City of Boston Youth Organizer, Community Advocate
One of my personal mantras is that you can't let fear lead or let fear dictate your actions.
By Jaime Kaiser
In high school, Shari Davis found her way into the Mayor’s office as a member of his youth advisory council. She was surprised: Here was a platform where adults outside of her family were actually taking her ideas seriously! The experience had her hooked on the power of city government and she’s advocated for Boston’s youth ever since.
“I talk to cities across the nation where they have figured out youth development solutions. And every time it is about bringing young people to the table at the very beginning. It sounds obvious but if we were going to build a building, we would go get an expert, we would go get an architect.”
Davis became a department head in city government when she was only 23 years old. In 2013, she became the Director of Boston Centers for Youth and Families (BCYF) Division of Youth Engagement and Employment when the department was created. Currently, Shari oversees the Mayor's Youth Council, the SuccessLink Youth Employment Program, and the Mayor's Youth Outreach Team, among other initiatives. Davis estimated that around 10,000 youth in Boston come through the department each year.
I paid a trip to Davis at her office – not the department’s primary office in Roxbury but their City Hall location. I’d never been to City Hall before. Vast, grey concrete walls and pillars dominate its architecture, aptly named Brutalist in style. It was only later that I noticed the art projects some city employees had mounted in the hallway when Shari directed my attention to it.
After clearing security and navigating a maze of escalators and rooms, I arrived at what I suspected was the right place. “I’m here for a meeting with Miss Davis?” I asked the desk assistant. “I’m back here, Jaime! Walk around,” I heard her voice call casually from somewhere inside.
Why community organizing versus other modes of affecting change? I think about my experience a lot. I grew up as a martial artist in the city, and had some difficulties around understanding authority. I questioned the challenges that my friends were having around public safety and their safety within the community. They kept saying that there's nothing that we can do. We were fifteen and sixteen years old.
These are the struggles that we face and we see this all throughout history when we talk about civil rights struggles or various struggles that young people face in general, and I wondered how do we move the needle around social change? When I made it onto the Mayor's Youth Council, my role was the public safety liaison – a position on any organization is what you make of it, but in this role I was attending public safety meetings with district officers that were overseeing various components of the city. The most important voice in that room when they asked how to improve services or how to prevent violence was mine. All ears were wide open when I opened my mouth and, at sixteen years old, having that sort of conversation with police officers, with leaders around what's important and really shaping the agenda blew my mind.
The fact that folks would listen to me and see me as the expert was amazing – and then seeing action take place as a result of what my friends and I had said, that is the feeling of real empowerment. Now today, ten years later, I'm convening these groups and allowing other young people to experience that same thing. We're seeing young people decide how a million dollars of the city's budget is spent. That's real power. That's real social change.
Talk about some of the projects you're working on right now. One of the projects that I'm really excited about is the redesign of the success link registration tool that folks use to engage in our program. We're asking young people what they really need from us and what they need from an employer, and we are really using that feedback to create a totally new system designed by and for young people that will allow them to get closer to their needs around employment. What development do they need to be successful in the workforce? How do we connect those dots? How do we integrate that data with some of the other youth-serving agencies in the city?
What factors into the success or failure of an idea? As we're coming up with ideas, generally speaking, engaging critical groups is really important to the success or failure of an idea. The best example I can give is I spend a lot of time thinking about youth programs and youth culture and how to infuse that into various institutions whether that's municipal, government, you name it. One of the biggest things I think about is how do we get the experts to the table when we do that at the very beginning? That is the missing link, and I talk to cities across the nation where they have figured out youth development solutions. And every time it is about bringing young people to the table at the very beginning. It sounds obvious but if we were going to build a building, we would go get an expert, we would go get an architect. If you were going to design a program or think through a strategy or initiative that has to do with young people, you have to get the experts in right at the beginning.
What do kids know that adults don't? Who are kids?
Teens. What do young people know that adults don't? I think that learning can happen in two ways but specifically some areas that young people I think are far ahead of most adults is around online and social media engagement. I think that they're really good at that and they've come up in a culture where that's very, very normal. I think that young people have a level of honesty and vulnerability that we don't see with a lot of adults. When you're talking to someone that's living in the current culture, they're able to provide insight that's going to be culturally responsive and even promote cultural sensitivity for ten years to come.
When was the last time you took a risk? I like to think that I take risks every day but the biggest risks that I take are around sharing really controversial parts of my life with other folks because I'm not perfect and I think highlighting those imperfections can be really risky. I talk about behaviors that maybe young people or people in general frown upon, but I've experienced various things. I think some of my biggest risks are when I get in front of a group of fourteen and fifteen year olds and I talk about the things that I did when they were that age or challenges that I had and some of them react, 'ah, see? She did it too' and then there's another group that reacts like, 'hmmm, this is very human. Mistakes have been made that I can learn and grow from.'
Can you recall a specific time that happened? Here's one that stuck with me for a long time: my father grew up in the segregated South. My parents are a little older. My mom grew up in Boston during busing, and race and equality are something that we talked a lot about in my household – not something that we talked a lot about outside of my household. When I first started working in city government, I was the only person of color on my team and that was hard for me. It was hard for me to reconcile. I remember the first day at work when I had a conversation about this and I found it particularly challenging. But then I learned that people are people and my cultural knowledge expanded drastically when I started understanding, 'okay, well not everybody is biased. Not everybody is bigoted.'
When I was eighteen years old, the first time I got in front of a large group of people and offered to speak publicly, I addressed the topic of race and I did it in the sense that I experienced some challenges and barriers because as a black person, I had thought that white people were not going to be receptive or respectful of me. It was a huge risk for me to talk about this. It was something that I had never discussed outside of my home before and I remember having this conversation in front of all of these people and this was the first time that someone came up to me and said, 'your words were absolutely inspiring.' It was also the first time that someone reached out to me and said, 'I don't agree and I'm unhappy with your public remarks'. It was a really important learning opportunity for me to understand that my experience, my opinion and what I advocate for is my experience and it's going to touch people and maybe inspire some others, but it's not going to make everybody happy and it's not going speak to everyone's experience out there.
How do you deal with rejection or fear? When you know that there's a chance that something is not going to work out or when you recognize that something is intimidating to you, it's easy to say, 'well, I'm not going to do that thing.' But one of my personal mantras is that you can't let fear lead or let fear dictate your actions. That is sometimes the risk that we take. We push ourselves and rejection is an option. One thing I think about constantly is that every time I meet a closed door, it's an opportunity for me to open another. The thing that I think about often when I talk to young people is to remember that's not your only opportunity. That's not the only chance and that's not your only element where you can showcase your skills.
How do you respond to the stereotype of the apathetic Millennial?
One thing I encounter a lot when I talk about what young people are able to do and the decisions that they're able to make and how we think about being in charge of a million dollars of our capital budget is that people are blown away that young people are so perceptive and insightful and practical about the decisions that they make. People are blown away and I say all the time, 'well, that's the problem.'
I work with young people every day. I understand that they're dynamic and amazing and there are some stereotypes around young people, but the general consensus is that they are our future leaders, right? There's no question about it. They're going to lead in the future at some point.
I think that when we talk about this apathetic attitude, I think young people have the ability to - and should - lead now. If we invest in our young people as leaders and approach them as the dynamic potential that they actually are and we think about unlocking it - that apathetic mentality about Millennials truly dissipates because we're engaging in a totally different way and we're seeing what their strengths are rather than perpetuating stereotypes that may or may not exist.
Who are your role models? People don't ask me these questions very often. This is really fun for me. My role models? Honestly, the people that probably inspire me the most on a regular basis are my teammates – the ones that work with me on my team. The ones that report to me probably inspire me the most on a daily basis. They're definitely in my role model group. Other role models that I think about are Patty McMahon who gave me my start in city government; Mayor Menino who was a relentless challenger and challenged me constantly to be a better person and to be a better public servant; Chris Byner who has been my father in public service. I've known him since I was thirteen and I used to call him on the phone and say, 'hey this teenager has a problem. How do I solve it?'
Or in pop culture? Yeah, a lot of my role models are based on personal relationships –people that I wanted to be like. There were some martial artists that I really looked up to like Don 'The Dragon' Wilson. That was like one of my idols coming up.
Why do you wake up in the morning? There are days that are really tough and there are days that are really long, but the reason I'm going to drag myself out of bed is for the person that maybe I've tried to connect with but couldn't. Maybe it's the young person that reminds me of myself who’s looking for a resource or opportunity and was raised by the community around them. Or maybe it's the young person that has nobody and today could be the day that an impact is made. That's why I go to work every day. That's why I connect people to opportunities and that's why we're impact-driven. We don't think about changing one person's life. We think about changing thousands of young people's lives in Boston and enriching their lives on a daily basis.
What's your favorite hangout spot in the city? I'm a JP girl. Jamaica Plain. So, I'm a JP girl. I do like hanging out in Jamaica Plain. Is that specific enough? Why there? When I first came to Boston, this was the neighborhood that I grew up in. It's changed a lot but I think it's a really interesting place that combines a lot of different folks. JP has a deep and diverse ethnic connection to various groups. It also has a variety of socioeconomic incomes and it's an artsy sorta place as well. I appreciate it.
And why do you like Boston in general? That's a really good question. People ask me this. I'm from the South. I'm from Louisiana. I love my family back home but I choose to stay in Boston because it's a large and small city at the same time. I think that there are a lot of vulnerable populations here but more importantly there's a lot of people and institutions that are created in the city of Boston that really, really impact community. I've traveled to other cities and I've consulted with other cities that are trying to do some of the things that we are doing and that we do well here in Boston.
What other cities? I think about cities like Minneapolis, Minnesota. We were recently on a call with some folks in Seattle, Washington, some folks in Chicago, you name it. We talk to folks across the nation and even sometimes outside of that. On Friday, we're seeing a delegation from Russia – coming to our team to really talk about how we engage young people in municipalities. I think that here in Boston we do things really, really well and more importantly there's a gold standard here in Boston around youth engagement, youth voice, and youth empowerment that I think is absolutely amazing and I want to continue to be a part of that journey.
What project do you really want to see go viral? There's two things that come to mind. We're launching our third cycle of Youth Lead the Change where we see young people develop a ballot and suggest ways to make Boston better, and ultimately young people and young people alone will get to vote on how $1 million will be spent in the city on youth programing. I think it's that process - that Youth Lead the Change process where someone from anywhere in the world could engage in make Boston even better - anyone could suggest an idea. I think that is the piece we wanna see go viral and spread far and wide. The other thing that I think about - an initiative that I'd love to see go viral - and maybe this is more of a citywide item - is really around Success Link and employment for young people and making sure that they're connected to employment opportunities.
The other thing that I just wanna mention is – sometimes I feel like our department or our division… is a little bit of a hidden gem. We work really, really hard to connect people to resources, opportunities, free things to do – you name it. If a young person is not sure what they're looking for, they could call us and we're able to connect them to things and opportunities. We have two locations - one that's in City Hall - one that's in Roxbury.
You're literally hidden. Literally a hidden gem. And again this is our space in city hall. Our main office is Tremont Street in Roxbury in kinda the heart of Boston – in the heart of Boston neighborhoods – right next to a T stop and that's where we do our training development workshops; it's where we answer the bulk of our calls coming in about how to connect youth to resources and opportunities.
Young Blood is a series by TheEditorial.com dedicated to amplifying the voices of young doers and makers in the Boston area. Jaime Kaiser will bring more of their stories to our weave.