By Barbara Taormina
If you haven’t heard of Malden Rising Leaders yet, odds are you will soon.
Founded last year by longtime community activist Ted Louis-Jacques, Malden Rising Leaders, or MRL, is a new nonprofit organization focused on youth development, empowerment and leadership. And MRL is a group with a big vision and a big plan.
MRL made some waves over the summer when members of the organization’s summer fellowship program presented a proposal to lower Malden’s voting age to 16 for municipal elections. The idea excited some people, terrified others and managed to spark a lot of conversation. The proposal, which would require a change to the City Charter, is now being reviewed by the City Council.
And MRL is just getting started. Louis-Jacques said the idea for the group came, in part, from his experience working at the Teen Enrichment Center. “I wanted to create my own organization and I liked the idea of a volunteer group engaged in the community,” he said. And unlike the Teen Enrichment Center, which tends to attract a middle-school crowd, MRL is geared to older teens who are closer to making some decisions about which direction their lives might take.
MRL has already established a scholarship program and has worked with Malden High students on efforts to support other youth programs and projects throughout the city.
Louis-Jacques knew he couldn’t build the organization he envisioned alone, and he recruited a board of directors made up primarily of young people whose accomplishments underscore MRL’s vision of fostering youth leadership and success.
“I literally went down name-by-name through my address book and put together about 117 people who I thought may be interested in something like this,” he said.
From that original list, he found five people who were up to the task. Another four board members were recruited through networking and through other community groups. “It took a while because I wanted to make sure it was a diverse board,” he said.
Louis-Jacques tapped Karl-Gisbert Denis, a member of Malden High’s class of 2011, to serve as MRL’s treasurer. Denis, who is originally from Haiti, has a degree in math from UMass, Amherst, and currently serves as a fund accountant at Boston’s State Street Bank.
Amanda LaFauci, also from Malden High’s class of 2011, is MRL’s secretary. She recently earned her master’s degree in physics and plans to pursue a teaching license so she can “inspire students and show them how amazing the laws of the natural world are.”
Kristy Magras, a family counselor for the Malden School District, was a natural fit for the MRL board and its mission to ensure that all students have access to the resources they need to succeed.
Preschool teacher Chanelle Browne has a background in social services and counseling and brings a lot of valuable knowledge and experience involving education to the board.
Board member Ryan Figueroa, who graduated from UMass in 2013 with a degree in psychology, has worked with several well-known, Boston-based youth programs, including City Year Boston and Upward Bound.
Attorney Zinnia Khan graduated from Boston College Law School last year and has experience working on policy issues involving immigration, energy and environment and gun control.
Louis-Jacques also managed to recruit Mekka Smith and Candra Cho to serve on the MRL board. Smith, a former classroom teacher, has been involved in teacher development programs and currently serves as chief of staff at KIPP Massachusetts, which manages two successful charter schools.
Cho, who is originally from South Korea and has a background in business management, is well known for her volunteer work in Malden schools, and particularly for her support of the Malden High debate team.
And Louis-Jacques can’t seem to say quite enough about his dream team board of directors, who not only bring a wide range of knowledge, experience and new ideas to the table, but who also serve as role models of hard work, success and civic engagement.
The board met recently to fine-tune MRL’s mission statement and to develop a three-year strategic plan. In the works are plans for more scholarships, a mentoring program, partnerships with colleges and universities, workshops and fundraising. But at the top of it all is the goal of ensuring that resources and opportunities in education and community service are available to all of Malden’s young people.
“I am very, very excited about MRL,” said Louis-Jacques. “Now that we have our plan down, we have a clear vision of how we can be helpful to the city of Malden.”