Community Advisory Board Interview: Alphonse Litz

The Community Advisory Board (CAB) is an active and thoughtful group of dedicated community members tasked with advising the work of the Office of City and Community Engagement. The CAB discusses and provides input about community engagement, the impact of CCE’s work on local neighborhoods, and the university’s development ideas and initiatives. The group includes a mix of residents, staff from nonprofit organizations, and members of Northeastern’s Institutional Master Plan advisory group and Task Force representing Roxbury, Fenway, Mission Hill, and the South End. As part of a series of CAB member profiles, City and Community Engagement’s Program and Operations Assistant Co-op, Ben Whitaker, spoke to the Director of Boston Explorers, Alphonse Litz, about the history and mission of his organization, his experiences on Northeastern’s CAB, and much more. Read on for the full interview. 

For those who don’t know what Boston Explorers is, can you give an overview? 

“It’s kind of a simple idea. I was a long time teacher in Mission Hill at a public school there, and we used the city as our classroom, and so this was a natural extension to use the city as our campground. 

So a couple of components. We are small and enroll kids ages 6-14. What is unique about our program is that we don’t separate the children by age, so we will have a 7 year old with a 13 year old. We have a base camp which is housed at the Rafael Hernandez School in Egleston Square, and that’s where we start and end every single day. On any given day, we explore Boston by boat, by bike, by T, and on foot. We explore Boston from multiple perspectives from the tops of buildings, through neighborhoods and offshore to the Harbor Islands.  We explore the quirky, historic and the natural environs of Boston. 

The second thing we do is we make things with our hands. We are digitally free most of the time and we do woodworking, carpentry and artmaking. We have fun and we are kind to everyone. Kindness we say is the glue that holds us together. 

We have a small leaders-in-training program for 16 and 17-year olds, who work alongside the adult staff and the counselors. We have kids that come back year after year. They like it because they say “you can be whoever you are”. It’s not about skills, competencies, testing, and post-testing, it’s about kids integrating into our city and using the city as their buffet. On an average day we might take 20,000 steps. We feel that we can move about 50 explorers per day through the city. We do that primarily in the summer, and we have school vacation programs in February and April. 

Like a lot of people in real-estate expensive Boston, we are always moving from site to site and we would love to find a clubhouse where we could land so that we could really expand into after school or weekend programming. 

That’s primarily what we do. It is a very simple concept, but  pretty profound because we have had kids that have come to us since they were seven or eight and they became leaders-in-training at 16, and now three of them are on our senior staff. 

How did the idea of Boston Explorers come about for you? 

It’s genesis really was in my childhood. I grew up in Syracuse, New York. At the time my family didn’t have a ton of money, so my father was always looking for things that my siblings and I could do that were within the area: nature trails, historic houses, the historic plaques along route 90, or a house museum. He was a carpenter, so that was the notion of working with our hands. 

I was fortunate when I worked at the Mission Hill School. It was a pilot school, and at the time the pilot schools were formed in the Boston Public School’s as a response to the charter movement, where there was a lot of movement out of the district. The pilot schools had increased autonomy so we would control our own budget, staffing, calendar, and curriculum. 

On any given day, we might take kids out on the subway to explore an aspect of Boston. We would say, “Let’s go see where it happened. Let’s not talk about it, let’s go down there and see why people come all over the world to explore Boston, its history, its monuments, its waterfront.” 

We became very test heavy in the ‘90’s. The battery of assessments and focusing on what kids can’t do well instead of what they can do. So I wanted a camp that wasn’t based on skill or performance, or is segregated by age or skill level. Here, kids get to play and be naturally  curious. 

We will have a kid that says “you know, I love Lego, but if I told kids in my 7th grade homeroom that I still love to play with Legos, they would set me on fire” Here it is cool to play with Legos. It’s cool to play Legos with a 13 year old or a seven year old. It’s freeing for kids. You see time and again where kids say “it's not a fancy place, but you get to be whoever you are here.”

All kids are born curious, but sometimes school can stamp that out of kids and dampen it. Here, they get to explore and be curious. 

The other thing that is really important to us, is that we wanted to provide a place that wasn't a fix-it program. “You got to fix this, or get your reading up to speed, or do math before you can have fun or explore.” We actually turned down some funding because they wanted us to do a number of assessments and document academic progress. We will leave that to other programs. What we wanted to do was carefully enroll children from families who have less access. So things that more affluent families may take for granted in the kind of summer programming they can put in front of their kids. We wanted to be the place where families, who may just have a small amount of money that they are trying to stretch out over a whole summer, can connect their kids to meaningful summer programs. That’s the equity piece. 

People come from all over the world to explore Boston, yet we found that a lot of our kids hadn’t even explored Boston. Kids that live in Nubian Square, or Grove Hall, or Mission Hill. We wanted to show kids that “this is yours.” Kids would say “I didn’t know we could go to the waterfront, I thought it was only for tourists or rich people.” So we will paint watercolors in the Public Garden or climb Beacon Hill.  

We have committed to enrolling 85-90% of kids who come from families with less means, and typically families of color, and that is important to us.

Part of the Community Advisory Board involves hearing from residents and people working in the community about their experiences and relationship with Northeastern. What is your history with the university, either through a working partnership or through personal experience? 

In 1997, the first day I came to the Mission Hill School, before I even went into the school, there was a group of long-time neighbors gathered outside. One of the first things they said was, “Northeastern is taking over. They are moving into the neighborhoods and residents can’t even afford to live here anymore.” There was a lot of animosity. The hospitals were pushing from one end, Northeastern from another, affluent people from the South End were pushing in. People were saying “I have lived here for 40 years and my rent has tripled in the last 5 years.” 

Fast forward, we had a great relationship as a school with Northeastern’s School of Education. We had a resident teacher program, where aspiring teachers would come and spend an entire year with us to see the full cycle of a school year. As I began to teach teachers on site, I worked closely with Northeastern’s School of Education. It was a really positive experience and I met some amazing people. 

Then what happened is Northeastern realized that they were going to expand, but there can't be this wall between the university and neighborhoods. It began to shift, Northeastern which was seen as a villain, became a much more active participant. Some of the compromises were to house more students on the campus. 

I did a second Masters at Northeastern. It was a principal’s licensure program that was really homegrown and organic. Northeastern was the certifying institution, but it was not about being on the Northeastern campus, but really being in the Boston schools. 

More recently, over the last 5-6 years, Northeastern has been very generous with their funding in terms of our youth programs and youth employment, because we draw a lot of kids from the Fenway, South End, Mission Hill and Roxbury neighborhoods. 

Two years ago, Dave Isberg asked me if I would join the CAB [Community Advisory Board]. I have really just been so impressed with Northeastern and how they have really grown in terms of responding to the community. 

Can you share a time where you felt that serving on the Community Advisory Board had a meaningful impact on your organization or community. 

I served as a reviewer for the Neighbors Uplifting Neighbors awards. These were homegrown initiatives. I got to be a reviewer for those grants, and read those grants. We met together as a group, it was so much fun getting to know all those other people. The committee was really invested in reading, thinking, and taking good notes. It was a great process. I would love to be on it again because I spent a lot of time reading grants in my school work and now writing grants as Director of Boston Explorers. 

That was really eye-opening for me because there are so many beautiful things happening in the community. When people are cynical, look at something like this and it will show the kind of neighborhood initiative. People aren’t getting paid for this stuff, they are doing it because they want to make a difference in the neighborhood. 

What are you hoping to share or contribute with the Board and the university? What are you hoping to learn from the experience? 

We built a good reputation in the city for the non-profit that is not large and we kind of fly under the radar. Part of what I want to contribute is, if we have a second generation of leadership, how do I make that handoff, and introduce our little and mighty organization to the people at Northeastern and vice versa. Here is an active neighborhood partner doing grassroots work in the neighborhood. 

There is still a wall between people who live in the neighborhood and the university. It’s intimidating. To get kids on campus early and often. Kids can't see themselves as a part of a place unless they have experiences early and often. So how can we create experiences for the youngest learners? 

I have so much to learn in terms of what are the opportunities that I can bring back to the community that I am most invested in. We need a list of all these funding opportunities and initiatives happening, because even though it is out in a newsletter, it doesn’t mean that people will come across the Northeastern campus. How we can continue to get our kids there, early and often.