By Mark Culliton JANUARY 26, 2017


In his farewell address, President Barack Obama highlighted the corrosive problem of economic inequality. “While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities have been left behind,” he said.

If urban areas are going to improve, we need to invest — not in companies, but in the young people at the root of the problem.

On the surface, few would call a young person like Giovanne Morris a smart investment. His parents showed up sporadically during his childhood. His personal resume includes dropping out of school, a history of cycling in and out of vocational programs, gang involvement and several trips to prison since the age of 12.

Yet when you look closer at the content of his character, investing in Giovanne may be the smartest thing our city can do to reduce violence, crime, and ultimately end systemic generational urban poverty. His natural intelligence, charisma and leadership skills give him great influence among his peers. He has the desire to change his life and help others to do the same. How can we turn Giovanne from an avoidable investment to one with too much of an upside to pass up? The answer is simple, but challenging. Get him to go to, and graduate from, community college.

College education can turn natural leaders like Giovanne, who are destroying their neighborhoods through crime and violence, into agents of positive change. College graduates are 97 percent less likely to be incarcerated than those without a degree. When a family member graduates college, it is more than twice as likely that other family members will graduate as well.

Yet there is a major obstacle standing between Giovanne and that critical college degree: systemic generational urban poverty. City-dwelling African-American youth are not receiving the same caliber of education as their white, suburban counterparts. In the absence of the education that sets the foundation for higher paying jobs, some are left with the belief that the only way to make it financially is through street-level ingenuity — or crime. These young people then become the problem we attempt to address later through the criminal justice system. In fact, they are the solution.

Financial, social-emotional and educational support from programs like College Bound Dorchester, can help Giovanne overcome this obstacle. He needs financial support, so he can focus on studying, instead of where his next rent check is coming from. He needs social-emotional support from trained mentors from similar backgrounds to his. Our financial investment in these students are already paying off. Participants in our program are showing a 71 percent drop in recidivism, and a college retention rate of more than 60 percent.

Giovanne’s matriculation at Bunker Hill Community College is a victory for all of us. He is closer to being able to get a job that supports him and his family, instead of costing the commonwealth the $53,000 it spends per person yearly on incarceration.

Perhaps most importantly, this charismatic, influential young man can use his talents to encourage others in his peer group to follow his example and earn an education, which would take them off the streets and empower them to earn higher wages. This influence has the potential to transform whole neighborhoods and the city. In Boston, 1 percent of the youth are responsible for half of all homicides, and 75 percent of violent crimes occur on just 14 street corners. With each “Giovanne” who stays out of jail, with each crew that chooses books over guns and college over chaos, we are closer to making our city safer.

Giovanne and other young people like him are an investment well worth making. Over the long term, every dollar invested in the education of the formerly gang involved or otherwise disruptive youth will increase their opportunities — meaning fewer dollars will be spent on incarceration, rehabilitation and public financial assistance for them in the future. It’s an investment in our young people, our inner cities and our nation’s future.

Mark Culliton is the CEO of College Bound Dorchester, a nonprofit organization using education to end systemic urban poverty.