Works Like Teen Spirit
Lee MPP 2000
Lee MPP 2000 didnt come to the Kennedy School intending to
work with teenagers. She wanted to focus on electoral politics.
However, as part of her PAE research, she met a former Crips gang
member from Boston who was still getting into fights at school but
had natural leadership potential. From that point on, Lee was hooked.
first I just needed a PAE topic, Lee says, explaining why
Common Cause, the citizens lobbying organization, asked her
to come up with a plan to reinvigorate democracy in Massachusetts.
After working on it for five months, she realized it was too huge
a topic, so she narrowed it down to getting more kids involved in
democracy (the average Common Cause member, at the time, was 71
research showed theres not a lot out there to get kids involved,
despite the fact that theyre the least connected and civically
engaged generation, Lee says. I took Marshall Ganzs
organizing class and realized that if you let kids organize themselves,
theyll get hooked.
she says, was when she stopped focusing on the theoretical and started
focusing on concrete ways to engage students. She began by meeting
on a regular basis with students from high schools in Cambridge
and Boston. Instead of lecturing about abstract words like politics
or coalition building, however, she decided to get personal.
you say to a kid, Our democracy needs to be fixed, it
wont work. But if you ask them, Whats wrong in
your life that you want fixed? they start talking about wanting
extended library hours or better school bathrooms, Lee says.
Lectures dont work. Discussions dont even work.
had one group decide what they would do with their free time. We
gave them chips and only let kids with certain chips make the decisions.
This made the others angry, and it helped them all understand how
in the beginning, only white male landowners had the vote and the
power, Lee says. I dont think any lecture could
talk about voting, decision making, and injustice as well.
with teens, she also learned early on the importance of
opening up about herself.
have to tell your own story, or they wont trust you at all,
she says, describing her initial meetings. I told them that
I remember feeling dismissed when I was their age because of my
family. I came to the states from Korea when I was four and couldnt
family eventually settled in New Jersey, where her parents saved
enough money to move to a wealthy community and to buy a toy store
in a poor neighborhood of color, where Lee worked after school.
Witnessing two very different worlds became a lightening rod for
went back and forth between places where kids were driving BMWs
to poorer areas. It made me really angry to see how different it
could be, she says. Im amazed at how young I was
when I realized injustice. I ended up channeling a lot of that energy
and anger into volunteerism.
her PAE project long completed, Lee is now channeling her energy
into the Boston-Area Youth Organizing Project, a faith- and school-based
organization designed to develop leadership skills in teens. Successful
projects include working with students to get the hours for free
student subway passes extended and improving bathrooms in Boston
bathrooms emphasized that they werent important in society,
so we worked on who they needed to influence and how to get access
to people in power, Lee says. It culminated in a meeting
with the principal. They were scared to death, but when they got
in the meeting, they were confident. Thats what Im proud
of most. They learned to use their voice.