Carole Richardson’s best friend was shot on the streets of New Haven at the age of 13. Mercedes Dunkley experienced the struggles of her older sister, a teen mom in a New Haven public high school. The two girls knew they had to do something, but didn’t know how. Then a life-changing opportunity challenged all that they had experienced, and pushed them to create a vehicle for change in their communities.
The opportunity was called “The Future Project,” a new national effort launched last fall. New Haven Academy along with three other high schools in New York and Washington D.C. teamed up volunteer college-student and adult “future coaches” with individual students like Richardson and Dunkley to work on community projects. Fifty such teams got to work at New Haven Academy; they presented the results of their six-month labors at a rousing downtown event Saturday night called “Revolution.”
The event had two parts. At the Shubert, hundreds of proud parents, community leaders, and students gathered, viewing the projects’ ideas showcased on posters as well as talking with the students. The second part of the event took place a block away at the theater of Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, where students performed their original works, and fellows of The Future Project addressed the audience about their experiences in the program.
(Click here to read a previous story about the evolution of the Future Project.)
Richardson is an 11th-grade student at New Haven Academy. She said she felt hopeless and discouraged about ever seeing a change in the violence of New Haven and of her own life: “A very close friend of mine, Thomas Daniels, was shot. We had seen each other at the mall earlier in the day and had exchanged earrings. He died that night, with my name in his ears, and I still have his earrings with his name on his in my ears ‘til this day. We had exchanged earrings as a friend thing, and we had told each other, ‘See you later.’
“But we never did. It hit me so hard. I didn’t know what to do. That’s why I’m so passionate about it, because when I heard about the opportunity to do something about the violence in New Haven, I knew I had to take it. There’s no reason that a 13-year-old boy should be shot and killed. I’m dedicated to the fullest.”
For Richardson’s Future Project, she’s planning “Violence Lockout.” She had held discussion groups within her school about New Haven’s violence and is planning to reach out toward other high schools in order to “raise awareness. I go around with my ‘Dream Team’, including three other students, and Laura.” Laura Winnick is the New Haven executive director of The Future Project.
“I can understand teens more than an adult can, because I am one,” Richardson said. “I’m talking to them to them from the same level, which I think is really important. The discussion groups try to give the teens a lesson, so maybe one day, New Haven doesn’t have to be known for its homicides.”
Dunkley’s “Women’s Empowerment Project” is both a commitment to herself as well as to other New Haven girls to go to college and to prevent teen pregnancy from adversely affecting their lives. Dunkley’s own sister is a teen mom, struggling to finish high school and take care of her child. Since the start of her Future Project, Dunkley has been working to put together a rally that will take place at New Haven Academy on May 10. Guest speakers from Planned Parenthood and Polly T. McCabe as well as her sister and other teen moms will speak about their lives as teen moms living in New Haven. Polly T. McCabe is an alternative public school for pregnant students in New Haven.
“My three-year plan is to have a day care in another high school, not including Cross,” Dunkley said. Wilbur Cross High School already has a day care program for its students. “I know at least a handful of pregnant teens that had to leave New Haven Academy because they were pregnant, and I saw their struggles, and I thought, ‘How can I help them so they don’t have to struggle as much?’”
Ariela Martin is a student at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School and an Independent contributing reporter.