With Our Powers Combined

SparkShare brings diverse teens together to work through the tough stuff

A teen participant at a SparkShare Fall 2018.

When racist, homophobic, and antisemitic graffiti showed up on the campus of Needham High School, a group of students in that Boston suburb sought to change the culture by looking beyond school walls. They solicited advice from young people in Boston about how they deal with racial challenges. They talked with community organizers about how to build coalitions. Then they urged their school administration to take action, prompting Needham High to create a new course on race, history, and self-reflection and make conversations on race part of all ninth-grade science classes.

SparkShare, a Boston-based nonprofit, made those connections possible. Cofounded in 2014 by clinical social worker Marsha Alperin, J81, social entrepreneur Neil Silverston, A83, A19P, and nonprofit consultant Victoria Rakov, SparkShare is creating a network that introduces teens “to people they wouldn’t connect with otherwise, helping them get skills they wouldn’t otherwise and see that they’re part of something bigger than themselves,” said executive director Silverston, who helped create the service organization City Year in the 1980s.

At SparkShare summits, students of all races, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds work with community leaders, educators, and business people from across Greater Boston. “It’s really a bunch of diverse experiences coming together, in a space where they are all equal,” Silverston said. So students from the suburbs get to hear from urban teens, and a youth task force in Boston campaigning against substance abuse gets messaging advice from Emerson College communication pros.  

The organization fosters leadership skills, coaches teens on how to talk about their mission so people get it, and teaches them to gather facts to support their causes. Students complaining of ninety-degree heat in their classrooms, for example, collect temperatures from other schools to see how widespread the issue is. “They are able to see each other as problem solvers, not stereotypes,” Silverston said. “If we’re going to create the next generation of change makers, then people need to be able to work effectively across communities.”

The best part, he said, is that once one group seeks advice from another on an issue, they are each invested in the outcome. “People see a problem is not just my problem, or not just your problem, but our problem, a problem that we all have to address.”

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu

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