Villages as Healing Roots for Agonizing Seeds: For the Health of Boys and Young Men of Color

April 1, 2017

Howard C. Stevenson, Ph.D.

Director, Forward Promise

“In the dark, we hide the heart that bleeds

And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.”

If “it takes a village to raise a child,” what does it take to raise a healthy village for boys and young men of color? Affordable health care? Financial stability? Jobs? Good schooling? Justice? Not really. For centuries, boys and young men of color have weathered so much dehumanization regarding their presence, their innocence and their potential, that the respect for their humanity has all but eroded. These are important goals, but they are susceptible to the elements of fleeting goodwill and political turmoil.

Forward Promise: Raising Healthy Villages

Village-raising involves the creation of climates and contexts that fertilize diverse and healthy relationships that expect, observe, and repeat acts of human affection, protection, correction and connection.

Raising a healthy village requires deeply rooted commitments to the humanity of not only boys and young men of color, but their families, their styles, and their cultures—through relationships. Not only do relationships matter. Affection, protection, correction, and connection matter in those relationships. These commitments are not subject to fleeting goodwill or political turmoil. They represent Promises made in the past where our humanity was not questioned and they are promises that compel us to ensure our humanity is never sacrificed or bartered away in the future. Nurturance, shelter, accountability, and mobility. All of us should expect to receive and give these promises, without which villages cannot become healthy. Boys and young men of color and their families have faced centuries of distorted narratives about their humanity and the lengthy list of broken promises have been traumatizing.

More tragic still is forgetting those legacies of trauma and triumph over dehumanization.

But villages of healthy relationships re-member. Healthy villages are ancestral, transcending boundaries of time, land, space, cradles and graves–not subject to memory loss. Healthy villages are nourishing ecosystems of loving, sheltering, and accountable relationships that challenge boys and young men of color to heal, grow and thrive—but not alone. Healthy villages reconnect and rediscover cultural healing, repair broken promises, and reimagine futures. These cultural ecosystems were here before this moment in time and will be here after. But, how do we connect our young boys and men to this reservoir of cultural legacies, these promises, these futures?

HEAL: Recognizing trauma by reconnecting to the roots

As cultural assets, roots represent the historical trauma and triumphs of loved ones and lost ones, whose diverse stories of sacrifice and cultural resilience are sources of healing. Roots represent the collective wisdom from committed intergenerational relationships that healthy villages require when connecting BYMOC to health, educational, and justice systems. Even if unaware of the storms or stories surrounding them within systems, youth still want better climates. Healthy villages recognize that while all BYMOC yearn for the promises of affection, protection, correction, and connection, many stand alone and deserve re-linking to those roots. To heal is to re-member. To re-member is to renew membership to healthy villages.

Although often invisible, sometimes roots sneak upwards above ground. As such, we believe the power of these roots should be observable in relationships between the boys and young men of color, their families, and the people who work within those systems. Roots are foundational, sprawling everywhere; ever present, ever ready to deliver nourishment whether youth recognize them or not. As unconditional promises and cultural assets, these roots are as adaptive as they are non-negotiable and impervious to stormy conditions.

Our boys and young men of color are “agonizing seeds”1 from families who have survived centuries of hardship using cultural approaches that defined resilience. Healing begins with reconnecting to these roots, these families, these cultures.

GROW: Fighting through hardship but not alone or without shelter

Reconnected seedlings with deep roots must still endure harsh environments. Our sprouts are fighting through earth and rocks of centuries of racial and colonial oppression. Coping has been organic, natural, spontaneous, and raw. Growth is about pushing out, risk-taking, and bending around and through past and present trauma, through earth, wind, and fire often before being able to see the sky. The road for BYMOC has been rough and curved. Twisted, even. No straight lines here. Trees are twisted too. Still, “trees can be both rooted and towering, beautiful and strong, gloriously resistant to fire, extreme desert heat,” frigid cold and torrential rains. Trees endure the worst natural climates across this country and are reflective of the courage and diversity of BYMOC against numerous acts of dehumanization across centuries.

On the surface, their existence appears knotted but their potential is always progressive. Crooked is the path of growth to sunlight and to the sky for all of us. The wounds of trauma visible on their bodies, belies the invisible resilience in the minds and souls of boys and young men of color. Soulfully catalytic, their resilience remains sure. The leaves are just as green, if they have shelter and just a little sunlight. The branches are just as weight-baring, if they receive nourishment. Instead of scars, the wounds become tattoos and tales of endurance, about the system barriers they climbed, just to get to the light. But they must get to the light.

Our boys and young men of color are “trees” who take risks daily to be heard, to exist, as they strive to be successful. Growth involves the use of affection, protection, and correction to weather oppression and it’s effects on health– to see the sky.

THRIVE: Looking back to maintain growth forward across the life-span

If healing is about recognizing and reconnecting to our roots, and growth is pushing through earth, then thriving is about touching the sky and basking in the sunlight. Thriving involves creatively overcoming daily and systemic oppression toward health outcomes that are self-healing for BYMOC and infectious within those to whom they are in relationship. But, thriving is also about looking back in time, at our roots, to our ancestors, using our culture to build our shoulders, arms, legs and voice. It is about storytelling that leads to creating the maps that lead to the manuals on how others can make it from the roots to the sky. As many marvel at and fear their stature, boys and young men of color reach forward by re-membering the promises embedded in their roots; promises made long before they were seedlings becoming trees, with weight-baring branches-long before they knew they could fly off independently to become roots themselves.

Thriving for boys and young men of color involves making choices to live healthy in relationships to culture, family, and to become the roots for future villages

What does it take to raise a healthy village? Promises. Affection, protection, correction, and connection. What should we expect to witness within the relationships to our youth when these ecosystems keep their promises? Healing, Growing, and Thriving. Boys and young men of color who are reconnected to healthy villages will not only reach “our greatest heights” but transform the climates we inhabit.

Affection, Protection, Correction, and Connection.

If you give some to our boys and young men of color, you will get some back.

We promise.

1from Countee Cullen’s poem, From the Dark Tower.

We shall not always plant while others reap

The golden increment of bursting fruit,

Not always countenance abject and mute

That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;

Not everlastingly while others sleep

Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,

Not always bend to some more subtle brute;

We were not made eternally to weep.

The night whose sable breast relieves the stark

White stars is no less lovely being dark.

And there are buds that do not bloom at all

In light, but crumple piteous and fall.

In the dark, we hide the heart that bleeds

And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.