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Be Connected: Behind-the-scenes with Ahmed Ali, youth worker at the BCYF Hennigan Community Center

All across the City of Boston, people are working tirelessly behind-the-scenes to make the City’s biggest and brightest ideas a reality. In our “Behind-The-Scenes” series, we sit down with them to provide a glimpse into who makes it all work, what they do, and how they do it.

In this edition, we chat with Ahmed Ali (he goes by Ali), a youth worker at the BCYF Hennigan Community Center in Jamaica Plain. Since Ali joined the team, the teen program at the Hennigan has improved, and the number of youth participants has increased by over 100%. Ali shares how he does and why he does what he does, his advice for people interested in mentoring, and what to say to make a 15-year-old think you're "hip".

Ahmed Ali 1
Ali (far right) posing with a group of youth basketball players at the Hennigan Community Center in JP .

Before we jump in, I want to thank you for your time. I'm really excited to talk to you and learn more about what you do. I know people are going to love getting to know you! 

Thanks! I am also excited about this experience.

Let's start by telling me, in your own words, about your role at the City of Boston.  What are your main responsibilities, and what purpose do they serve?

My role at the City of Boston is to ensure the young people at the BCYF Hennigan Community Center in Jamaica Plain are engaged in intentional, productive, and constructive ways. We provide youth programming that promotes positive outcomes in every aspect of life — from recreational and educational activities to mentorship, career development, and volunteer opportunities. 

How many kids are you usually working with at any given time? 

It really varies depending on the program, and we go from one program to another most days. Usually working with a group of about 15-20 young people at a time. 

I do kind of hate myself for always asking this question, because I suspect the one thing all City employees have in common is that there’s no such thing as a “typical” day, but...can you give us an example of a day in the life of Ahmed Ali?

I come into work at the Hennigan Community Center and I prepare for the day. A couple of youth come by early, because their school day ends before others. They gather in the Teen Center, put their stuff down, and relax for a bit before we start the day’s programming. They’ll talk and play games. I hang around and jump in here and there, ask them about their day and such. Then we go into our activities and programs for the afternoon. 

I love just playing sports and board games with the kids. But my favorite programs are educational or entrepreneurial, like college campus visits and the youth venture program. We even have a running club. And there’s SuperTeens, a service learning and leadership experience for kids who are too young for summer jobs. 

Ahmed Ali 2
Some of Ali's favorite youth programs and activities to do with with the youth at the Hennigan.

My brother works at the Condon Community Center, and he helps run the SuperTeens program every year. That’s his favorite too. He has some great stories!


What led you to this career?

My life experience growing up in the City of Boston led me directly to this point. As a kid, I spent a lot of time at my neighborhood community center. Playing basketball, doing community service, getting my first job during the summer, working with the staff and the younger kids…whatever was going on, I could just be myself when I was there. I want to give that feeling back, and share the opportunities I had with the next generation. 

I also had some wonderful mentors and influential experiences working in collegiate athletics and recreation departments. 

Glad you mentioned mentors — let's talk about mentors. Can you tell me about a role model of yours, what they taught you, and how it's impacted your work today?

My role models include a few of my high school teachers, and the athletic director at one of the community centers I used to go to as a kid. Work ethic, passion, commitment — these are all things I learned from them, and I try to follow their example and embody those values as a City employee myself. 

It must be difficult at times. Do you find many of your kids are looking for a role model, or how do you build that relationship so they know they can trust you? 

Many kids are looking for role models, especially role models that have experiences they can relate to. For me, building that trusting relationship is about connecting through shared experiences. And definitely listening to them. Often the best way to help a young person through their day-to-day problems is to provide opportunities for them to express themselves in different ways. But you have to show you are listening, and that you care.

That makes so much sense. I remember that feeling as a kid, when someone really listened to you instead of brushing off your thoughts, feelings, and problems. It just made me feel whole, and powerful. I think it’s easy to forget about that when we become adults.

Listening is the most powerful tool in our toolbox and many of us don't use it enough.

How have you been able to help a kid with his or her problem? 

We have many success stories, not sure which one to pick...

That's the best answer! 

We had a young person who really wanted a particular job, but didn’t know how to go about getting it. I was able to help him figure out the application process, and serve as a reference. Then we prepped him for the interview. And he was able to get the job.

That's incredible. How did it feel to watch him succeed?

It was really amazing. Just to see him so excited, and his smile...I was really proud of him for getting the job, but more importantly that he learned the importance of doing his research, having a reference, and being prepared for the interview. And that the staff at the Hennigan [Community Center] are here to help him succeed. 

Hopefully someday he'll have the opportunity to play that role for someone else and keep that chain of support and guidance going through the generations.

Yes, definitely! He is giving back already actually, helping with Pee Wee basketball and some other programs.

Oh man, that's amazing. What advice do you have for people who may want to become mentors or work with young people in their community?

It is very rewarding. Young people may have problems you can’t fix, but they need mentors who are good listeners, are supportive, and will challenge them to try new things. And I would like them to know that every kid is different and unique in their own way. They could all turn out to be the biggest asset in your community. 

And you can probably learn something from them too, right?

Yes. Absolutely, so true. 

Having spoken with you, I have this image in my head of like, a pebble in a lake. One person's actions can ripple out and touch so many different lives in positive ways. 

Yeah, when you invest in one or two kids, you're really investing in all the lives they will impact, and so on and so forth. 

What's your personal message to the young people of Boston — if there's one piece of advice or wisdom you could share with them all, what might that be?

Great question. Well...I think the piece of wisdom that I could share with the youth of Boston is that each one of you has your own brand, or persona you present to society. And you need to develop and protect your personal brand, because you never know who is paying attention.  

Also, be open to trying new things — even if it is challenging, and especially if it takes you out of your comfort zone. Those are the things that will help you develop as a person.  

And finally, get involved in your community. Give back, and volunteer. That’s the best way to make connections, find your passion, and develop new skills. 

Ahmed Ali 3
Some of the 2019 SuperTeens Ali has worked with and been a mentor to.

That's SO good, Ali. I wish I could go back and tell my young self that! Thank you for sharing. Ready for the lightning round?


What's the funniest thing one of your kids ever said to you? 

Let me think...well we had an event once, and I was dancing. Just the way I always dance. And one of the kids was like, “Why are you dancing like that!?” So yeah, then I just got to learn some new moves. 

What emojis are most popular with the youth these days? 

🤭🤫🤪🤩❤️👌🏾🤘🏾💃‼️✅ 🥰🥺 ️

What's one thing I can say to my 15 year old cousin that will make her think I'm young and cool?

Okay let’s say for example, your cousin says, “I was thinking of getting some candy.” You say, “I’m hip, me too.” 

Amazing. Can’t wait to blow her away with that line.

Also, “You’re buggin’."

Got a suggestion for our next behind-the-scenes interview? Let us know!

About the interviewer:

Erin Santhouse joined the City of Boston in 2014 as a scheduler for Mayor Walsh. She is currently a Project Manager for the HR Transformation and the lead content strategist for Be Connected. In lieu of providing further biographical information, she suggests googling “Kelly Kapoor quotes”.

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