In a small room of the Cambridge Area IV Youth Center, children ages eight to 12 talk to each other about community safety, violence, family issues and vacant lots. They're part of the Young People in Planning project (YPP), a collaboration between MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and the Area IV Youth Center.
Cambridge is divided into 13 areas. Area IV, which is home to many immigrant families and has a large working-class population, is roughly enclosed by Massachusetts Avenue and Prospect, Windsor and Hampshire Streets. MIT is in Area II, which borders Area IV.
YPP was begun in 1999 by two DUSP graduate students, Ahsha Safai and April Veneracion, who both received the MCP degree last spring. MIT students work with children at the youth center for two to four hours a week, helping them learn about their communities and understand the importance of public service and community involvement.
Over the past year, children talked about what they liked and disliked about their communities, how they would bring about change and make their neighborhoods better, and what their ideal community would look like. They also sketched the Area IV neighborhood, went on a neighborhood tour and located important sites within it.
"Part of what we're doing is helping young people understand that they're valuable members of the community they live in," said Allen Platt, director of the Area IV Youth Center, which is located at 243 Harvard St. near Central Square.
"Our experience at the youth center has been great," said George Samuels, the DUSP student who heads the YPP Area IV effort. "It reminds us that young people have a tremendous potential to bring about change in their communities. What we find is that they are highly perceptive of, and concerned with, the things they experience daily. We try to help them by creating a space where they can come up with different ways of addressing their concerns."
In September, DUSP hosted the Area IV Youth Fair, a joint effort by DUSP, the Area IV Youth Center, the City of Cambridge Office of Workforce Development and a team from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS). Held in Sennott Park adjacent to the youth center, the fair attracted close to 350 children and family members. Twenty organizations, including Peace Games (a conflict resolution group), the New England Aquarium, the Cambridge Public Library, the MIT Museum and the MIT Admissions Office had representatives at the fair to sign up children for after-school and other programs, teach about health and safety, and help children take part in community-building activities.
Thirty students from DUSP volunteered to staff the event. "I was overjoyed to see so many MIT students come and be a resource for young people in Cambridge," said Cambridge City Councilman Kenneth Reeves. "My greatest interest is who we as a city have working for them. I'm especially pleased that MIT graduate students have taken on this wonderful endeavor."
MIT's Offices of Minority Education, Community and Government Relations, and the Dean of Graduate Studies sponsored the fair, as did several City of Cambridge organizations and private companies, including Draper Laboratories.
DUSP students are now planning new activities to help children think more critically about issues in their communities. They're also working with Caroline Hunter, vice principal of CRLS, to replicate YPP at the high school.
"Our commitment to this area of Cambridge is natural, as it lies right next to MIT," said Professor Bish Sanyal, head of DUSP. "Our department has a long tradition of public service in the community and throughout the greater Boston area. The effort here is of extreme importance, as it not only provides the youth center with technical and educational expertise, but also informs us about the communities where we work -- knowledge that's vital to the planning field and professions."
"I particularly want to thank the MIT students who have made a commitment to Area IV," said Cambridge Mayor Anthony Galluccio. "One of the benefits of having MIT in Cambridge is that we have this resource of young energetic and skilled people to work with our community."
Ms. Thrash is a graduate student in urban studies and planning.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 6, 2000.