Mark Culliton
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Mark Culliton

Chief Executive Officer, College Bound Dorchester

Grand Circle Foundation Co-Chair Harriet Lewis often speaks movingly about the importance of travel in bringing people together. "What I've learned is that we all want the same things—to be free, safe, and healthy and to have food on the table," she says. "The important thing is to connect!"

One person who has lived that vision is Mark Culliton, Chief Executive Officer of College Bound Dorchester. When he was two years old, his family moved to India, where they lived for four years. It was an experience that would shape his future. "There's something about having grown up in India that changed my sense of difference," he says. "When people see other people as different, they don't relate in a natural way. Growing up with an entirely different culture has made me very comfortable living and working with people who come from a very different culture." It's an understanding that serves him well in his role at College Bound Dorchester.

A Passion for Social Activism

Mark's penchant for helping others manifested itself early in his career. Upon their return from India, his family settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lived until enrolling in the University of Michigan. There, he majored in Southeast Asian history, a decision that resulted in his becoming more active in issues relating to social and racial justice. During his years at the University, he was even arrested for protesting CIA recruitment on campus and also protesting against the policies of the Peace Corps—an organization that, ironically, he later joined.

"I thought I could be effective because I knew the history of trouble in the Peace Corps, and I really wanted to get to Southeast Asia, not as a traveler, but to live there. Enrolling in the Peace Corps was the best way to do it," he reveals. Since volunteers can't request to be assigned to a particular country when joining the Peace Corps, Mark took a course in the Thai language, assuming that few applicants could boast a "working knowledge" of Thai. It did the trick.

While in Thailand with the Peace Corps, Mark helped launch small businesses in a rural part of the country, in an effort to encourage villagers to stay in their villages rather than massing to Bangkok. For three and a half years, Mark assisted Thai farmers with silkworm and frog propagation and engaged youth in business.

"What I learned there was that it was important to listen and then take action," he says. "You don't really learn silkworm farming in Cambridge, but I could hear the challenges the villagers had and found resources and money to help them."

Mark initially thought he would stay in Thailand for the rest of his life but ultimately decided "I wanted to make a difference in my own country," as he puts it. He returned to New England and earned a business degree from Yale, spending a summer as a consultant in Accra, Ghana, assisting with small business creation.

Creating small businesses has continued to be a cornerstone of his career. After a short stint in San Francisco, California, at Business for Social Responsibility, he returned to the Boston area, accepting a job as Executive Director of Upham's Corner Main Street, a start-up nonprofit responsible for recruiting businesses to the city's troubled Dorchester neighborhood.

Even though he grew up just across the river, "the first time I had ever been to Dorchester was for my interview," Mark recalls. Mark and his wife have since moved to Dorchester and have lived there for more than a decade, raising their two boys, Oliver (10) and Julius (8).

It was during his first few years as a Dorchester resident that Mark experienced what he describes as a "personal epiphany." "I saw what was happening all around me—that children had no opportunity because they happened to be born on certain streets," he says. "And I just knew that education was the means to opportunity and for justice. I knew that I needed to be doing that." 

Changing Course—and Changing Lives—at College Bound Dorchester

Mark's first position after his revelation was at Building Educated Leaders for Life, where, as Chief Operating Officer, he developed a model to deliver after-school services at a lower cost by using teachers and volunteers more efficiently.

From there, he took a job at Lighthouse Academies, a national nonprofit charter school management organization charged with providing families with new, high-quality public school choices. In his role there, Mark grew the organization from three schools to ten, mostly in low-income communities in the Midwest. "Just offering hope to families whose schools led to nowhere and seeing them willing to invest in an idea was a powerful experience," Mark says.

The concept of transforming an entire communities intrigued him, so when he was invited to join Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses (FDNH), he was open to the opportunity. When he began his term at FDNH, the organization's multitude of services included food pantries, and FDNH's youth programming was, as Mark describes it, primarily a "safe space for children to come."

Mark, however, was clear to the Board of Directors that, if he joined the organization, he wanted to refocus it and to change its mission. "I shared that I saw education as the key," he says, "and if they wanted me to lead this organization, that's the direction I wanted to take it."

That was four years ago. Since then, the organization has adopted a new mission—to equip Dorchester students with the attitude, skills, and experience to graduate from college—and has been renamed College Bound Dorchester.

Mark immediately set to work pursuing his vision. Change has not been easy—or as quick as he would like. But he is proud of the progress that he and his staff have made. "I really admire the way our staff has changed their expectations from simply providing a safe space and helping young people stay out of trouble to investing in their work to have a lasting impact on each student and the community," he says. "It's much harder work, and you have to have a belief in college, a belief in the possibilities that flow from having an education, and the belief that our students can do it."

Working in a community with the highest rates of violence in Boston and with the city's most at-risk kids, College Bound Dorchester works with students and their families not only on academics, but also on something much more fundamental: attitudinal change.

"It's not a linear progression," Mark says. "We work with students and their families, but sometimes they engage for a while and then drop out. When that happens, we have to be prepared for when they come back and are ready to re-engage. It takes a significant amount of time to build trust with students and parents who have been failed so often and have no family history of college. It takes time to unearth their confidence in their own genius."

One such student is Kwan, a Vietnamese-American teen who dropped out of school, didn't have a job, and got involved in street life. When his parents kicked him out of the house, he was, as Mark puts it, "on the path to social services." Mark notes that once a student has fallen off track, it's not only more difficult to redirect the student, it's also much more costly. "People don't realize the cost to the state of not intervening," he reveals. "Once young people go down that path, the cost to the state is $426,000 per student."

Fortunately, Kwan's story has a happier outcome. Connecting to educators at College Bound, Kwan studied hard, got his GED, and joined Year Up Boston, a partner nonprofit aimed at preparing at-risk youth for the future. Although he completed the program, Kwan knew he needed more assistance, so he connected with College Bound Dorchester, and he is now starting classes at Bunker Hill Community College.

Another case in point is Renee, who had to miss school to take care of her younger siblings when her mother got caught up in drug use. Renee had dropped out of high school for a couple of years before being referred to College Bound Dorchester. "She got the bug right away," Mark says. "She was like a rock star!" Completing two grade levels in reading in just a couple of months, Renee earned her GED and enrolled in Bunker Hill Community College before dropping out again. The College Bound Dorchester instructors would not give up on her, however. They kept after her until she returned to Bunker Hill. She now has just one semester left to complete her associate degree and hopes to go on to study nursing.

A Lesson in Leadership

His stance on the issue of sending students to a community college led to a memorable moment for Mark. He had been eager to join Grand Circle Foundation's Community Advisory Group (CAG), whose mission aligns with that of College Bound Dorchester: to set at-risk youth from the inner city on course for higher education. "I wanted to join the group, because I think it's important to include the voice of the most off-track students as part of the discussion of how to move the needle in Boston," he says.

Referred to the group by Robert Lewis of The Boston Foundation, Mark had an exploratory meeting with Alan and Harriet Lewis and was impressed by their energy and their focus on getting something done quickly.

When he first joined the CAG, however, the group seemed to be focused on steering Boston students toward four-year schools and not community colleges. Mark recalls, "I was new to the group and so a little hesitant to say anything, especially since Alan had good data on his side about the struggles of community colleges. But I spoke up anyway." Supported by Casey Recupero of Year Up Boston, Mark stated, "If we don't find a way to include community colleges in this work, we'll never reach our students."

A lively debate ensued, at the culmination of which Alan said, "Show me." Mark arranged a meeting at Bunker Hill Community College, during which Alan learned about the possibilities the school offered and sized up its leadership. "He's now on board for making this pathway work," Mark reports. "It was an incredibly powerful example of what leadership can be: to have strong ideas but be willing to jump in when a different pathway to the goal is presented."

Today, thanks to the pathway College Bound Dorchester has presented, every year 15 to 25 Boston students go to college who otherwise would still be on the streets heading nowhere. "When you consider where these young people would be without the support of our educators and then see where they are now, and observe how differently they see themselves, it's pretty gratifying to be a small part of that," Mark says.

With all that he has accomplished at College Bound Dorchester, Mark often reflects back on his time in India, where he learned that, although people may seem very different and may have lived very different lives, we are all more similar than we are different. "The work Grand Circle does to show travelers that people of other cultures are just like us is incredibly powerful," Mark says. "Because when we internalize how similar we all are, we understand that parents everywhere share the same dreams for their children and that children everywhere have within them the attitude and ability to be great. We recognize that children down the street in Dorchester may have led different lives, with different struggles, but innately they are the same as our children. We begin to realize that if students are not reaching their full potential, it is our responsibility to do something about it. Making 'them' 'us' is how we can make long-lasting changes in neighborhoods like Dorchester and across the country."

Fortunately, that struggle is made a little easier, thanks to the dedication of impassioned leaders like Mark Culliton.

Featured in our August 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.