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Youth Fellows: Not Just Another After-School Job

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It is a bright and balmy afternoon in Boston, a welcome change of pace after the seemingly endless winter the city has endured.

But inside the offices of the Boston Foundation, Deborah Ruiz and Carline Dorcena seem immune to the temptations of warm weather, deeply absorbed in a debate about the disenfranchisement of America's youths.

"Some people are real parasites to progress,'' Deborah observes. "Too many young people have just sat in front of the TV.''

"It's very hard if you don't have support systems [like families and churches],'' Carline counters; "it's easy to get caught up.''

Carline and Deborah are co-workers and friends. And still teenagers themselves. The two high school students met last year when they were hired as youth fellows at the Boston Foundation.

But unlike interns in many other offices, the two young women are not stuck performing tedious clerical tasks relegated to them by more senior employees. In fact, they are accorded some rather weighty responsibilities: Deborah and Carline review grant proposals, conduct site visits of prospective grantees and write up reports, and coordinate presentations for prospective donors.

The paid interns also recently helped coordinate the production of "In Our Own Voices,'' a special issue of The Boston Globe's Sunday magazine that was devoted to urban youths. They work full time in the summer, and 10 hours a week after school during the academic year.

"A lot of the staff are seeing them now as resources,'' Melinda G. Marble, the foundation's vice president for programs, says of the interns.

"They are responsible, they are creative,'' adds Christine Green, the associate director for programs. "They've been a wealth of information for me.''

A Voice for Youths

With assets of $305 million, the Boston Foundation is the fifth largest of the nation's 300 community foundations; it awarded more than $15 million in grants to 1,000 organizations last year.

Community foundations are regional public charities whose endowments are built from the contributions of individual donors, corporations, and others. In turn, these foundations focus their giving on local programs.

The decision to involve youths more seriously in the Boston Foundation's work evolved in part out of a series of round tables the foundation convened in 1992, one of which was on youth issues.

"I was struck first by how much the young people had to say and, second, by how they felt they were not being listened to,'' Marble recalls.

It also prompted Marble, a soft-spoken, easygoing woman, and her colleagues to mull over what they could do "to get the voices of young people inside the foundation in a more direct way.''

The youth-fellows program itself grew out of a more informal, short-term project. In the summer of 1992, the foundation hired a consultant, Margaret Leipsitz, the director of the John F. Kennedy Library Corps, to review youth programs in Boston's Dorchester section and develop criteria for evaluating youth-related grant proposals.

It also hired two teenagers, Tyrell Gates and Elisabeth Ortiz, whom Leipsitz knew through the Library Corps, a program that links students to a wide range of community-service opportunities around the city.

The team began the study by pinpointing the 19 programs on a map and then visiting each of them, talking to both the adult staff members and the youth participants. The result was a study called "Mapping What's Happening,'' which the team presented to the foundation's staff and board as well as an organization of Massachusetts grantmakers.

"We found there were programs right across the street from each other that didn't know about each other,'' recalls Elisabeth, now a sophomore political-science major at the University of Massachusetts' Boston campus. "They were fighting each other for grants when they could be collaborating,'' she adds, sounding like a seasoned foundation official.

As a result of this initial foray, the foundation decided to establish a more formal fellowship program.

It decided to recruit high-school-age students through nonprofit organizations and community groups rather than through schools. "What we wanted were kids who were already involved in community activities,'' Green explains.

One of the questions prospective interns must answer on this year's internship application is: "What are the most positive aspects of your community? How do you think these qualities can be maintained and strengthened?''

Elsewhere around the nation, several other foundations are attempting to involve youths in philanthropy, according to Mary Leonard, the director of the precollegiate group at the Washington-based Council on Foundations.

The Foundation for the National Capital Region in Washington, she notes, finances a program called Youth in Philanthropy to educate high school students about the nonprofit and foundation world. And New York City's Surdna Foundation has underwritten the creation of a pilot course in philanthropy for public high schools, giving classes $7,500 each to create their own foundations and distribute the funds to the charities of their choice. Next year, the program will expand from three to 20 schools.

Youthful Leaders

Both current interns at the Boston Foundation are youth leaders in their communities.

Carline Dorcena, a petite, poised senior at Monsignor Ryan High School--an all-girls Roman Catholic school in Boston--is the daughter of Haitian immigrants who work long hours as housekeepers. In her application to Dartmouth College, where she will enroll as a freshman next fall, Carline noted that she is one of five children in her family born in five consecutive years.

A resident of a neighborhood that straddles the Dorchester and Roxbury sections, Carline is active in the Dorchester Youth Council, through which she became a peer-tutor for younger children. She also serves on the youth committee of the board of directors of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, an urban-renewal effort.

Deborah Ruiz, a 16-year-old with long dark hair, was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Chelsea, a small city outside Boston, when she was 4. A junior at Chelsea High School, she works at Roca--"the rock'' in Spanish--a youth center in Chelsea. She is an aspiring artist and a member of the Youth Critics program, a group that takes young people on theater outings and teaches them how to write reviews.

Deborah laughs as she describes arriving at the foundation's imposing offices for her first interview.

The foundation is housed in 1 Boston Place, a modern downtown office tower that is also home to a variety of other businesses and nonprofit groups.

Adorning the building's sleek lobby are an 1829 painting of Boston by New England artist Robert Salman and two large pink floral arrangements.

"I looked all the way up at the 24th floor,'' Deborah remembers, craning her neck. "And on the elevator itself--all those suits! And here I am with my sandals and shorts--it was summer--it looked like I'd just gotten off the plane from Bermuda.''

"When we first got there, we thought it would be all rich old preppy people, white high-class conservatives with money [who were] greedy,'' recalls Elisabeth Ortiz, the previous intern. But their adult colleagues "really turned our faces the other way,'' she says. "We had the wrong idea about what a foundation was all about. Everyone was so down to earth. They really wanted to help.''

In particular, Elisabeth was pleasantly surprised to discover that Marble, the vice president, was approachable, and remembers thinking "' Wow, that's so cool.' You think the vice president is like the big person who doesn't have time or anything.''

In contrast, the fellows report that leaders of some of the youth programs they dealt with in their work for the foundation were less than thrilled to do business with them.

When researching the Dorchester youth programs, Elisabeth says she and Tyrell were "sometimes hassled by adults'' who didn't believe they were really working for the foundation.

But once the adults realized it was true, Elisabeth says, "they would suck up to us so much: 'O.K., O.K., O.K., is that O.K. with you?''' She giggles. "We loved it, it was so funny.''

Whenever a staff member from a program would ask to talk to an adult, "that said something to us,'' observes Marble. "Some of the programs that were serving teens didn't take them very seriously.''

Adult Treatment

From the outset, the foundation tried to treat the youth fellows as adults. They were given titles and business cards and were assigned their own desks and phones next to adult staff members.

On a more substantive level, the interns were given important responsibilities.

Both Deborah and Carline conduct site visits of youth programs, talking to the young participants while a program officer talks to the adults on the program staff.

"Often,'' Marble notes, the youth fellows "get a different picture of the program than we did talking to the adult staff.'' And, she adds, they have given the staff some tough questions to ask officials of programs seeking funding about the extent to which youths are involved in the program design, evaluation, and governance.

Currently, the two young women are in the process of compiling a data base of Boston-area youth organizations. They also recently helped interview candidates for next year's fellowships.

Green, the associate director, credits the youth fellows with helping the Boston Foundation win a two-year, $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, one of 20 such awards Ford made to help community foundations assess local demographic changes.

As a part of the application process, Carline had taken a Ford Foundation representative on a tour of Dorchester. "Because she lives in the community and gave firsthand information about programs based on her own experience, we think Carline's presentation was a critical factor in our successful application,'' Green wrote to a program officer at another foundation who had asked about the fellowships.

Shifting Focus

The infusion of a youth perspective has also led foundation officials to question the whole concept of concentrating funds on at-risk youths.

In the past, Marble says, foundation officials "tended to look for the demonstration project that was on the cutting edge, working intensively with a small group of young people.'' Now, they see the need for "lots and lots of programs, different kinds, for lots of young people.'' The foundation recently has moved to support more youth-led programs, as well as more community centers that have "nothing unusual about them, but are cornerstones in their communities where kids feel safe, and that involve a huge number of kids.''

"They've done nice, nice work,'' Mary Leonard of the Council on Foundations says of the Boston Foundation. "As they engage the kids in the community-foundation work, [they] reach out to their families as well. It's a real win-win all over, a sort of 'grow your own' philanthropy.''

Looking back, foundation employees say the presence of living, breathing teenagers in their hallways has been a welcome reality check, reminding them of the urgency of the work that lies ahead.

"We've all upped the level of our work a little bit,'' Marble says. "They've held us to a higher standard.''

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