Yvonne Abraham

Youth and the T

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / June 9, 2011

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“The wrong people are telling our stories.’’

Amatullah Mervin was sitting in a Dudley Square conference room this week with some other teenagers, talking about how invisible their work is. The State House lobbying efforts, the summer job rallies, they all seem to disappear beneath other stories from their neighborhoods — the murder on Bowdoin Street, the Carson Beach gang war that wasn’t.

But she and the others don’t dwell on these things. There is too much to do.

“We do this work because it needs to get done,’’ said Dakeria Fulks, 18 and headed to Regis College this fall. “We don’t do it to get praise. People highlight the negative things, and it’s a struggle, but it doesn’t put me down.’’

Besides, the activists, part of a group called Youth Way on the MBTA, have their hands full with the troubled behemoth that is the T.

Their involvement with the T began back in 2009, when the group — a coalition of about 100 teens from the Boston-area Youth Organizing Project and the Roxbury Environmental Empowerment project — pushed transportation officials to extend the cutoff time for MBTA student passes to 11 p.m. They argued, quite sensibly, that many kids found it impossible to play sports, get tutoring, or work after school and then get to their last trains and buses by 8 p.m., the old cutoff.

The hours were extended. That was a life-changer for many students, and a huge victory for the group, which also includes the T Riders Union.

“You definitely get the idea that activism works,’’ said Mervin, who will attend Curry College this fall. “You see the power and energy young people have. We’re the ones doing this, and not just adults.’’

And it gave the coalition confidence for its next battle: making the T cheaper for all youths, whether they’re in school or not.

For teenagers in poor neighborhoods, the T is a lifeline. Most of the kids on city trains and buses have obligations, just like adults do: They’re headed to school, or work, or GED classes — toward opportunities that might lift them up and out.

Mervin, who lives with her sister’s family in Cambridge, rides the T to Cambridge Rindge & Latin, to her volleyball games, to violin lessons, and to her meetings in Roxbury — all of the things that have made college possible. In a survey of 2,400 peers, she and the others found that distressingly high numbers of youths miss classes, workdays, or other appointments because they can’t make T fare. In Jamaica Plain tomorrow afternoon, Youth Way will present MBTA General Manager Rich Davey with its report on young riders’ transportation challenges.

Their solution: a Youth Pass, which would cost $10 a month, year-round, to all riders ages 12-21.

Fifteen of the activists have been meeting regularly with Department of Transportation officials for a couple of years to discuss the pass. They don’t expect to be treated nicely downtown just because they’re teens. They’ve studied the finances. They know their stuff.

“I’ve been impressed with their organizational skills,’’ said Clinton Bench, deputy executive director of planning for MassDOT. “It’s clear they’ve spent substantial time identifying what they want to achieve, and preparing answers to tough questions.’’

Still, a $10 Youth Pass is a hard sell. Finances at the T are spectacularly messed up, and a transportation department analysis found the pass could cost as much as $27 million annually. None of this deters the activists. “We’re just going to keep going back at them,’’ Fulks said. They will keep gathering in that conference room in Dudley Square, largely unseen, telling their different story.

Fulks and Mervin will hand off the cause this fall. There are plenty of young shoulders eager to bear it.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at