People outside of the neighborhood seem to make a big deal of my age, of my being a co-founder of DSNI’s youth committee and the first youth elected to its board of directors. I’ve been called a “homegrown leader” and a “catalyst,” and people want to know when and how I got involved in the first place-really, what they can do to attract youth and keep youth involved in their programs. But growing up in DSNI taught me that while all individuals have potential, it takes a group to bring it out.

So, this is not really a story about me. The real story is about my community-the families, businesses and local institutions I grew up with. It’s about how ordinary people who valued the idea of collective leadership and responsibility got together and began organizing their neighbors to reclaim and rebuild the Dudley neighborhood.

Founded in 1984 as a resident-driven organization, DSNI declared its mission was “to empower Dudley residents to organize, plan for, create and control a vibrant, high quality and diverse neighborhood in collaboration with community partners.” From the beginning, people understood that reviving Dudley would require a shared vision for the physical, economic, environmental, and human development of the neighborhood. At the time, Dudley was barely even considered a neighborhood because years of public and private dis-investment and abandonment had devastated the neighborhood, physically and spiritually. Arson and neglect had created 1300 trash-choked vacant lots and an area we called the “Bermuda Triangle” because so many homes had vanished in smoke.

Nevertheless, some 5,455 African American, Cape Verdean, Latino and white families called Dudley their home. The area was at once the most diverse neighborhood in the city and the poorest. Back then, per capita family income was about half the city’s average, with twice the rate of unemployment. More than a third of all Dudley residents were youth under 18 years old-again, roughly twice the city average. As a young person, I witnessed the effects of racism, drug dealing, gang rivalry and random violence on myself and other youth every day.

I was just beginning high school in 1988-89 and the DSNI office represented a safe neighborhood space for youth to hang out. My aunt, Gertrudes Fidalgo, worked there and I knew I was welcomed. I remember quizzing her on her work on the organizing staff, asking who told her what to do. “You do,” she explained, “not because you’re my nephew, but as a member of this community.” So there we were: neighborhood youth hanging out after school, asking questions and being asked for our opinions in return. Everyone was encouraging youth to play a larger leadership role in rebuilding the community.

My aunt and Ros Everdell, the organizing director, began schooling me in the basic skills of community organizing. But it was my first youth meeting that taught me the difference between imposing my ideas and opinions and facilitating a group discussion. I went into the meeting proposing workshops on ethnic identity and history-the group wanted to hold a party. I resisted; I pushed my proposal, but they insisted on a party. I was really frustrated at the end of the meeting. My aunt pulled me aside and said, “John, if you want to do this, and really represent the voice of the youth, then it can’t just be John’s voice-you have to make a space for the voices of others.”

The idea of trusting the wisdom of collective leadership–a core principle at DSNI–was new to me. The more I thought about it, the easier it was to actually hear what they were saying. For me, a young Cape Verdean entering high school, finding myself and defining my people’s place in American society was my passion. But for youth a few years younger than me, reducing the daily “static” from chance encounters on the street might mean the difference between getting home safely and becoming another street violence statistic. From their point of view, a party bringing together youth from different parts of the neighborhood was much more direct, immediate and vital. I heard that. Most adults-and especially those working with youth-thought the idea was dangerous, warning, “It’ll be a gang fight, a war.” Even so, we were convinced and DSNI helped us to organize the first in a series of successful neighborhood-wide “unity parties.”

Building on relationships forged at the unity parties, it didn’t take long for the youth committee to grow. From the beginning, older and more experienced people provided advice, patient guidance, information, and time at critical moments in our development.

Youth soon became enthusiastic participants in neighborhood cleanups, multicultural festivals and similar campaigns. On the youth committee, our plans were getting more ambitious. We realized that implementing the kind of youth organizing project we envisioned would require a serious commitment of staff support and other resources. We went to the DSNI board requesting a full-time youth organizer and a program budget of about $80,000. Our proposal was approved, but not without a battle. Though refusing to stand mutely while the adults on the board debated “what was best for the youth,” it was clear that in this situation, an opinion without a vote was still not much of a voice. The youth committee decided that if youth were to play a meaningful role in building this community, we needed direct representation on DSNI’s governing board.

In 1991, during preparations for annual board elections, someone suggested that I run for the vacant Cape Verdean seat. Back then, the bylaws said you had to be a Dudley resident and at least 18 years old to vote for the board-I was just 17-but they didn’t say you had to be 18 to run for the board. After I won the seat, most of the adult members welcomed me to the board, offering advice and encouragement-though some just seemed to ignore me and others were plainly hostile to the notion of young people exercising adult responsibility and authority.

The individuals who made the greatest impression on me at this time were the ones who challenged me to take risks, make mistakes, draw lessons, and voice my opinions. I learned to debate issues and solve problems, to handle conflict and participate in community discussions as a responsible leader, to appreciate the complexities of guiding a community-wide change process. The valuing of broad participation and collective decision-making at DSNI provided all residents with opportunities to play responsible roles in the organization and their community. In other words, DSNI leadership made it possible for people, youth included, to participate in real-life decisions-and we did.

My proudest contribution as a youth and member of the DSNI board was the “Unity Through Diversity Mural.” Picking up the central theme of the early youth parties, we unveiled the mural in 1993 to celebrate the diversity of the neighborhood, honor community elders and introduce the idea of youth committee members sharing “Nubian Roots.” I played a role in designing the mural, securing the board’s support and slapping paint on the side of Davey’s Market. Other accomplishments as a board member included organizing a youth job advocacy project, launching a mentoring program for college-bound high school students, and laying the groundwork for the youth organizer’s position.

I left the board for college in 1992, but stayed active a in a variety of campaigns and projects during breaks and in the summer months. Meanwhile, board conversations on the role of neighborhood youth continued, moving the entire organization to a new place. By the time I returned to Boston after graduation, this conversation was shaping the organization’s vision, policies and structure. The DSNI board expanded with the addition of two permanent seats for youth and amended the by-laws extending voting privileges to 15-year-olds. I have no doubt that the prominence of youth leadership in the neighborhood contributed to my being elected to the vice presidency of the board in 1997. In 1999, I left my private sector job to assume the role of DSNI’s interim executive director-and then executive director.

The Dudley neighborhood has rebounded dramatically in the last 10 years. Today, over 3,500 residents are voting members of DSNI; we’ve reclaimed 600 of the 1300 vacant lots for homes, gardens, playgrounds and other public spaces. Our efforts at development without displacement have produced nearly 300 units of affordable housing and rehabilitated an additional 300 units. As a result, DSNI has gained considerable notoriety, locally and nationally. Last year, the Fannie Mae Foundation selected the Dudley Triangle as one of its ten “Just Right” emerging neighborhoods for affordable homeownership and commercial investment.

At DSNI, we recognize that youth have knowledge, unique experiences and a stake in improving the quality of neighborhood life. So when I’m asked what DSNI does to attract youth and keep them active, the answer is deceptively simple: we provide a space, a voice and some power. This means making a conscious effort to assist youth in building specific skills and competencies, providing them with opportunities to use those skills on real projects and the space for personal growth and development through supportive feedback.

As a direct result of this early commitment, residents who were children at DSNI’s founding have made good on their promises to “give back” to the community. Many hold leadership positions in DSNI and with other neighborhood-based organizations. Collectively, by example, we prove that working for the community-for change and social justice-is a serious alternative. A new wave of youth activists is rising in the community; in fact, I’m already making space for the next youth to replace me as executive director.

John Barros, former youth leader, board member and Dartmouth graduate has been the executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) since 1999. Barros recently joined the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Comprehensive Community Initiatives.