Youth success is the key to ending violence

Without collective action, the problem will fester

IT’S BEEN HAPPENING almost every week, usually in one of the city’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. Another young man, and sometimes a boy still years from manhood, is shot and often loses his life on the streets of Boston. Recently a young mother was gunned down in Mattapan in front of her child. The death count is growing, each a variation of a senseless tragedy. And it’s tempting to grow numb to them.

Instead, we need to raise our voices. We can choose to treat the violence as a series of regrettable incidents, or we can recognize what’s truly happening on the streets of Boston: a public health crisis of youth violence that requires a concerted, emergency response.

This is the same Boston that is the envy of the world for its innovation in health care, biotech, and the place where all leading pharma and tech firms need to be to access our talent pool. We are a mecca for higher education and research. We create companies like Moderna that rapidly develop vaccines to save countless lives. And yet the bodies of our young people keep piling up only a few miles from the labs where the innovations were created.

Where’s that same innovation when it comes to saving these lives? Our goal should be making Boston number one in the country, as we do in so many areas, in a vitally important category: youth success. In order to get there, we need the kind of urgency and united purpose that the pandemic inspired. I know that’s much easier said than done because there are many excellent organizations dedicated to youth services, all with plenty to do. Without collective action and a shared commitment, the problems will fester, and the time is now

The ultimate solution to youth violence is to marshal our resources to become relentless and brilliant innovators for achieving greater youth success. Our efforts should start with a convening of leaders and the creation of a citywide youth services compact that focuses stakeholders in the private and public sector on new approaches to the violence epidemic.

A convening would yield candid conversations about what’s working and what isn’t. We must be honest in recognizing that despite the best efforts of so many organizations, the current service paradigm isn’t strategic enough and too many kids and young adults fall between the cracks. Perhaps the youth services network is too fragmented, one that diffuses accountability to the point that there’s not enough accountability. Perhaps we need fresh thinking, and a concerted plan that includes improving communication between the police, the schools, and the youth services network.

We know what works: One is to get on the streets and meet our young people where they’re at. We can’t expect them to come to us. That level of community outreach is exactly what happened during the pandemic — we brought the information and the vaccines to the community. Now we need to bring a fresh wave of experienced counselors into the community who understand the challenges and obstacles many of our youth face every day.

Young people also need models and pathways for personal and professional opportunity. The more our young people feel they can be part of Boston’s future, that there’s a belief in their individual potential, the more likely they won’t divert into the environments that often lead to violence. That also requires an active outreach effort that includes the schools and the business community.

If more resources are needed to address this epidemic, I’m confident Boston will respond. At Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, we have more than 100  community partners and are blessed with strong support from foundations, businesses, and individuals; relationships forged and cultivated with the singular goal of amplifying our young people. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg available in the city to tackle major issues. A collective call to action to address youth violence would mobilize more support and engage valuable new stakeholders.

I’m convinced we won’t stop the violence until we create more opportunities for our young people. Let’s harness our energy, determination, and resources to lead the nation in youth success. Who’s with me?

Robert Lewis Jr. is the president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston.