photo by Mike Mergen
EMERY WRIGHT KNOWS how to build community. He started the Nia Project, a nonprofit, all-black mentoring and
tutoring organization, three years ago as a senior at Tufts University. Essentially, the project provides
mentoring opportunities for young people, with the goal of involving them more deeply in society at large.
"Basically, our motto is youth development through building community," he says. "We try to put young people
in a position where they're developing themselves, their life skills, critical-thinking skills. We're doing
that through problem-solving community issues."
Calling on his cell phone from Harlem, Wright becomes distracted by what sounds to this reporter like
shrieks. "Oh, wow, there's a little fight going on," Wright mutters into the phone. He excuses himself to
put some of his community-building skills to work. "All right, all right, break it up, break it up," I hear
him say. "Back up, back up."
He pops back on the phone. "It's just a fight between two young women.... It's at a housing development."
The yelling gives way to longer and longer stretches of silence, as Wright's gentle but firm instructions
seem to take hold. He comes back to the phone a minute or so later. Problem solved. "Yeah, it looks like
It seems that Wright's in the right business.
Not that there was ever any question that community work is for Wright. After all, it's the rare college
student who tears himself away from books, friends, and fun to participate the painstaking work of social
activism. And it's an even rarer college student who applies those activist impulses off-campus. But Wright
wanted to help ease the town-gown tensions between Tufts and its two host communities, Medford and
Somerville. "We were doing a lot of on-campus organizing and political stuff, but we lived in a community
where there were a lot of community problems and young people with various issues," he recalls.
So Wright started volunteering, while still a student, with the West Medford Community Center, the Medford
High School African Cultures Club, and the Haitian Coalition of Somerville to cultivate relationships with
local youth. His volunteer work eventually morphed into the Nia (Swahili for "purpose") Project.
"There was a huge disconnect and animosity between the community and the university," Wright says. "[With
the Nia Project], we're able to leverage resources from the university and take them to the community."
A couple of years later - after winning grants from the Merck Family Fund, the Boston Foundation, Haymarket
People's Fund, the Phelps Stokes Fund, and the Sprint Foundation, among others - the Nia Project has
evolved into a well-structured nonprofit. It has expanded beyond Tufts to include a chapter pairing
Northeastern students with Roxbury youth from the El Centro school. For the past two summers, the Nia
Project has taken a handful of students to South Carolina for a five-week program that includes joining
local high-school students in volunteer work for a community-development organization and senior centers.
Most significantly, the Nia Project successfully helped counsel young people from Somerville's North Street
Housing Development in their efforts to build a community space complete with computers, which they now use
for the mentoring program.
At the top of the Nia organization, Wright is joined by Seth Markle, who runs the Roxbury program; Nisrin
Elamin, who writes grants; and Abdelrahim Brown, who's the IT guy. The quartet provides support and
resources for a nine-person student staff that oversees the ongoing tutoring and mentoring programs
linking Tufts students with Somerville youth.
"We've definitely seen change," Wright says proudly. "There have been some real concrete things."
- Nina Willdorf