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October 02, 2017

Alex Diaz poses at his matriculation ceremony on August 24th. (Photo courtesy of Romana Vysatova Photography)

An education non-profit believes it has a way to break the cycle of gang-related violence in Boston that spiked over the summer. For years, College Bound Dorchester has been helping former gang members and convicted felons, from some of the most troubled neighborhoods in the city, get to college and recently it stepped up its support by giving some of them a paycheck to do it.

Down in a brightly lit basement classroom, a small group of students is learning the ins and out of residential electrical wiring. Alex Diaz is among those listening intently during class here at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.

“Just me sitting here right now in college, I feel different. I feel like I never actually committed no crimes or anything like that, so it feels good,” he says.

This college classroom is a world away from the life Diaz once knew when he dropped out of high school and joined a gang. That was a life that led to Diaz serving eight years in prison for armed robbery. Now 31-year-old Diaz has just started pursuing a certificate in Practical Electricity at Benjamin Franklin. He hopes to eventually get an associate’s degree in Automotive or Electrical Technology.

When I first met Diaz, nearly two years ago, he was working with College Bound Dorchester to get the equivalent of a high school diploma. The Boston non-profit recently made that process a bit easier for Diaz, other former gang members and convicted felons, by paying them to get their HiSET and go to college. Students who qualify get $400 a week, which works out to more than $20,000 a year.

It is well worth it, according to College Bound Dorchester founder and CEO, Mark Culliton. Massachusetts spends more than $55,000 a year to house these guys in prison.

“We’re already paying them one way or the other, through incarceration costs, parole costs, court costs,” he says. “This is just saying, well let’s pay them to make a positive choice and when they do they’ll become a contributing member of society, rather than year after year taking away from the Commonwealth.”

Culliton says his non-profit targets the toughest youth from the most dangerous hotspots in the city and they are not always successful.

“We’ve had students shot and killed. We’ve had students that couldn’t stick with the program and made bad choices and got arrested,” he says. “We even had a staff member that was shot in their line of work, but this is the nature of the world that these guys live in.”

College Bound Dorchester says it’s seen a 71 percent reduction in recidivism among its students and 150 of them are currently in college, but the program does not just want to just transform its students’ lives.

When it comes to measuring the non-profit’s success, Mandy Savitz-Romer, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education says, “You have to look at community markers. This is not going to just benefit Alex [Diaz]. This is going to benefit Alex’s family, his children, now or one day,” she said. “It’s going to benefit the other young adults around Alex who see him and are inspired by what’s he’s done or feel permission to follow in his footsteps.”

Diaz’s older sister, Aixa Diaz, has already been inspired to follow in his footsteps. At 33, she is also keen to get her high school diploma.

“I’m a certified nurse assistant and I’m licensed for that, without a high school diploma,” she explains. “I feel that with the high school diploma I can succeed way more and make my brothers and sisters proud of me too.”

Diaz’s sister looked after his daughter while he was in prison. Over the summer, she was among the many families cheering on him and all the students at a College Bound Dorchester graduation ceremony.

As for Diaz, he says there is a lot that keeps him motivated to succeed in college, and it is not just because he is being paid to go there.

“I think about going back to jail. I think about if I just decide not to go to school for a week, there’s going to be something that can happen that’s bad and I can’t afford to go back to prison,” he says. “I’m considered almost a ‘three strikes,’ so anything I go back. I just focus on my life, my future and school and my daughter,” he explains.

Diaz’s daughter is 11 years old now, and she is one of the many who are looking up to him these days and willing him on to succeed.

Previously: Could Community College be the Key to Transforming a Troubled Boston Neigborhood?

on campus, higher ed, non-profits

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