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Analyzing employment as an antidote to crime

Summer jobs boost self-esteem and promote leadership skills in at-risk youth, says Gia Barboza, a new assistant professor of African American studies in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern University.

Barboza recently analyzed the impact of summer employment on more than 400 14-to 24 year-olds in three high violence Boston neighborhoods, including Grove Hall, Bowdoin—Geneva and Franklin Field.

Her research is an example of Northeastern’s core commitment to integrating research and education with engagement in the community in ways that address global and societal needs.

The project is part of a citywide program led by the State Street Foundation to increase summer employment opportunities for at-risk youth.

In June, John Hancock, the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and other private foundations and nonprofits backed the initiative by donating $635,000. The state government provided additional funding.

“This is really a community-participatory research project that has a lot of partnerships across the city,” says Barboza, who praised Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino for supporting the program.

Barboza, whose scholarship focuses on the relationship between public health indicators and social problems, advocates for treating social ills such as youth violence with prevention and intervention as opposed to funneling offenders through the criminal justice system.

The way Barboza sees it, “When you think about the long-term costs associated with incarceration, it’s much more efficient to fund organizations that employ these youth and provide them with skills that help them achieve their long-term goals.”

Before joining the Northeastern faculty, Barboza served as director of research and evaluation for the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, Inc., a community-based planning and organizing nonprofit. She also served as a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science, at Harvard University, and as a research associate at the Department of Emergency Medicine, at Yale University.

For her most recent project, she held focus groups and administered surveys to hundreds of young adults in the summer employment program to find out what they learned, how the experience will shape their future behavior and to measure both direct and indirect criminogenic risk factors.

She finds that summer job programs that focus on youth development and provide intensive mentoring teach youth how to make good decisions, improve communications skills and prepare them for future educational and professional opportunities.

As Barboza puts it, “Had it not been for the influx of funding this summer, the results for this city could have been disastrous.”

On the other hand, she has realistic expectations for how much change a six-week program could have on, say, a young person in a violent gang, noting its goal of having an “indirect positive impact on crime by teaching cooperation, respect and how to react in traumatic situations.”

Barboza plans to present her findings to members of the Youth Violence Prevention Collaborative comprised of funders, city officials and other stakeholders across the city, in early December.

She’s working with Northeastern undergraduate students and community members to interpret the results.

“I’m really passionate about this work,” she says, “because it involves community in its most broad sense with the ultimate goal of changing people’s lives for the better.”

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