Uncornered: A New Word, A Big Idea

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Michelle Caldeira

There are nearly 11,000 youth development nonprofits in the U.S. Each one is competing for financial, political, and social support for their important work. College Bound Dorchester (CBD), a Boston nonprofit working to end generational cycles of poverty and violence, has found success through Boston Uncornered. This initiative leverages the power of gang involved youth as the solution to transform their communities by moving from the street corner to college.

Boston Uncornered puts formerly disengaged, disruptive young people on a path to college and career by setting high expectations of college, hiring and training former gang leaders as mentors who have a shared experience, and providing a living-wage stipend so that they can focus on their education. We call them “Core Influencers” because of the impact they have on their neighborhoods and on our city. Earning an academic credential qualifies Core Influencers for jobs with family-sustaining wages to prevent them from returning to disruption.

Through its pilot phase, Boston Uncornered students have matriculated to college at a 72 percent rate, compared to the less than one percent of gang members who matriculate nationally. They persist in college at a rate of 78 percent where less than half of their peers do and 74 percent of Core Influencers do not recidivate compared to a 50 percent recidivism rate in Massachusetts.  Since we launched Boston Uncornered in January 2016, the initiative has grown from serving 35 Core Influencers annually to more than 200 just over two years later. We see that this model has the potential to be scaled and adapted for national impact in other cities.

Boston Uncornered’s biggest challenge is working towards a mindset shift — what we call “uncornering minds”. This work and this model is based on a belief in the power of gang involved youth to positively change the world. We see them as the solution, rather than the problem. Even though they represent only one percent of the youth population in Boston, they are responsible for 74 percent of shootings on five percent of the city’s street corners. We prove our belief in Core Influencers by setting high expectations for them and investing our time and money in their growth.

Boston Uncornered is a culmination of more than 10 years of trial and learning that started when we changed the name of our organization from Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses to College Bound Dorchester in recognition of the transformational power of a college education. Even with the change of name, mission and vision, one thing we felt strongly about maintaining was the organization’s roots in the community it serves. This commitment to community change ensured that we developed programs to serve the most disconnected in those areas which led us to a focus on Opportunity Youth —individuals 16 to 24 years old disengaged from education and other programming. Through our learning, we identified a smaller population within Opportunity Youth that were highly visible for their outsized disruption but practically invisible within community programs looking to reconnect these individuals to school and jobs. They were hidden behind veils of disruption and trapped in cycles of incarceration. By leaving these Core Influencers on street corners, we saw a missed opportunity to have impact.

Therefore we built, and operate, the Boston Uncornered model with the belief that those closest to the problems, hold the solutions. This belief has guided the framework of the model — from who we hire, how we train them, who we serve and how we determine their selection to receive a stipend.

Building this model has meant considering the risks, answering a lot of questions and thinking of creative ways to have impact for our young people and our community. 

Some of our critics question whether gang members can succeed in college and wonder if giving stipends to former inmates is rewarding bad behavior. Yet we know that a successful, 21st century workforce needs individuals with a post-secondary education. We know that Massachusetts spends $100,000 annually on a Core Influencer’s incarceration, probation, court, and other social subsidies while it costs a third of that to turn them from disruptive to productive members of our community.

Core Influencers are powerful, brilliant leaders. Instead of seeing them for the disruption they have caused, we see them for who they are beneath that veil of disruption. With a focus on their assets, they have been some of the greatest ambassadors for Boston Uncornered by sharing their stories with both national and local media. Seeing the pride in a young mother’s eyes as she talks about doing college homework with her daughter or the tears of a sister seeing her brother in cap and gown after she spent several years taking care of his daughter while he was in prison allows people to see the impact of our work on each of the Core Influencers we serve.

For the past ten years, CBD has partnered with PJA, a full service digital ad agency. PJA helped create the Boston Uncornered brand and a photo documentary project where both Core Influencers and public figures share moments when they found themselves “cornered” and how they overcame their situation. Doing much of this work pro-bono, PJA fulfils their mission of championing change and investing in community, while also helping create a safer, more economically thriving city and state for them to base their operations. CBD can devote more resources to helping Core Influencers and less resources to explaining Boston Uncornered in a way that motivates politicians and business leaders to support the initiative.

Leaning in to a radical idea, having a large goal for it, seeking help in unusual places, using people to tell our story and having counter arguments for negativity have all contributed to the success of Boston Uncornered. We are always looking for new ways to grow the impact of this model; and yes, we encourage making up new words.


Michelle Caldeira is Senior Vice President of College Bound Dorchester, where she is responsible for developing the strategic direction of the organization and building the Boston Uncornered Movement. She has been with the nonprofit since 2012. Caldeira was born in Guyana, raised in Brooklyn, has been committed to the Boston community for nearly 20 years and earned a BA in Sociology from Binghamton University.

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