Meet the Director of Movement City, Elvis Cabral

Finding one’s way … with  professional nudging

Elvis Cabral twirls in his desk chair to survey the artwork that covers the back wall of his office, floor to ceiling. The executive director of Movement City (MC) remembers details about each piece, the student artist who gifted it, and when he posted it to his wall of fame.

“Every piece of art and who gave it to me are important to me,” says Elvis, director of the Lawrence CommunityWorks youth program since 2019, just before the pandemic hit. “It’s powerful for sure.”

MC is a safe space for youth ages 10 to 18 to explore and develop their talents and passions with a network of like-minded peers and supportive adult mentors. Their energy is channeled in digital, performance, and visual arts, as well as technology, academic support, civic engagement and leadership development activities.

Delving deeply into each kid’s interests and motivations, staff members guide youth to become their best selves, and that begins with getting to know each kid as an individual and helping him or her to develop creative interests and educational pursuits. 

“We have a sort of farm system here: Young kids are taught by high school kids with the right experience; high school kids are taught by qualified instructors with specialties,” Elvis says. “We take everyone’s energy and we channel it into something safe.”

Developing his own sense of direction

Born in New York City and bilingual from birth, Elvis is the third of four siblings.

“I moved to the Dominican Republic (DR) when I was 3 years old and lived there from kindergarten through eighth grade. We all went to the same school, saw the same kids and had the same teacher for 10 years,” Elvis says. “We had stability and formed strong bonds. I took piano classes, I was rapping in Spanish and I joined the choir. I was a rock performer and lead singer, chosen because I could speak English. If I hadn’t been a part of those groups I never would have come out of my shell.

“My favorite memory of going to school in the DR is working in the computer lab, where I learned how to build websites,” he says. “We all felt very ahead of the technology curve, a pretty special feeling. I had something to talk about and it made life interesting.

“But in 2002, after I moved to Lawrence, I felt like a fish out of water. Hanging out on the street, the food, the vibes were all very different,” he says. “I realized I’d have to start over. The classes and homework felt easier, but making friends and connecting was way harder here.”

Which has become a universal challenge for so many kids today who look for ways to fit in — and not always picking the right way — their lives further complicated by social media and online programming.

Working with a mentor

When Elvis was 14 years old, not long after he moved to Lawrence, he entered the Merrimack College program, Accept the Challenge, which his high school English teacher pushed him to join. There he met Scott Gage, the director of Merrimack’s pre-collegiate programs. Coincidentally, his classes were held in the Hennigan building, right next door to the building where MC operates now.

“I am not here without Scott having been in my life,” Elvis says. “He gave off Dad vibes and became one of my father figures. When I messed up, Scott would look directly in my face and ask me, ‘You have so much potential — what are you doing?’ This man saw me in a way that most adults didn’t and he pushed me forward. With Scott’s guidance, his attentive-father energy, I began to find my way. I realized I wanted to use my experience to teach others, because there’s no way I’m here without the nudging from the important people in my life.”

Gage describes how he developed first his understanding of then his bond with Elvis. “Foremost, Elvis was already outside the box for his age. Many students came into the Merrimack program with deficiencies in language levels and preparing for college, but college wasn’t in his plans. While most students are trying to fit in, such as listening to the same music and identifying with the same cultures, Elvis was set on seeking his own passions. I introduced him to music that was new to him, such as the Beatles, and he insisted on knowing more and about different things.”

In the college prep class Elvis demonstrated he was a great writer and very creative, Gage says. “I loved working with Elvis because he pushed back and he challenged me, and he wanted no part of any route that was just given to him. He was intent on carving out his own path. He wanted to do it himself. He spent his time in the program figuring out what his right place was.

“I’m absolutely thrilled he’s made his way back to Movement City.”

Finding his way to Movement City

While still in high school Elvis brought his positive experiences of growing and developing self-confidence to the YMCA and, in 2004, he enrolled in MC, where he became a role model to youth in experimenting with their interests.

After high school graduation he was hired to lead the MC staff in youth programming. Since then he has trained each staff member how to discover the unique promise in each kid and to reinforce the consistent and positive messaging each kid needs to hear — with professional nudging.

“So many parents can’t see the promise in their children when they only get to see them at home. They don’t see what we see when their kids are here at MC,” Elvis says. “Kids are always gonna be kids — we give them a safe space to be that — but we also know when to invest more time with which kid when they need it to stay on their path. What happens here is magic: Kids are being taken care of by mentors and adults who listen and respond to them.

“If you visit us, come to one of our performances, you’ll feel the vibe and energy of the program, the kids and the staff,” he says.

“I get so much from this job.”

To find out more about Movement City, click here.
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