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This new year, Emerson College’s Engagement Lab welcomes Boston Uncornered as a new partner in the Transforming Narratives of Gun Violence Initiative. Boston Uncornered will join Emerson’s Collaborative Documentary Studio (VM331 / SI300) for the spring semester, with representatives from the organization collaborating directly with Emerson students toward the realization of a documentary project. The course will follow the same model created in last spring’s Collaborative Documentary Studio, which produced the film Quiet Rooms with survivors from the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute.
As a nonprofit, Boston Uncornered supports influential gang leaders into becoming positive, rather than negative, influences in Boston. It sets high expectations for them, connects them with peer mentors for social emotional support and provides them with financial stipends so they can focus on their education. It “redirects the entrepreneurial, networking, and leadership skills of gang-involved youth … from violence and incarceration to obtain a college credential and family-sustaining wage—driving positive change in our neighborhoods,” according to its website. Through this work, the organization helps current or former gang members earn a high school equivalency, enter college, and finish college.
The Engagement Lab spoke with Will Dunn, the director of College Readiness Advisors (CRAs) at Boston Uncornered, to learn more about the organization and how Dunn finds meaning in its collaboration with the Documentary Studio and the TNGV initiative.
Dunn has been working with Boston Uncornered for seven years. In his former role as a CRA, Dunn served as a mentor to “core influencers”, gang-involved or incarcerated youth who are able to “use their influence, leadership skills, and networks to shift behavior in neighborhoods—decreasing crime and increasing opportunities and employment for all,” according to Boston Uncornered’s website.
Now Dunn helps direct CRAs in their mentoring efforts. As a formerly incarcerated person, he experienced many of the barriers that students at Boston Uncornered have faced when it comes to accessing success.
“Being an incarcerated person myself, I changed my ways, changed my life up, and I’ve been pushing for others to do the same,” Dunn said.
Dunn’s story is shared on Boston Uncornered’s website, where he says, “Sitting in court hearing the words ‘on and after’ and knowing that at 17 I was looking at 40 years in prison, I realized nothing is worth giving up your whole life for. At that moment my mind was made up to change, to be uncornered.”
Boston Uncornered’s name evokes the transformational shift the organization hopes to build by providing youth “with the skills and opportunities to turn away from the ‘street corners’ for good.” According to the organization, gang members are just one percent of Boston’s youth, but this very small group has an outsized influence on the city. They are involved in 50% of the homicides and control the 5% of city corners on which 70% of a Boston’s violent crimes take place.
Before Dunn became a CRA director, he worked in Boston communities to help provide support for core influencers.
“My role as a college readiness advisor is to go out there and have a core group of guys that I work with to help them have their mind shift change and get behind them to push them to the right direction. Getting back into school, assessing where they’re at with their lives—if they need mental health, workforce development, whatever is needed for them,” Dunn said.
In Dunn’s perspective, the mission of Boston Uncornered is to change and affect communities through changes in mindset for core influencers. A key way this mission is achieved is by having mentors who share a similar background with core influencers.
Dunn plays an important role in Boston Uncornered’s partnership with the Collaborative Documentary Studio—acting as a liaison between the community and students in the class.
“My role with the partnership is to get more partners in the community, especially when it comes down to education or gun violence. We know one person or one unit can't do it all. So the best thing is to partner with other people who are like-minded, doing the same type of things,” he said.
“The Engagement Lab is thrilled to welcome Boston Uncornered into the Transforming Narratives of Gun Violence initiative, alongside our core partners from the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Gun Violence Prevention, and last semester’s new partners at the Center for Teen Empowerment,” said Engagement Lab Associate Director Rachele Gardner. “We’re excited for members of Boston Uncornered staff and Core Influencers to join the class each week and work alongside Emerson students to tell powerful, authentic, and purposeful stories that will impact policy and decision-making in Boston and beyond, as has already been the case with last spring’s Quiet Rooms documentary.”
Dunn is looking forward to bringing members of the community onto Emerson College’s campus. “My goals for the staff who are attending [the classes] and for the Core Influencers who attend, is that they get to see something different. They get to come from the neighborhoods now onto a college campus,” he said.
He thinks the documentary will serve as something for students from Boston Uncornered to look back on to see where they were in life at the time it was filmed. Dunn also believes that powerful stories will come from the documentary.
“I believe it’s an anecdotal way to get everybody's stories out and across,” he said. “Normally, you would have never been able to talk about gun violence from the perspective of both the community and the college side of things, so all the memories and emotions that we have inside of us sometimes just lingers.”
At the end of the class, Dunn looks forward to seeing how people shared their experiences with gun violence in a classroom setting. He also anticipates that students from Boston Uncornered will learn from this process of collaboration.
“This population doesn't normally get an inside look at higher education. So to come on this side of the table and see what you learn from it, you be like, ‘Oh my God, this school stuff really works. I never thought about going to school. I was thinking about it a little bit, but now being on campus and doing the project just opens the mind up for Core Influencers and other students,” Dunn said.