Thursday, April 21, 2016

What the Bolling Building taught me about neighborhoods and youth employment

Buildings can play such important roles in neighborhoods. They can define them spatially and can orient activity that happens around them. They can create the identity of the neighborhood both for neighbors and for visitors.

Few buildings fit this description better than the old Ferdinand's building in the heart of Dudley Square. 

The old Ferdinand's (now called the Bruce C. Bolling) building today
Shaped as a triangle right at the base of Massachusetts Avenue, this old department store formed the retail anchor in a once thriving community.  By the 1970s, however, Dudley Square was in decline as urban centers were losing out to their suburban rivals. By 1987, the neighborhood had even lost its train stop. The Ferdinand's building sat vacant for many years. 

The original Ferdinand's (L) and the boarded up version (R)

As one of the most fitting legacies for the late mayor of Boston Tom Menino, the building finally got redeveloped by the city of Boston, using the wonderful Dutch architect Francine Houben teamed up with local firm Sasaki. Their accomplishment in the newly renamed Bruce C. Bolling Building is spectacular.

Interior: very Dutch, very beautiful

Now home to the Boston School Committee and offices of the city’s School Department, the Bolling Building also houses the Roxbury Innovation Center, whose goal is to spread the innovation culture outside of its confines in Kendall Square and the Seaport District and into neighborhoods such as Roxbury and Dorchester so that the word "entrepreneur" doesn't sound so ... French to the young men and women who are growing up there.

Last night, the RIC co-sponsored a panel discussion with the Microsoft Innovation and Policy Center entitled “Conversation in Civic Innovation: Enabling Youth Employment”. 

I applaud the folks at RIC and Microsoft for developing these conversations around civic innovation and their focus on equity. Last night’s panel started with Boston-area youth who are participating in the job market, but also who have opinions about how that job-market should be shaped. I was very interested by what I heard, and I offer a few quick take-aways from the panelists:
  • The Boston Public Schools fail miserably to educate their children effectively, particularly children of color, and they fail to provide any kind of effective guidance to kids as they think about their careers and their subsequent lives in the job world.
  • Criminal records have a debilitating effect on employment opportunities for youth, particularly for young men.
  • There is a difference between having a job, and having an interesting job.
Young men and women talk about their futures

The wisdom of these young people led me to my own observations ...
  • During the Q & A portion of the discussion, a young man who worked in youth engagement said that it was crucial for kids in the neighborhood to be aware of the social, societal and environmental hazards that they face, including the impact of the criminal justice system on their lives, the role a failing education system has on their opportunities, the role poor nutrition has on their health. The list goes on, but the bigger point was how important it is for young people to be aware of the social justice issues that they face as they seek to enter the job market.
  • There is a huge gap between what these kids imagine for themselves, and what a middle-class kid images for him or herself at a similar age. As someone said to me after the talk, “you don’t know what you don’t know," meaning that if you’ve never been exposed to veterinary science or linguistics or mechanical engineering or computer coding, you might never be able to imagine that A. you might enjoy something like that; B. you could actually make a career out of something like that. 
  • Soft skills, soft skills, soft skills are as important as hard skills, hard skills, hard skills.
  • Policy people talk a completely different language from the people they are trying to serve. This dissonance is painful to listen to, even if it is entirely predictable, and in some ways inevitable.
As I left the Bolling Building, I couldn’t help but feel that we have a long way to go to close these gaps and address these inequities. Walking the dark, deserted streets of Dudley Square at night, I felt just how far that neighborhood had fallen, and how challenging it will be to knit back together a vibrant community in that wonderful place.