A little nudge to play offers aimless teens a turnaround
He was only 12 years old two summers ago when he helped beat two teenagers unconscious in a Fields Corner parking lot, a brutal, gang-led attack by nearly two dozen Vietnamese-American youths that shocked the burgeoning immigrant community along Dorchester Avenue.
Today, the boy is 14, back in school, and says he has traded gang life for ping-pong and break dancing.
"I wish I would have never done this," said the boy, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "I feel like a whole new person. I feel like a whole new kid."
It is this kind of transformation that Dorchester community leaders hope to bring about in many other wayward Vietnamese-American teens who have either joined or flirted with gangs in the dense, diverse neighborhoods of Fields Corner, Ashmont, and Savin Hill.
Spurred into action by the beating, community leaders are intensifying efforts to give young Vietnamese-Americans alternatives to the street. Using an existing violence-prevention effort called Safe City, they are recruiting players for neighborhood basketball teams and dancers for a break dancing program. They offered part-time jobs to teenagers who participated in the beating, to propel them toward constructive lives.
"There's no such thing as an unorganized teen; it's just, who organizes them?" said Emmett Folgert, executive director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, a community organization helping to lead the initiative. "We have a whole group of young Asians that are not going to school, serious drug problems, not connected with a positive adult in their life."
For years, community activists had been dealing with gangs and sporadic violence among Asian youths along Dorchester Avenue. But the August 2007 beating, which was captured on video and broadcast widely on the Internet, was a wake-up call.
Part of the problem is cultural, say those who know and work in the neighborhood. Many Vietnamese-American teenagers are disconnected from their parents, they say, in part because many youths do not speak Vietnamese well and their parents do not speak English well.
"The challenge in the Vietnamese community is to define the problem," said Sam Yoon, a Boston city councilor and mayoral candidate who lives in Fields Corner.
The publicity of the 2007 beating changed that for the better, community leaders say.
"We're far more likely to get a call from the adult saying, 'I want to get my kid into something,' " said Vivian Soper, regional director for Greater Boston Catholic Charities, another organization involved in Safe City.
Following the beating, community leaders asked Harvard University specialists to poll young Vietnamese-Americans on their attitudes and behavior. Researchers are now evaluating 97 surveys they collected last year, said Mary Vriniotis, a research specialist at the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center.
Basketball has proven to be one of the most popular alternatives. Folgert's organization has formed three club teams that compete locally and out of state. Tomorrow, one of the teams will play in the first-ever Dorchester Neighborhood Classic, a tournament organized by Safe City featuring six Boston youth clubs.
On a recent weekday night, Vinh Bui, the teams' 24-year-old coach, led a gym full of players in a practice session at Dorchester House on Dorchester Avenue. Bui is one of several mentors whom Folgert hopes teenagers will emulate.
"I did a lot of stuff that a lot of teenage boys in this neighborhood do," Bui said. "I don't have a great education - I haven't finished school yet - and it's kind of like, I'm able to provide something people with master's and doctorates aren't able to explain to them. I relate to them best just because of my personal experience."
Today, Folgert says, he takes heart in seeing young Vietnamese-Americans walking down Dorchester Avenue bouncing basketballs.
For other teens, it is break dancing that provides an escape from the streets.
"They want something to keep their heads up, make them feel like they have something to prove, or feel like they belong," said Thai Tu, a 27-year-old who runs a break-dancing program at the Dorchester Youth Collaborative.
Folgert believes that these efforts are paying off, though he worries the state may cut funding for his programs.
"One of the problems with kids who are in gangs is that it isn't so much what they do; it's who they are - 'I'm a gangster,' you know? And we've got to change their mind. We've got to change what's in their head, and then their actions will follow."
The 14-year-old boy who participated in the 2007 beating says he likes the change. "I feel like the life I'm living is better, no fighting, no violence," he said. "My life is starting over."
Scott Helman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.