Civic Engagement at UTEC, from the Streets to the Halls of Justice

It used to be just another day in the neighborhood. Violence. Poverty. Incarceration. But now for disconnected young adults in Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill, life on the streets has been transformed. Into civic engagement. From running successful businesses, to growing forgotten communities, to collaborating with legislatures, it’s a new day in the neighborhood. Thanks to civic engagement at UTEC.

The Power of Civic Engagement

UTEC (United Teen Equality Center), a long-time United Way of Massachusetts Bay partner agency, helps justice-minded young adults see the power of civic engagement. This work, providing post-secondary pathways for opportunity youth, ensures that young adults who are disconnected from school and work have opportunities to engage in education, training, and jobs. 

UTEC was born in 1999, when young people in Lowell, MA created their own teen center in response to gang violence. Over the years in this former 19th-century church, the civic engagement spirit has risen to become a national model for outcomes-focused youth development.

We Never Give Up.

With an oath of “we never give up on a young person,” UTEC’s frontline Streetworkers engage youth where they’re at – and that could be on the streets or in the prison system. This is where civic engagement truly begins. Next up, a young person can be actively involved in UTEC’s three social enterprises (businesses): Mattress Recycling, Food Services, and Woodworking (Whole Foods is a customer).

“Our young people start with the fundamentals in these social enterprises, things like learning how to show up on time, and learning how to deal with conflict in a way that’s healthy and positive,” says UTEC’s Director of Organizing and Policy, Geoff Foster. “The social enterprise model allows us to give them that safe place to fail. There’s accountability, done in a way to mirror a relapse model.”

The Future is the Goal.

For many young people working in one of these successful businesses, the future is the goal:  higher education, a career, or even politics. When they’re ready, youth at UTEC enter “Pathways” which helps them find high-quality jobs with the help of a dedicated coach for up to 2 years.

“It’s really important that at-risk young people don’t just trade violence and poverty for a job: we want them to take the next step, “ says Foster, “to transition into someone who sees their value and power in their communities, see themselves as agents of change for their whole community.”

Changing their lives for the better.

And it looks like many UTEC young people have become agents of change – for themselves and their families. In 2018, 94% of initially enrolled UTEC young adults had a criminal record, but once involved with UTEC’s programs and coaches, the numbers are impressive:  97% had no new convictions or technical violations; 88% had no new arrests; and 63% received industry-recognized certifications.

Taking the Engagement on the Road

While UTEC’s social enterprises are key components to civic engagement, its statewide, youth-lead policy coalition Teens Leading the Way provides a stage for UTEC youth to create and mobilize policy platforms and campaigns.

Each year, the young people of UTEC organize candidate forums – “this is big for us,” says Foster – allowing young people to bridge the gap between themselves as an individual and the social and cultural systems that they’re living within. UTEC’s young adults create the questions (“If elected, how would you deal with youth violence in our communities?”), invite the candidates, and run these meaningful forums for city council, state, congressional, or gubernatorial candidates. “We have a saying,” says Foster, “If you want to run for office in our area, you have to go through UTEC!”

Is all this political civic engagement providing value? You could say that: UTEC’s young adults were so successful in their legislative activism that both an important civics education bill and a youth-focused expungement bill  were passed into Massachusetts law this past year.

Foster admits the legislative work is long-term and not always easy (the Civics bill took almost 10 years), but his take on civic engagement says it all: “We celebrate the small milestones and let our young people own the win.”

“We want young people to understand their social and economic power, “ says Foster. “It’s not just enough to transition out of violence and poverty – we want our young people to turn into the leaders of our community that can lift the whole community up.”

At the core of everything UTEC teaches is this: ignite and nurture the ambitions of young people. With a mission like that, civic engagement is in good hands.

Photo courtesy of UTEC.