Before Conan Harris was mingling with the likes of former President Barack Obama and some of the high-profile members of the 116th Congress, he had a tumultuous upbringing in Dorchester. He was in a street gang, got into fist-fights, arrested, and eventually served time in prison for drug trafficking. These experiences shaped Harris’ worldview and inspired him to enter public service. Now, he’s the senior vice president of policy and external affairs of College Bound Dorchester, a nonprofit that helps current and former gang members attend college, and he’s hoping to make sure another young person doesn’t have to endure the experiences he did.

“I am those young people. I grew up in the neighborhood where gangs were just beginning in Boston, and I was involved in a gang as a young man,” Harris said in an interview with Boston Public Radio on Wednesday. “What we realized even back then is that if you penetrate the particular neighborhood, and work with folks in a deliberate way, and really give them the opportunity to put the gun away and put something in place of it, that's when you start to open the door to real opportunity.”

To Harris, CBD stands out from other youth intervention programs because of its emphasis on identifying members of a community who can act as role models for others, and empowering them by providing a stipend and advising that will hopefully put them on the track to earning a college degree. These “core influencers,” as the program refers to them, are members of a community who have a lot of clout, but are also viewed as “disruptors” who have the potential to be positive agents of change if given the right guidance.

“When you deal with someone who is the leader of a basketball team ... what happens is that the rest of the team follows ... and same thing [happens] within our neighborhoods, and our neighborhood street gangs,” Harris said. “If you touch the leader of that crew, what happens is that the rest of the neighborhood catches on and starts to think about doing things in a more positive way.”

In some ways, the program is iconoclastic. Rather than just focus on removing a young person from gang life, the program’s main goal is to eventually enroll them in a four year college. To do so, CBD provides enrollees with a $400 per week stipend to eliminate some of the financial incentives young people have for leaving school and entering gang life. So far, the results have been successful. Mark Culliton, the CEO of CBD, said that 68 percent of the students they’ve worked with have matriculated into college, and he expects the program to save the Commonwealth as much as $700,000 a year by breaking the school to prison pipeline.

“Many people say, ‘Why are you paying gang members? What about the good kids?’ What we’re saying is ... if you engage them effectively, it helps the good kids [and] it helps everyone in the community,” Culliton told Boston Public Radio Wednesday. “These young men and women need an opportunity to make different choices. They are stuck in a lifestyle where they need to be part of a way to make money ... and $400 is a small amount compared to what we currently pay [to incarcerate] a gang member.”

In addition to the stipend, the programs success is predicated on support from trusted members of the community, Harris and Culliton said. In particular, Harris pointed out that many people of color in neighborhoods like Dorchester and Mattapan have a severe lack of trust for people within the government, but are more willing to work with those from similar backgrounds as themselves. The two hope that successful members of the program will return to their neighborhoods and continue to serve as advisors and mentors for other youth in the community, eventually breaking the cycle of gang life and incarceration.

“Representation matters,” Harris said. “So when you see somebody ... we used to look at in a negative light now [and now] we look at in a positive light, and they’re coming to us with a pathway to get out of these circumstances, that’s part of the convincing that is needed.”

Culliton acknowledges that the program has been met with skepticism, but said detractors can’t argue with the results.

“We’ve never really addressed generational urban poverty, and we feel like with these young people, we just support them. They can actually do it,” Culliton said. “They can change the nature of Mattapan, Dorchester, Roxbury. We just have to give them the opportunity.”