two years before he was released back onto the streets that got him into trouble in the first place. But in 2014, Jackson’s life got a jolt that led him to Bunker Hill: his daughter’s mother was murdered. At the time, he said all he knew was selling drugs, but he stopped and got a job.
“I knew I can’t go back to prison,” Jackson said. “I couldn’t even risk it because all my daughter had was me.”
Jackson’s loss is what College Bound Dorchester CEO Mark Culliton calls an inflection point. The Boston nonprofit aims to engage the people contributing most heavily to neighborhood chaos, particularly when they seem most ready to make a change. The goal is to draw them into educational programs that can turn their lives around and use their eventual success to inspire the people who follow and respect them, significantly reducing disruption and violence on the streets.
Jackson is one of the earliest participants in the Boston Uncornered initiative, which gives these core influencers a weekly stipend to attend college, as well as social-emotional and logistical supports along the way. Jackson has a “college readiness advisor” through the program, someone who also came from Boston’s streets and can relate to his past as well as the challenges he faces in the present.
Culliton said these advisors are critical to the success of the program. They have the local knowledge to find people like Jackson, who are ready to commit to their education, and the shared experiences to relate to them.
Other critical partners in the Boston Uncornered program, of course, are the receiving colleges. Besides Bunker Hill Community College, College Bound Dorchester has memoranda of understanding with Roxbury Community College, Quincy College and the Ben Franklin Institute. Culliton asks colleges to make a commitment to understanding who it is College Bound Dorchester is serving. They’re not the high-achieving young people everybody tries to rescue from their dangerous neighborhoods, they’re the ones who have made the neighborhoods dangerous in the first place.
“Critically important is the president,” Culliton said. “I have relationships with each of those presidents, who are committed to serving challenging students, students from the communities they are committed to serving.”
The colleges also agree to provide space on campus for college readiness advisors, to assign one key staff person to serve as a liaison with College Bound Dorchester, and to help brainstorm ways for students to only spend Pell Grant money on credit-bearing courses. Sometimes that means courses that pair developmental instruction with college-level work so students end the semester with credits, and other times it means developmental courses that are free.
Jackson said he has already seen how the relationships between his college readiness advisors and Bunker Hill Community College paves the way for him to get attention when he needs it, which ultimately makes it more likely he’ll graduate.
Right now about 40 students participate in the Boston Uncornered program, but College Bound Dorchester is trying to raise $18 million to support the program’s first three years, during which time it hopes to enroll 250 students in college and engage several hundred more in GED and college readiness programs.
Even if students have to start with pre-college work, Michelle Caldeira, senior vice president of the nonprofit, said neighborhoods see the impact of their participation right away. College Bound Dorchester has been able to track the drops in shootings and other neighborhood violence where they’ve engaged a critical mass of “core influencers.” Caldeira cites a particular street that used to be violent but is now quiet.
“That’s the anecdotal of how can we prove on a larger scale that you can unlock the potential of a neighborhood by getting to the small group, the core influencers that are disrupting,” Caldeira said.
While College Bound Dorchester has been pushing its particular brand of community change for a decade, Culliton believes Boston Uncornered and its model of paying students to commit to their education could be a gamechanger.
Even with the stipend, Jackson had to be convinced to quit his job for school rather than another work opportunity. He and his daughter depend on his income, and the dominant impression he had of college is that it means debt. He’s more than six months into the program, though, and the $400-per-week stipend has kept him afloat. Now he’s working toward a career in human services and feels more comfortable with the idea of taking on some debt to make it happen.
“I want to have a career where I’m really giving back, touching the community,” Jackson said. And he knows he’s improving his neighborhood along the way. He has already brought in another young man from Boston who recently got out of prison, and he can see the ripple effects their involvement will have on the people who look up to them.
“Everybody wants money,” Jackson said. “They just got to realize this is the first step.”