The North End of Hartford is an area where news coverage often centers on crime, but it’s also a neighborhood where hundreds of teenagers and young adults, part of the Blue Hills Civic Association, are working to change the narrative and “build Hartford through community action.”

For five weeks over the summer, more than 500 Hartford County youths, mostly recruited from the North End of Hartford and between the ages of 14 and 24, were deployed across the capital city through the association’s Summer Youth Employment & Learning Program. The opportunity allows them to earn money through work experience, classroom training and community investment — all while encouraging them to learn how they can influence their world.

“Part of our goal is to have teenagers be civic minded. What does it mean right to be a productive citizen in your community? What does it mean to give back to your community? All of these elements are part of the city,” said Kelvin Lovejoy, BHCA’s director of community organizing. “It’s about building leadership. It is about helping young people take stock in their own community. That’s where the real value is at.”

Last Saturday, the organization held its last major summer event — a community clean up — after spending over a month learning about professional development and hands-on time in their communities.

At 9:30 a.m. that morning, songs from Beyoncé and Burna Boy echoed across the streets in the center of the city’s Northeast neighborhood. Students wearing navy, white and gray shirts scoured every sidewalk within a half mile. The only things that remained at the group’s starting point, a small grassy area across from a barber shop on Barbour Street, were a few wheelbarrows, a tent and a green and blue trailer that read ‘‘ADOPT YOUR BLOCK.”

Students pick up trash from a curb on Judson Street in North Hartford. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

Down the block, one teenager grabbed handfuls of cigarette butts from the road. A nearby neighbor, after hearing the screams of a group of girls, put on a pair of lavender latex gloves and picked up a dead mouse. She handed out additional gloves to the students.

Within 30 minutes, the same starting site was filled with over a dozen black heavy-duty garbage bags as students and adults gathered to celebrate the end of another summer. The event was part of an important lesson the students are taught — to take pride in their home.

“I personally really love our togetherness. I feel like within not only the community of Hartford, but the Black community specifically, I feel like there’s just not a lot of unity. The violence is normally within our own community,” said Maya Rembert, an incoming junior at Bulkeley High School and Hartford Greater Academy for the Arts who’s been part of the program for two years.

“So over the years, just seeing everyone slowly come together — and wanting to build a stronger and safer environment for all of us so that we can all grow up and our future generations can have the treatment that we didn’t get — I think that that’s a really, really good thing for us to be doing,” Maya said.

BHCA members film a TikTok dance in a moment of celebration and togetherness after cleaning up the neighborhood. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

Throughout the summer, the organization’s youngest students stayed inside a classroom learning about professional development, how to build a resume and the art of public-speaking. The oldest, who are 17 and up, were hired by dozens of businesses, including hospitals, banks and local markets. 

And for the students between the ages of 15 and 16, they flooded every corner of Hartford in their well-known T-shirts. A hybrid of the two other tiers, this group of students spent time in the classroom learning about their ability to change their community then how to put it into practice.

“They teach us that the youth have a lot of power. They say things like, ‘You guys have more power than you actually realize’,” said Fran Metellus, an upcoming sophomore at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering. “[A lot of people say] if you’re young, ‘Oh, you don’t matter because you’re young and you don’t know that much about the world,’ [but we’re learning] your voice can actually really impact the people around you.”

Through a partnership between the city of Hartford, Connecticut Green Bank, CT Land Trust and Blue Hills Civic Association, the 15- and 16-year-olds surveyed park-goers about how to improve the city’s green space and how to make Hartford a better place to live. 

“I definitely think that in Hartford we have a few problems. There’s a lot of generational trauma. There’s a lot of trauma that the city itself has been through over the years, and I think that coming together as a community is a good thing for us to do. It’ll really help our community in the long run,” Maya said.

Students put on a clean pair of gloves provided by a neighbor as they continue cleaning the street. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

“I’ve definitely learned the importance of speaking out. When I go to other towns, and I see, ‘Oh, look, this is so pretty, and their parks are so gorgeous,’ I [used to] kind of shy away from it, because I had this thing of like, ‘Well, no one’s really gonna listen to me [about how to do this in Hartford],’ but I think speaking out as much as I do now, and as much as this program has kind of pushed me to do, I’m really realizing the influence that it’s having on other people,” Maya added.

The students also worked on efforts to improve local voter turn-out, with a specific focus on Hartford’s upcoming mayoral election.

The teenagers interviewed their neighbors, then created different types of video and social media content to promote and advocate for what they learned and believe in.

“They’re not of voting age, but they’re of influencing age. They have power on TikTok, power on Instagram and Facebook and so forth, and while it’s not about who to vote for, what they can speak to is what to vote for,” Lovejoy said. “We say vote for Hartford. Vote for better education. Vote for decreased violence. Vote for the eradication of poverty. Vote for strong families. Those kinds of elements should be influencing who’s going to sit in the mayor’s office.”

The Rev. AJ Johnson asks a trivia question. Students who answer correctly can pick school supplies from a table as a reward. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

All students were paid for their participation in the program, but many of them said their involvement with Blue Hills Civic Association went deeper than a paycheck.

“I think [when we were] 14- and 15-year-olds, I think all of us went into this with the mindset that like, ‘All right, I’m gonna get my paycheck. I’m gonna bump my sneakers.’ … The paycheck is nice, but the bigger impact that it’s having on me and everyone else in my community is the fact that we’re uplifting and we’re just building a healthier environment for all of us,” Maya said.

Maya’s work with the organization also helped figure out her career aspirations. She wants to be a psychologist.

“My plan is I’m gonna go to college to major in psychology, and then I could come back and I could start making my own nonprofit that focuses on my community specifically, and just really help get rid of our generational trauma. … I think that this program has really influenced my decision to make that choice,” Maya said.

For other students like Ethan Saddler, an incoming sophomore at J.M Wright Technical School, he said he’s seen two of his friends killed by gun violence and countless others struggle with mental health.

“It’s just hard to deal with as a youth or as a child,” Ethan said. “It’s just a lot at once for somebody.”

The program has helped keep him busy and focused toward a better future. He wants to become a registered nurse one day.

“The entire point of BHCA is to help keep kids off the streets during the summer and to help them build themselves [and] give them a good work ethic,” Ethan said. “Last year, they taught us work ethic and how to work at a job site, and this year has been an entirely different change for all of us. We’re helping to build our print [in the community]. We generally just want to protect the neighborhood and to keep everyone safe, especially our youth and teens just like us.”

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror’s Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika's experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Baylor University.