A direct approach to generational urban poverty

We must meet this moment with courage, conviction

I WATCHED in horror as the riots unfolded in the US Capitol on January 6, but I was not surprised. It was a culmination of actions we have seen over decades.

It strained credulity in the moment but not for anyone who has been paying attention since former president Trump’s ride down an escalator or since the birther attacks on former president Obama. Even a passing glance at media headlines or chyrons and a perfunctory scroll through the main social media sites clarified what many have long known — there are wide disparities in the response to peaceful protests by black, Latinx, and indigenous people compared to terrorist insurrection by white Trump supporters.

As the leader of a nonprofit organization in Boston, I have heard firsthand how many of our students and staff from communities of color are regularly stopped, terrorized, and arrested for far less or nothing at all. We have all watched black Americans brutally and unjustly killed by law enforcement for just being black, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Yet here we watched law enforcement take selfies with the terrorists and guide them down the stairs after they committed federal crimes.

The country we claim not to be was on full display – a nation struggling to hold on to its democracy with citizens pleading for leadership from their elected officials, but instead being met with sedition by some of those same officials.

Inauguration Day 2021 was two weeks after the riots, two days after this year’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, and a day after we crossed a stark threshold of 400,000 Americans dead from a raging pandemic. I watched the inaugural events with a renewed sense of calm, seeing US Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman in the presence of the first black vice president. I felt pride listening to poet Amanda Gorman proclaim, “there is always light…if only we’re brave enough to be it.”

I allowed myself a sense of hope listening to President Biden’s promise to “keep everything I do in your service, thinking not of power, but of possibilities,” as he stood “looking out in the great mall where Dr. King spoke of his dream.”

In all this, I reflect on leadership, on promises, on dreams. When I speak about my work, I often say our young people are no different than you and I. They have hopes and dreams. They simply need resources and opportunities. My colleagues and I have taken all we have learned, and created an organization that aims to shift the power to those who have been marginalized for too long. Our goal is to implement a solution to generational urban poverty.

We see the solution in those who many look past, those who are closest to the challenges that exist in urban communities. They are core influencers – active and former gang-involved young adults. Four years ago, we began a bold Uncornered initiative in Boston by focusing on core influencers. At the center of our work is the promise of direct financial assistance, a guaranteed income of sorts, and setting high expectations for those from whom most expect little.

It’s not a new idea. At the time of his assassination, Dr. King was said to be working on a follow-up to the march on Washington. He was planning the Poor People’s Campaign to make the case for a guaranteed income as a way to ensure equity and participation in the economy rather than reliance on welfare. He noted that, “the programs of the past all have another common failing—they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.”

Uncornered takes this baton and asks, what if we gave core influencers the space to allow them to focus on lifting themselves out of poverty? That space comes in the form of a stipend, direct financial assistance, for core influencers to focus on their academic and social emotional progression. This has often been simplified as “paying gang members to go to college.”

Meet the Author

Michelle Caldeira

Co-founder, Boston Uncornered
In the last four years, we have paid out nearly $3 million directly to core influencers. They have used those funds to take care of basic needs for themselves and their families. They have purchased textbooks and tools for college courses. They gave themselves a moment to breathe, a chance to survive. And then they thrived. They stayed away from violence – nine in ten did not return to any criminal activity. They set new goals – 70 percent enrolled in a credentialed post-secondary program. They continued toward success – 67 percent stick with the program from year to year. And in the neighborhoods where we engaged with core influencers, we saw a decrease in violence from 2016 to 2018.

As a new administration begins, I hope that one way we will exhibit new leadership is by looking at bold ideas and proven results. I call on us all to meet this moment with courage and conviction to affirm that Black Lives Matter and acknowledge that the work to eradicate white supremacy continues with urgency. I promise to continue disrupting systems of racism and oppression, professionally in my role at Uncornered and personally in my support of efforts that directly address these issues.

Michelle Caldeira is the co-founder of Boston Uncornered.