Pearls of Wisdom from Boys & Young Men of Color in Juvenile Detention

By Dr. Rhonda Bryant

As the mother of a newly-minted teenage son, doing work each day on behalf of boys and young men of color has taken on a different meaning for me. As I think about the society that we live in, both the peril and the promise, I keep coming back to his face and my deepest hopes for his future.

About a year ago, the Forward Promise staff spent a day at the Davidson County Detention Center in Nashville, TN. Research clearly shows that incarcerating young people is an ineffective means of correcting negative behavior and altering life outcomes. Boys and young men of color (BYMOC) who encounter the juvenile justice system have a higher rate of re-entering the juvenile justice system after a year.  Several reports, including one by Harvard’s Kennedy’s School Program, document the ineffectiveness of youth prisons across the country, and the negative impacts they can have, while promoting youth advocate programs that provide services in community and home settings.

The Forward Promise Team visited because we wanted to spend some time with the young men there, listening and learning about what’s important to them and what would make a difference for their lives. Their faces and their stories have stayed with me, as happens every time I am blessed to be in the presence of young people who choose to open themselves up and share their time and their experiences. Some shared a lot, while others didn’t say a word, but nodded in agreement as their peers spoke. Some didn’t engage at all, and I respect that too. Too often, we mistake lack of engagement as apathy. Many times, it’s a protective stance to shield oneself from vulnerability until you can gauge if a person is trustworthy. Don’t cast your pearls before swine, right? That’s wisdom.

The clarity and candor of these youth was both powerful and disheartening. They know what they’re up against, and they have so many ideas about solutions for their own lives. There is great power in being clear about your obstacles. But when BYMOC don’t have the tools to implement the solutions that they are certain would work, I can only imagine how trapped they might feel. Beyond the walls of a detention facility, feeling trapped in your circumstance is a far more hurtful feeling with potentially perilous results.

These young men said a lot that day, both in words and their non-verbal interactions with each other and with us. Five things stood out for me:

  1. BYMOC care deeply about each other and the young boys in their communities. They recognize the gifts and talents that each of their friends have, and encourage each other to find ways to use those gifts well so they don’t end up back in detention. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough supports available to ensure they don’t come back. Secondly, they want to get the attention of younger boys before they take the wrong path. These older boys and young men want opportunities to be a voice of reason and caution in the lives of younger peers, to steer them away from negative situations.


  1. BYMOC may be young, but many have adult life roles. They are fathers, uncles, mentors to little brothers, providers for their families. At 16 years old, that’s a heavy load. They are looking for help to navigate these roles and do the best they can for everyone who depends on them. BYMOC have dreams and life goals, but sometimes these adult roles they play take center stage in their lives, and they don’t have the time or ability to live their dreams.


  1. BYMOC aren’t being taught how to relieve stress, manage trauma, or cope with their life situations. BYMOC aren’t talking with anyone about their stressors or triggers, so they aren’t developing coping strategies that will help them when they return home. This often leads to repeated cycles of incarceration. Many BYMOC recognize the connection between mind and body, and rely on athletics as an avenue for stress management. But other coping strategies are also needed.


  1. BYMOC recognize the trauma experienced by their parents, and are seeking help. They have watched what their parents have endured. This life sometimes comes with serious scars. They acknowledge that parents also need coping skills. The burdens of living in poverty and uncertainty carry a heavy weight.


  1. BYMOC feel unseen. BYMOC hear constantly in the media about them needing to do better, needing to pull their pants up, needing to get jobs, etc. But they don’t understand why when they are standing on the corner, nobody comes to talk to them. We drive right by in our fancy cars and don’t stop to ask them anything, give an encouraging word, or offer an opportunity. Nobody is really checking for them. It’s easier for folks to criticize them publicly as a whole group than it is to actually extend themselves and help them to improve. We can’t be afraid of them, yet claim to be about them.


I left the detention center that day with my mind running 100mph. What would it look like to have stress reduction and healing from trauma central to the work of juvenile intervention services? What if the connections between mind, body, and spirit were evident in the way programming was structured for BYMOC who had interactions with the legal system? What if we took a multi-generational approach to helping youth and their families to heal? What if we really, truly saw BYMOC as humans deserving of every opportunity for redemption?

Our work as funders, policy wonks, researchers, and direct service staff is only as powerful as the testimonies of those we work to serve. If, at the end of it all, we cannot point to meaningful and sustained transformation in the lives of boys and young men of color, and the communities in which they live, we have failed. It’s imperative that we don’t lose sight of the young people. Their voices and perspectives must be central as we seek to make change. To do this, we must first listen to their wisdom. Listen and respond.