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Dot youth worker makes impact with straight talk

Michelle Sedaca | 12/17/2008, 4:14 a.m.
A 30-year-old Rhode Island native, Ra’Shaun Nalls, is having an impact on the Grove Hall youth he works with through Dorchester-based nonprofit Project RIGHT. Tony Irving

To his credit, Ra’Shaun Nalls has never joined a gang or spent time in jail.

But that doesn’t stop him from connecting with teenagers that have seen street violence and its impact.

The key is honesty, and according to Nalls, his message is simple.

“The choices you make,” Nalls says he tells teenagers, “are going to get you killed or in jail.”

A 30-year-old Rhode Island native, Nalls now lives and works in Grove Hall. He recently received the Annual Community Award from the nonprofit Action for Boston Community Development Inc. (ABCD) for his exemplary youth work at Dorchester-based Project RIGHT, an acronym for “Rebuild and Improve Grove Hall Together.”

As coordinator of Project RIGHT’s Grove Hall Youth Worker Alliance, Nalls collaborates with a network of fellow youth workers, social workers, school staffers and church members dedicated to addressing issues that impact young people in the community.

Though the problems are often complex, Nalls’ approach, like his straight talk on the choices young people make, skews toward the simple.

Modeling positive behavior is one major key. Nalls said he realized that when he carried himself in a strong, affirming way, the youth he was working with noticed and began to emulate his actions. For instance, Nalls says he is conscientious about presenting himself as a professional; as a result, he tries to dress the part.

The same clean logic runs through his work as the Youth Workers Alliance’s coordinator. By getting his network involved in panel discussions and training sessions, Nalls said he hopes to foster a deeper understanding of the struggles kids face.

“People want solutions for problems, but we have to understand [the problems] first,” he said.

Nalls’ often under-the-radar efforts to help people get a better handle on youth problems made him an ideal candidate for ABCD’s community awards. Robert Coard, the anti-poverty nonprofit’s president and CEO, created the awards more than 30 years ago to acknowledge those individuals who don’t usually receive such honors. This year, ABCD awarded 19 individuals.

“[The awards] recognize people who haven’t been recognized and give them the attention they deserve,” Coard said. “By recognizing young people like Nalls, we encourage them to contribute to the community.”

Nalls moved Boston to attend Northeastern University. Though he didn’t graduate, he became actively involved in the Grove Hall neighborhood. Prior to accepting his position at Project RIGHT, Nalls worked at Roxbury Youthworks Inc., where he advocated on behalf of girls involved in prostitution.

“Instead of complaining about my neighborhood, [I realized] I could help alleviate [the problems],” Nalls said.

In addition to managing the Grove Hall Youth Worker Alliance, Nalls mentors youth through various activities, such as baseball, mountain climbing, camping and canoeing trips in New Hampshire.

Like many social change advocates, Nalls said he sometimes gets frustrated when he sees youth struggle to stay on track. But when those situations occur, he said he is able to refer to countless examples of those whose lives have improved. He cited one example of a 21-year-old male who obtained his GED and is now enrolled in classes at Roxbury Community College.

Such success stories motivate Nalls to keep doing the quality work that compelled Lemuel Mills — director of operations at the Elm Hill Family Service Center/Roxbury-North Dorchester Area Planning Action Council, one of ABCD’s neighborhood-based organizations — to nominate the youth worker for the community award.

“The primary reason I nominated Ra’Shaun is to inspire young people to be civically engaged,” Mills said. “He puts a younger face on that type of work that youth can more readily connect with.”

Whether it is taking the extra time to attend a student’s high school graduation or taking a kid out to eat at a nice restaurant, Nalls’ commitment is clear.

“When you work with youth, it’s not a job; it’s investing in kids,” he said.