Bird Street connects students

by Christina Bartson / Beacon Staff • September 25, 2013

Participants in the Bird Street program hope to reduce violence among city high school and middle school students.
courtesy of Silver Qi
Participants in the Bird Street program hope to reduce violence among city high school and middle school students.
courtesy of Silver Qi

Randy Boston stands with a microphone in hand and looks into the camera.

“I’m here to spread knowledge on top of truth,” he said. “I’m here to help you help other people. The words that come out of my mouth—I hope it impacts your heart.”

Boston, a sophomore at City on the Hill Charter Public School, raps about anti-violence in a public service announcement video on YouTube created by The Emerson/Bird Street Civic Engagement Project — a partnership between Emerson College and the Bird Street Community Center of Dorchester.  The project focuses on teaching middle school and high school students to resolve conflict through communication.

Gregory Payne and Spencer Kimball, professors in Emerson’s communication department, launched the project last spring as a result of President M. Lee Pelton’s civic engagement initiative on campus. Payne and Kimball reached out to the Bird Street Community center, a non-profit foundation that mentors inner-city youth, according to Neil Harris, a Boston public school teacher and the on-site coordinator for the community center.

After receiving a $12,500 grant from the college in May, Payne, Kimball, and a group of Emerson students went to Dorchester to teach middle school and high school age Bird Street participants to write, act in, film, and direct videos. The Emerson group hopes participants will show peers in their community that communication can trump violence, said Kimball.

Over the summer, Bird Street participants created PSAs on violence and bullying, which they posted on YouTube, with mentorship from Emerson students Felix Chen, a senior communications major, and Silver Qi, a graduate student in the communications management program. They also started a Facebook page, launched a blog, and wrote poetry.

“They’re amazing,” said Chen. “[The students] are really talented. They’re only 15, 16 years old, but you can see the brightness in their hearts and in their minds.”

Boston said although he joined the project on a whim, it has greatly impacted his life.

“When you dedicate yourself to something, you stay out of trouble,” said Boston. “This program has definitely opened doors for me.”

Like Boston, Chen has also felt the impact of this program.

“It’s an amazing experience,” said Chen. “You can actually apply all the skills you learn in the classroom to society. This is real problem solving. You’re actually making changes in society.”

Juliet Albin, a senior marketing communication major, also participated. 

“Emerson always talks about being more involved in Boston’s communities, but this project helped solidify that idea,” she said.

Albin and Chen both said the project wasn’t just about tackling the problem of violence in the community—it was also about building relationships with people from different backgrounds.

“After three months, I felt a deep, personal relationship with them,” said Chen. “We come from such different backgrounds. But in the end, something just clicked.”

Albin said the students still reach out to her when they aren’t feeling good about something or when they have a problem.

“I’m happy to say that I’m keeping in touch,” said Albin. 

For Bird Street participant Boston, the feeling is mutual.

“The way they look after us is real. They want to see us doing things in life. They give us advice. And when they have problems, they tell us. So it’s sort of like, we’re pretty tight with each other,” said Boston of the Emerson students and staff.

The Bird Street participants presented their work to Pelton in June and he was inspired, said Kimball.

In September, Emerson students and faculty and Bird Street participants resumed their weekly meetings and started planning phase two of the project. They are working to expand the program within the community and across the nation, said Payne.

A group of participants from the project will go to Washington D.C. this November to present their project to members of Congress, according Kimball.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has expressed interest in the project, said Kimball, and rapper Nelly has also paid notice.

Emerson faculty and alumni will teach monthly workshops at the Bird Street community center on subjects like public speaking, dance, and creative writing, said Payne, and will incorporate different languages.

For Payne and Emerson students, the ultimate goal of the project is to have Bird Street students attend Emerson College—a testament to how strongly they feel about the at-risk students and the role dialogue plays in their communities.

“Communication is the most valuable weapon in the world today,” said Payne. “If we can truly communicate with people, we can change and influence their hearts and minds.”