Keziah Clarke is spreading a young man’s vision to develop good citizens
“We are rapidly expanding and we need to go big. If we are going to close the youth engagement gap, it is big and we need to go big, there is no time for waiting.” -Kevin Ballen
The first thing that separates Kevin Ballen from any other person hanging around Harvard Square is his huge, infectious smile. His deep gaze has the ability to calm any storm. Then he starts to talk, and it feels like you are taking off on a rocket ship. He has the most incredible stories and thoughtful insights, but his only speed is approximately 2,000 words per minute. Going full speed ahead all of the time, Ballen has been gifted with boundless energy and imagination. Even more impressive, he always finds a way to realize his ideas.
So last August, when he casually mentioned the staggering youth engagement gap in Boston, I took notice. By the end of September, he found a home for his initiative, ENGAGE Boston, at the headquarters of Be The Change, Inc. And now, just six months in, his crazy idea to eradicate the Boston youth engagement gap by getting students throughout the city thinking and doing something about social issues in their neighborhoods is quickly entering the realm of reality.
Last week, Ballen slowed down just long enough at the WHRB News recording studio for a candid interview about his ambitious initiative to alter the way young people interact with and contribute to their community.
So what exactly is ENGAGE Boston?
The long and the short of it is that Ballen wants to empower every young person in Boston to take action on issues they feel strongly about. To reach them, the organization is focused on becoming an integrated component of every space that already captivates young people throughout the day: in the classroom, on the playing field, at the community center.
Why are you passionate about the subject matter?
It all started when Ballen transitioned from Southborough, MA to Boston for high school. To him, Boston was supposed to offer everything suburbia could not: peers interested and engaged in civic issues. Instead, he realized that there were generally limited opportunities for young people to get involved in politics, at non-profits, or in school. When opportunities were available, they, “tended to take on a transactional nature of service requirements; cultural education was stilted to half day; and civics was cut and dry if it existed.” He realized that civic mindedness was no more appreciated in the big city than it was in his hometown.
So he ran the numbers. Over the course of a student’s four year high school journey, he spends 1,500 hours on math. That is four years of math every day with homework every night; it is four trained teachers and ten state and national assessments. And how much time is dedicated to character building, arguably the most important skill a person can learn? At his high school, one of Boston’s finest, it was about 40 hours over the entire four years. For Ballen, “that is the biggest problem that our education system faces; we are not teaching young people how to participate now!”
What are you doing about it?
A man of action, Ballen has partnered ENGAGE Boston with seven “core” schools from East Boston and Downtown to Dorchester and Roslindale, and to round it all out, ENGAGE Boston is also at 19 YMCA sites throughout the city. Graduate students in education run the three components of this tier one effort to weave their programming “engagement ingredients list” into every student’s day both during and after class time. Reaching students ranging from 5 to 18 years old, the organization's main Pilot program officially began this past Martin Luther King Jr Day.
The first component, Knowledge, focuses on collaborating with teachers to incorporate civic connections into curriculum. They have math classes looking at tax brackets and racial discrepancies. There are history classes helping elders in the community write their memoirs. They are teaching students the greater value of their concrete skills.
The second component, Exposure, deals with students’ personal development. It gives young people a rare platform to identify and discuss, “who they are, who they want to be, and who is around them.”
The third program, Action, is Ballen’s favorite. This after school component sends young people into their communities. After doing research of their own by meeting with their city councilors and learning about the needs from the community, students then use their strengths to contribute to a community challenge. ENGAGE has supported students to build programs such as community libraries, gardens, and sports enrichment programs. “It gives young people that power, that autonomy over building something for their peers and the people around them,” Ballen adds excitedly.
Why is this organization important now?
To Ballen, one of the biggest barriers to countering dissatisfaction with the status quo is uncertainty about how to get involved. And as a result, “there is a tendency to go for the big sexy resistance,” advocating for specific policies or against certain people. While he believes showing up is great, Ballen counters that people are “forgetting about what’s happening at home.” For young people and adults alike, ENGAGE Boston helps to emphasize how much power individuals have when it comes to addressing the issues about which they care.
Impassioned to a fever pitch, he then began paraphrasing Robert Kennedy’s famous “Ripple of Hope” speech saying, “you spread a ripple of hope, you do one thing...and that becomes a wave, and that wave becomes a tsunami and that tsunami is what breaks down the sturdiest walls of oppression!But it all starts with an individual person standing up for what they believe in.”
Kevin Ballen is that tsunami-starting individual.