By Jason Milan
When I get on the phone with Mark Culliton at three o’clock on a Friday, he is in the car, on the way to a meeting. Over the course of our thirty-minute chat, Culliton mumbles rebukes under his breath several times, indignant about the state of the roads and the inanity of his fellow drivers. He is warm and focused even through these bouts of annoyance, displaying poise that exists outside of place and time; the same level-headed dedication which drives the success of his organization, College Bound Dorchester. Be that as it may, people raised in this city don’t tolerate bad driving- and it’s no question that Mark Culliton is a bona fide Bostonian.
Mark himself might say this is an ironic statement. Growing up in India, living and working abroad in Thailand, and striving always to improve the lives of people around him, Mark is in many ways the embodiment of a global citizen. “Though let me tell you,” he says, “It wasn’t always smooth sailing. I had some major lessons to learn along the way.”
He regales me with a story about his time in Thailand, when, after working with the Peace Corps and falling in love with the country, he leapt at the idea of building a fish pond for his village community. “I was a city boy in a rural setting,” says Mark. “I thought to myself: alright, this is what volunteers do – we build fish ponds.” So he set to work. And when Mark Culliton goes to work, things get done.
Mark sourced and planned the project, procured fingerlings (juvenile fish), and did the majority of the manual labor himself. The pond was dug and finalized. “I was feeling really good about myself,” he says. “I hopped on my motorcycle and drove up to the pond, which was on higher ground.” Feeling triumphant, he peered down into the hole and saw, to his dismay, that it was completely dry. “I’d planned and built the whole thing above standing water level,” he laughs. “It was never going to hold water, the fish were dead in days.” It turned out that the villagers had known this the whole time; only Mark’s unflagging enthusiasm had made them hold their tongues. “Often it’s when you’re most proud of what you’ve done that it becomes clear how far you are from real understanding,” he reflects. “In that moment, I was deeply humbled by the realities at play.”
With a wealth of such experiences under his belt, Mark brought the passion and wisdom that he cultivated abroad back to his hometown. He bought a house in Dorchester with his wife in the late 90s, and began work at a startup downtown. “I was working so hard – all the time – but I got to feeling kind of empty about the work,” Mark says. “I had this sudden realization – what I can only describe as a personal epiphany – that I needed to work in education. Education was the means for social justice, and I wanted to work toward social justice in the best way I could.”
So he took a job at the BELL Foundation, met Linda Brown soon after, and audited a couple of classes with the BES Fellows. Before long he was serving on 2002 Fellow Scott McCue’s board at Boston Preparatory Academy, and engaging in talks with an organization dedicated to changing the trajectories of Dorchester youths. The people involved were savvy enough to hand Mark the reins to what would become College Bound Dorchester, and he embarked on his new mission with just as much perseverance and heart as he’d thrown into building that fish pond – though perhaps with a better dose of perspective.
Beyond building his understanding of the broader Dorchester community during the early 2000s, Mark developed a connection to the place that was all his own. He formed a running group with a couple of guys in his neighborhood; they called themselves the Dorchester Swarm. “I used to play a lot of sports all throughout my younger years – hoops and soccer – and when I was on those teams, I hated to run. I did everything I could to avoid it,” says Mark. But when his son was born he had no time for hoops. So he started to run, “two or three miles a day, and it wasn’t fun, I still hated it, but I did it anyway just to stay in shape.”
Then he met some other runners who lived nearby. “We started running together, running five miles, then eight miles, then 10 miles… and now those guys are some of my best friends,” Mark says. Seeing this change was an affirming realization for him. He knew then that the tenacity to push himself lived deep within, but without a group of people to share it with, he couldn’t unlock its full potential. “It sounds strange, but when I think about running, I think about discipline first and foremost – but I also think about people, about community.”
After a couple of years Mark had another idea. Ever the original thinker, he decided to try running 100 miles every month – in Crocs. He loved the feel of the rubber clogs on the pavement and hasn’t looked back since, even going so far as to complete the Boston Marathon in his favorite pair. The idea of running in Crocs reflects a lifelong aspect of Mark’s personality. “Fundamentally I’m incredibly oppositional,” he says. “I always want to do what everyone else isn’t doing, to work against the prevalent culture.” Never has this been truer than in the last decade, during which he has led College Bound Dorchester through a period of tremendous growth.
At College Bound, Mark seeks out what he calls the core of negative influencers in the Dorchester community. The organization chooses the hardest kids to work with, the ones who create a sense of fear and corruption in a neighborhood otherwise filled with hardworking, upstanding people. He says that the world views these gang-affiliated young men and women as lost causes, and they live up (or down) to the expectations that are set for them. “I love seeing our students show people that their assumptions, their bias, and their prejudices are dead wrong. That these kids can accomplish anything your kids can accomplish.” Mark’s belief is that these few individuals are the key to sustained improvement in the lives of Dorchester citizens, that they offer just as much potential for achievement as they do for disruption – if not more.
“One of the things I hate most is when people tell me to ask the students themselves what they want,” says Mark. The kids respond that they want jobs, and then everyone wants to give them jobs; but these jobs are low-end and lead nowhere, and the kids end up back on the street where they started. “If you go ask the kids in Wellesley what they want, they say they want to graduate from college. Don’t tell me that my students don’t want an education: they want what the adults in their life tell them to want,” he explains emphatically.
College Bound Dorchester Matriculation Celebration August 25, 2015
In an effort to combat this inter-generational disenfranchisement, College Bound is launching an innovative program in the 2016-2017 school year. The organization will take a pilot group of 30 negative influencers and pay them a full living wage to go to college. Next year they hope to grow the numbers to 80, then 120, and in a few years Mark hopes to have 250 gang-related youths attending or graduating from a college in the Boston area. “It’s a totally new idea,” Mark says, voice brimming with enthusiasm. “I’m so excited to share our results across the nation in a few short years.”
Whether he’s lending expertise to BES as board member extraordinaire, swarming the streets of Dorchester, or campaigning for College Bound, Mark is an inspirational and compassionate leader. The success of his work is a beacon of hope for those who want to enact real, sustainable social change. If you’re one of these aspiring change-makers, one last word of advice: to stay on Mark’s good side, don’t cut him off as he drives down I-93.